Portland minorities at a disadvantage

Portland State recently released a report in conjunction with the Coalition of Communities of Color that found that communities of color—including newly profiled African immigrants and Slavic communities—are substantially disadvantaged compared to their white counterparts in Multnomah County.

Portland State recently released a report in conjunction with the Coalition of Communities of Color that found that communities of color—including newly profiled African immigrants and Slavic communities—are substantially disadvantaged compared to their white counterparts in Multnomah County.

Ann Curry-Stevens, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, contributed significantly to the report with her research and worked closely with the coalition to produce what will be the first in a series of detailed profiles of Portland’s disadvantaged minorities.

Curry-Stevens moved here three years ago and thought Portland was a “progressive enclave,” she said. Through her research, however, she found “the degree of divergence between the common rhetoric and how toxic it is for communities of color” to be very surprising.

In addition, Curry-Stevens said that it seems that this misconception is a common self-perception for Portland residents.

However, commenting on this perception, she said, “Whose reality is really being reflected in that perception?”

The second author on the report, Amanda Cross-Hemmer, a senior research assistant in the School of Social Work, said that “it’s one thing to have a vague sense that disparities exist…but you can’t put them somewhere else; this is our home community.”

“Putting that responsibility somewhere else does not help the very real disparities here,” she said.

The report, titled “Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile,” was released late last month. Funds from PSU, the Northwest Health Foundation, the City of Portland and Multnomah County went towards the production of the report. 

The Coalition of Communities of Color is an organization of several groups in the Portland metropolitan area, including the Asian Family Center, the Native American Youth and Family Center, the Urban League of Portland and El Programa Hispano.

In its introduction, the report explains that it is intended to examine “issues of inequality, inequity and injustice,” as well as “the failings of mainstream institutions to address the needs of communities of color are abundant and must create the impetus to act, [and] to act holistically.”

It is important to note from the outset that the report acknowledges that there may be some reporting error, due to underrepresentation and miscounting of communities of color in census numbers and local data. Minority groups historically underreport and are left uncounted in counts due to a variety of socioeconomic and political factors.

In addition, many government service providers do not report their data in a way that shows community impacts, but instead aggregate data, according to Curry-Stevens. This does not reflect large disparities in access between different groups to such services.

Similarly, when only certain groups are individually identified in data, it reflects a specific choice and set of intentions, according to Cross-Hemmer. For example, the U.S. census does not take mix-raced persons into account.

“Nothing is natural, it’s a very sociopolitical choice,” Cross-Hemmer said.

Ultimately, the report found that while 23.6 percent of the county’s population was, in 2008, composed of communities of color—defined as African American, African immigrant and refugee, Asian/Pacific Islander, Latino, Native American and Slavic—their social, economic and educational outcomes are even worse than King County, Wash., which is home to Seattle.

For example, youth of color make up 45 percent of public school enrollment in Multnomah County, but 30 percent of these students do not graduate from high school, compared to only 7 percent of whites. In addition, the collective child poverty rate is 33.3 percent, compared to 12.5 percent for whites and only 21.5 percent for communities of color in King County.

Additionally, only 13.8 percent of members of communities of color can expect to receive a bachelor’s degree, compared to 24.5 percent of white students. For a graduate or master’s degree, the ratio drops to 7 to 15.7 percent, respectively. In Multnomah County, the likelihood of having a degree as a person of color is 3 percent less than the national average in 2008, at 20.8 percent attainment.

Retention rates at PSU are seen as another indicator of educational achievement, and they have been slowly declining for Native American, Black and Hispanic undergraduates since 2000. However, the retention rates of persons with Asian descent have risen slightly.

Retention is measured in the report as students who graduate from PSU within six years of enrollment. Students within the Black community had the lowest retention rate. In 2002, the Black community had a 10.2 percent retention rate, compared to a 40.9 percent rate for Asian students.

Occupationally, communities of color are only more proportionally represented in the service industry, forestry, construction and maintenance and production and transportation. The largest disparity is in the service industry, where communities of color are represented 10.4 percent more than whites.

Beginning to change these outcomes starts by setting an “advocacy-based agenda that reaches as high as it can to create policy-based solutions,” Curry-Stevens said.

“It is now time for commitments to be made,” she said.

More specifically, the report makes a series of 11 recommendations to address the needs of communities of color.

One of the key recommendations asks for firm timelines and commitments of resources, as well as commitments from elected officials for specific policies that will begin to reduce some of the key disparities—such as in education and economic outcomes—in concrete ways.

The eleventh recommendation—”name racism”—is one that students can begin to enact in their communities even before there are major policy interventions, Curry-Stevens said.

According to Cross-Hemmer, it is important that students engage with the issue of race and discrimination represented by this research, rather than continuing to believe that Portland is a utopian state.

“Notice race. Notice voice and visibility and power,” Curry-Stevens said. “Notice how the current distribution of power contributes to the silencing [of communities of color and] practice stronger ally skills, interrupt oppression.”

A full copy of the report can be found at www.coalitioncommunitiescolor.org.