In one of America’s whitest metropolitan cities, racial tensions that rarely appear in local media made headlines when a Portland State student said he was a victim of a racially provoked attack.
Bao Vuong, a 22-year-old Vietnamese pre-med student, said four young men harassed him with racial slurs and threw bagels and cream cheese at his car while he was sitting at a red light in Northeast Portland in early August, according to KGW’s Web site.
The event making headlines underscored the rarity at which racial tensions come to a head in Portland, a city that’s 77 percent white, and just 6.6 percent black and 6.3 percent Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
On the surface, Portland is an extremely tolerant city. I spent several years of my life in the South, where it was not unusual during a casual conversation with a stranger to hear them say something like, “I moved out of New Orleans about 10 years ago because there were too many niggers, and now we have too many niggers moving into this neighborhood,” as if they were discussing what they had for breakfast.
If anything, the rarity at which these events occur locally—or are publicized—suggests Portland is a very racially tolerant city.
But the debate isn’t that simple.
Portland’s rapid outward growth has, whether intentionally or not, led the city to embrace gentrification to a level rarely experienced elsewhere.
New development of traditionally low-income areas has led to what some minority groups say is a vehicle to push them out of the neighborhoods where their families have lived for generations.
It’s been happening for years, but Portland has just recently made a push to understand the impact of growth on minority groups, including hosting regular meetings where minorities speak on gentrification as part of Portland’s Restorative Listening Project.
But the talks haven’t necessarily improved the situation, nor have they eased minority concerns.
“That’s been our history,” Norma Trimble, a Native American, was quoted by the New York Times as saying at a meeting last May. “They take all you’ve got. They take your land. Now they want your stories.”
What the talks have shown is that Portland doesn’t have a plan to stem gentrification. Meanwhile, minorities in gentrified neighborhoods say they’re refused back loans and city grants that white residents are given without question. And city officials rarely address these underlying acts of discrimination.
Floyd Booker, who owns Courtesy Janitorial Service, one of the last remaining black-owned businesses on the once largely black Alberta Street in Northeast Portland—now largely white and dotted with trendy shops—echoed this sentiment in the New York Times.
“Where is this meeting going?” Booker said. “No place. People get there and vent their frustrations, but who hears it?”
Unfortunately, Mr. Booker, it’s Portland’s unspoken act of racism. And very few appear to want to hear it.