April 6, 2014

Hey Hipsters, There’s Nothing Progressive About Portland At All

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What is the issue?

Portland, Oregon is a rather strange place, for the most part Portlandia is correct. Something that is almost never addressed in Portlandia is the lack of diversity in this “progressive city.” In 1993 TIME magazine reported, “In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon looks like the city of the future.”

I have sat in business meetings where I was called a “unicorn” because I happened to be educated and black. There is a dearth of educated minorities in Portland, more specifically blacks. With the African American population of about 3%, the black middle class is practically non-existent. There is however, a contingent of Nike employees that are of color, who come to Portland for mid-level corporate jobs but who generally leave after a brief stint in the area. If you are a black person coming from a diverse city like say DC, NY, SF or MIA, Portland, which lacks diversity, is a culture shock.

There is something to be said for being in a diverse city. Diversity plays a role in so many areas that tend to make a city dynamic. Bringing a cross section of people together from various socioeconomic
backgrounds and races tends to provide the foundation for great art and culture, political discourse, and ultimately, industry.

It’s as though the city has been frozen in the 1960’s. Is it possible to have a truly progressive city with a disproportionate number of people of color in it? The better question is, for all of the press that this “progressive city” is receiving, why doesn’t anyone call attention to the fact that there is little to no actual diversity. The white hipster population seems to be blissfully ignorant, and if the subject matter does come up it is politely glossed over. Diversity is never given any credence as an issue that will ultimately have an effect on the overall progression of the city. A friend and I joked the other day that this population tends to believe it’s diverse due to the fact that there are all varieties of white people (i.e. hipsters, gay people, rotund people etc.). Portland is in reality a rather homogeneous place that holds myopic views on culture and race in that the lack of diversity is something to be ignored. It’s absolutely fascinating to observe as an outsider.

The irony is that over 50% of the children in the Portland Public Schools are children of color, while the adult population is over 70% white. The demographics of the city are changing; and it’s a change that one simply cannot ignore. People expand their selves and their perspective by whom they interact with or are exposed to. Lack of diversity ultimately limits choices and growth. Who you are is shaped by context; your life experience can be limited by lack of exposure. While there are people who are completely fine with that, eventually lack of exposure to other will have a greater negative effect on ones bottom line. The world is getting smaller; we exist in a global village of sorts and if one is not culturally sensitive to the nuances of other cultures…how will one be prepared to do business in the world?

The sad fact is that many rural parts of the USA mirror this…but that’s quickly changing. In 2013, people of color were recognized as the predominant population in California. The demographics of the USA are changing and with that change, diversity of cultures, ideas, and business practices will be at the forefront. I find myself wondering how places like Portland will survive that kind of change without diversity. As I asked myself these questions about Portland, I began to wonder how it became so devoid of diversity. I quickly found that the bigoted laws in Oregon’s’ constitution helped to perpetuate racism and segregation long after the nation had abolished these national laws. As late as the year 2000, fragments of Oregon’s racist laws were still on the books. I came to understand that what I witnessed in my tenure in Portland were merely remnants of a mindset that had been inculcated into the population. Sadly, not much has changed in 20 years, according to Oregon Live, as recent as August of 2013, when a raid in Northeast Portland led to the arrest of 8 people in the “… central location and gathering place for known white supremacist gang members from European Kindred, Brood and FBK.” Northeast Portland is considered the hip up and coming gentrified neighborhood in Portland, scary. Luckily for me, that was the month my year long tenure in Portland came to an end.

Aesthetically, Portland is a beautiful city. My only hope is that the government and the general population can help Portland truly live up to its potential. If Portland can address issues of diversity and determine a way to make people of color truly feel safe and welcome, it would help Portland to eventually become the “progressive city” it claims to be. TC mark

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