Desperate times, disastrous measures

It seems racism in America hasn’t changed much in 60 years.


On May 30, 1948, levees in Vanport, Ore., broke, flooding the 650-acre town with water from the Columbia River. In less than an hour, the entire city was a lake. The destruction was complete, the apartment houses of Vanport City, constructed with “non-essential” materials such as plywood, simply broke off their wooden foundations and floated away.


Vanport was built as a housing project for workers at Henry Kaiser’s shipyards at a time when such projects were rare, and not necessarily intended to serve as permanent housing. Despite this, by 1948 Vanport was the 2nd largest city in Oregon, and the largest housing project in the nation. Two years earlier, the Vanport Extension Center, which would later become Portland State University – had been opened to educate returning veterans on the GI Bill.


The flood displaced the entire city population of 18,500, including 5,000 African-Americans. In the aftermath of the event, a shortage of available housing helped bring to light racial discrimination in the metro area’s housing practices. The Red Cross, on site prior to the event, stated explicitly that they could evacuate and house a maximum of 10,000 citizens – and these housing resources were allocated disproportionately to the white residents of Vanport.


Ed Washington, a former Metro councilor and survivor of the Vanport flood, was a guest on OPB’s Oregon Territory last week, and called Vanport City “an urban experiment.” The Housing Authority of Portland, and Portland real estate agents, enforced racist policies – such as attempting to isolate black homeowners and renters in the Albina region, and Meadows and Cottonwood districts within Vanport. The Urban League of Portland took issue with the Housing Authority just a year before the flood, urging them to change their racist policies. Still, the majority of the black or low-income Vanport survivors ended up living in the Albina district subsequent to the flood, and it took some of them years to find permanent housing.


These discriminatory attitudes are perhaps unsurprising in a state that, during the run-up to the Civil War, identified itself as a “free state” while officially barring African Americans from entering the state in its Constitution. 


Now, it seems Katrina has created a similar situation in Louisiana – the poor and disenfranchised, subsisting on welfare, unemployment or below-poverty-level wages, find themselves without the luxury of resource networks that would enable them to weather a catastrophe of Katrina’s magnitude. It is too early yet to decide exactly how the poor and minority residents affected by Katrina will be treated in the relocation and rebuilding process. Nonetheless, the media has brought us countless horror stories from the disaster zone that include the poor or working-class blacks. The implicit media message seems to be that it is this segment of society that is causing the problems, but perhaps the prevalence of these stories speaks to a larger and more endemic issue.


For some, it may be easy to criticize those still in the hurricane area. After all, how easy is it to avoid a tropical storm that can be tracked by radar? Didn’t these “survivors” of Katrina bring it upon themselves by not having adequate emergency supplies, contingency plans or simply the wherewithal to evacuate and relocate when things started looking bad?


The truth is that many individuals, given the chance to evacuate, refused out of necessity – lost wages associated with even a temporary relocation posed a threat to their survival which seemed as real, if not more real, than an impending Category 5 hurricane – especially when many residents had seen 10 close-call “false alarms” in as many years.


The national – and necessarily biased – media coverage is not always helpful in resolving this issue. While some networks paint those left in the disaster zone as greedy outlaws bent on raping and pillaging for fun and profit, they frequently seem to do so by applying the measuring stick of white middle-class morality. Since, in the white middle-class morality, individuals have the resources and ability to evacuate prior to a hurricane (as well as relocate after a disaster, even if their original property was destroyed), anyone who would chose to do otherwise must have an alternative agenda – whether that be the indulgence of stupidity, the desire to live in a lawless environment, or a simple lack of moral fiber.


Ed Washington discussed what it was like to be completely uprooted, with no support network or resources to fall back on, in the openly racist environment of 1948. “It was two years before we got into permanent housing again,” he said. “It was a mess. Your life is on somebody else’s schedule.” He stated that the Vanport disaster brought the issue of racial disenfranchisement closer to the forefront of Portlander’s minds – in fact, the influx of survivors to Portland exposed many Portlanders to African Americans for the very first time, and some Portlanders did take low-income families in to their homes following the flood.


Portland State professor Michael McGregor, who has written about racism in Vanport, called this time period “the beginning of a change in Portland” but also noted that “Portland didn’t become a model city, far from it.” Speaking about New Orleans, he added that his hope is “that we as a nation -begin to allow people out of the situation that they were forced into by economics or history.” 


It seems that the true parallels between Vanport and the Katrina disaster will not become apparent until many years from now, when we can see in hindsight how the poor and working-class survivors are treated. It is my sincerest hope that in this particular area, the event will not run in parallel. To this point, it seems that our current treatment of blacks has not wholly changed from 60 years ago – and, if this is true in the longer term, it is a tragedy that diminishes us all.