In a Changing World, Portland Remains Overwhelmingly White

Betsy Hammond, Oregonian, Jan. 17, 2009

As the nation’s first African American president prepares to take office this week, metro Portland–with its overwhelmingly white population and leadership–is demographically out of step with 2009 America.

Among the nation’s 40 largest metro areas, only four–none of them in the West–are whiter than Portland, new census figures show.

Longtime residents of metro Portland, particularly in Washington County and Gresham, talk a lot about how much racial change has come to their communities. And it has.

But since 2000, growth rates among Portland’s small minority populations have slowed from the 1990s. In the same period, more than 100,000 additional non-Hispanic whites have flocked to the Portland area. The whitest suburb–Clark County outside Vancouver–alone added 53,000 white residents.

The upshot is that the Portland metro area is startlingly white viewed against the national landscape–even whiter than Salt Lake City, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. Metro Portland includes Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Clark counties.

The implications are far-reaching.

In today’s America, people of color make up more than 40 percent of a typical metro area’s population, an analysis by The Oregonian shows.

But in metro Portland, public policy still is controlled from a white point of view. Among the hundreds of mayors, city council members and state lawmakers representing metro Portland, there are just four Latino city councilors, one African-born council member and a lone African American state senator.

Portland’s lack of diversity means it is less cosmopolitan, less dynamic and at risk of being less competitive than other metro areas, worries David Bragdon, president of the Metro regional government.

It’s a plus that Portland is a magnet for young, college-educated Americans who can choose to live anywhere, says William Frey, demographer for the Brookings Institution and a specialist in urban and suburban trends.

But college-educated Americans are overwhelmingly white, and those who migrate to Portland are disproportionately so–the “beer, bikes and Birkenstock” crowd, in the words of Portland economist Joe Cortright.

Portland-area employers competing for top talent have a hard time retaining African American hires, who often can’t bear the social and cultural isolation of a metro area that is less than 3 percent black.

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The Portland area’s nearly half-million people of color often get the message that their concerns are an afterthought, says Irma Valdez, a real estate agent who serves on the Portland Planning Commission. “Some of the stuff I hear on the planning commission would make you want to pass out,” she says.

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Minority residents can feel left out, unable to easily find a hairdresser, a radio station that resonates, a church that feels like home, says Vicki Nakamura, who helps employers recruit and retain minority professionals.

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Change at schools

In most of the metro area, particularly in east Multnomah County and in Washington County, schools–gathering places for the area’s youngest generation–are where the leading edge of diversity is most visible.

Latinos, the fastest-growing group, now represent nearly one of every five Oregon students. Metrowide, white students have fallen to two-thirds of the enrollment.

Among 10 year-olds born in Oregon, one in seven had parents of different races or one parent who was Latino and one who was not.

Since 2000, diversity has increased most in the places where it was already greatest: in east Multnomah and Washington counties, particularly Gresham and Hillsboro. Last fall, Hillsboro became the first local community to elect two Latino city councilors: Mike Castillo, a manager at Intel, and Olga Acuna, a high school vice principal.

Unlike most metro areas, Portland’s urban core isn’t a hub for minorities. Instead, Portland is the whitest big city in the nation, at 74 percent white. Seattle, at 68 percent, is No. 2.

Expensive, close-in housing continues to draw more whites than minorities, census figures show. Since 2000, Portland added 10,000 white residents, reversing a trend from the 1990s.

The future

Portland will grow less white and more diverse–just more slowly than the rest of the country, experts say. Latinos in particular will play a much bigger role in the metro area’s future.

“We’ve got Hispanics moving to Indiana and Iowa, so they are going to come to Portland,” says Frey of the Brookings Institution. But their foothold on political power is likely to lag their numbers, he says, and white politicians will continue to call the shots for a growing Latino population for years.

Dina DiNucci, expertly forming a crepe behind the counter of her neighborhood coffee shop in Gresham, is ahead of the curve, living and working in one of the most ethnically diverse parts of metro Portland. Her customers include Latinos and Russian immigrants along with longtime white residents of the area.

“We are not just a white America anymore,” she says. “It is changing all around us.”

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