Portland Isn’t As White As Figures Show, Coalition Contends

Nikole Hannah-Jones, Oregonian, Dec. 19, 2009

Portland is known as the nation’s greenest city, the most bicycle-friendly and also the whitest.

With a white population of 74 percent, Portland tops the list as the whitest major city in the country and the fourth whitest among metro areas, according to the U.S. Census.

But a group representing people of color in Multnomah County says Portland isn’t nearly as white as we think because government tallies consistently undercount racial minorities.

Though the Census acknowledges a nationwide problem, the group says the discrepancy especially matters here: The sense that Portland has little diversity masks statistical evidence that Asian, black, Latino and Native American residents in one of the touted “most livable cities” do worse here than their counterparts across the country.

The population counts are doubly important because they determine, from the federal level to the local, from the public sector to the private, which people get money for services and how much.

The Coalition of Communities of Color has $330,000 in city, county and private grants and is partnering with Portland State University on a three-year project to come up with a more accurate count.

“We trick ourselves and say, ‘We’re such a white city, we don’t have to talk about race and these issues,'” said Nichole Maher, the coalition’s co-chair. “It allows us to keep acting like everyone is white and no one feels responsibility to challenge the role of race here.”

The coalition was born eight years ago when groups representing the African American, African immigrant, Latino, Slavik, Asian and Native American communities realized they could better fight their battles together. Often when asking for help to specifically address communities of color, they said, they were told their numbers were too small.

According to the most recent Census data, people of color account for 28 percent of Multnomah County’s population.

“We dispute that number and think the populations of communities of color are significantly higher,” said Ann Curry-Stevens, professor and community-based research expert at Portland State University’s School of Social Work who is working on the project.

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People of color go uncounted for a number of reasons. They tend to be lower income and therefore more transient and hard to find. Some distrust or fear giving information to the government. Others don’t receive Census forms in their native language. Some simply live off the grid–they may be new immigrants or homeless–and never come in contact with government agencies.

George Hough, director of the Population Research Center at Portland State, gives the example of how estimates of black men in Portland ballooned between the 1990 and 2000 Census.

“Either a whole lot of black males moved to Oregon in that time, which we don’t believe to be true,” he said, “or they were better counted or more chose to be counted.”

Ever changing rules about ethnicity also make it hard to truly measure certain populations, Hough said.

For instance, before 2000, Hispanic was listed as a racial category. Now people must choose whether they are Hispanic or not and then a race. Many Native Americans want to acknowledge their mixed ancestry, but this skews the Census rolls, said Maher, executive director of the Native American Youth and Family Center.

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