Oregon: The Land of Whites
The Portland metro area prides itself on its progressive attitudes, diverse communities and has a reputation for “keeping it weird.” At the center of it all is Portlandia: land of the hipsters and Oregon’s melting pot. Walking the urban streets of the city can make you oblivious or naive to the fact that Oregon was once a mecca for KKK members, Neo Nazis and white supremacists alike.
“It is sad because the young people think everything has been just like it is now and that’s a far cry from being right,”
says Otto Rutherford an 80 year-old Portland local in the 1991 OPB documentary Local Color. The documentary chronicles the history of racism in the state and the people involved in the civil rights movement that made Portland what is is today.
In its inception, Oregon intended to be a whites-only state. In fact it was the only state that entered the union as a whites-only state by enacting laws that banned blacks and mixed people. These laws were adopted by the Provisional Government of Oregon during the mid 1800’s. Oregon was an abolitionist state but not because they were against slavery, but as a means to eradicate the black population.
The first black exclusion law was passed in 1844, which stated that any blacks who resided in Oregon would be publicly whipped and this would repeat until they left. It is often referred to as the “Peter Burnett’s lash law.” Peter Burnett was an elected legislative council to the Provisional Government and wrote the exclusion laws. His objective was
”to keep clear of that most troublesome class of population. We are in a new world, under the most favorable circumstances, and we wish to avoid most of those evils that have so much afflicted the United States and other countries.’’
The lash law was later deemed too harsh and was rescinded a year later. However the second exclusionary law still made it unlawful “for any negro or mulatto to enter into, or reside” within the state. Then there was the Donation Land Act of 1850 that only granted land to “every white settler…American half breed Indians included,” to further perpetuate a land of all whites. The ban made its way into Oregon’s constitution where it stayed until 1927 when the constitution was amended and all the exclusion laws were taken out.
The end of the exclusionary laws did not change people attitudes towards non-whites. In the early 1920’s there were upwards of 20,000 Klu Klux Klan members in the state. During the 80’s and 90’s Oregon was a mecca for the neo-Nazi movement. In 1988 a Portland Nazi skinhead gang went as far as murdering an Ethiopian immigrant by the name of Mulugeta Seraw. Then in 1990 one of the nation’s largest Nazi skinhead organizations known as the American Front, relocated to Portland.
Although these hate groups had a large presence in the state, they also had an opposition that fought back. The Aryan Nation planned to move into Josephine County in Southern Oregon as the new center for their operations in 1995, but were halted by a march of 1,500 anti-racists. As recently as 2010 a similar group was stopped by local opposition from attempting to set up headquarters in John Day, Oregon.
The white supremacist history doesn’t end there. The state has a long list of hard right sovereign citizen activity that targeted non-whites, homosexuals and non-christians. These groups include but are not limited to: the Silver Legion of America (a pro-Nazi group), the Posse Comitatus movement, Roy Masters’ Foundation of Human Understanding, the regional separatist State of Jefferson movement, the neo-Nazi movement, The Aryan Nations, the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), the Medford Citizen’s Bar Association (MCBA) and the Christian Patriot Association. Periodials stemming from these groups include the MCBA’s periodical called The American’s Bulletin published in Central Point, Oregon and the Christian Patriots Association’s newspaper, The Oregon Observer. Both periodicals are still published today. More recently on June 30th, 2018 the Patriot Prayer group gathered in Portland to continue the movement Unite the Right had in Charlottesville in 2017.
However, disdain for non-whites isn’t exclusive to just these groups of people. It has included individuals, workplace environments and systemic oppression. On May 26, 2017 Jeremy Joseph Christian stabbed two and wounded another person who attempted to stop Christian’s racist harassment of two young women wearing hijabs on the max. Christian was quoted in court saying, “You call it terrorism. I call it patriotism.” In 2017 Daimler Trucks North America in Portland had lawsuits against them for having a hostile work environment where black employees were called “boy,” found the N-word written on the bathroom walls and had been treated poorly because of their race. A 2011 audit of Portland’s Housing Bureau found that latinx and african-american tenants are quoted higher rent and deposits, given additional fees and not offered application or move in deals in 64% of the 50 tests conducted. The city has also gentrified and had “urban renewal” projects that had 300 homes and business torn down in african-american communities of North Portland.
This is just to account for Portland, there are many cities outside the urban bubble that currently contribute to the state-wide oppression of non-whites. This is reflected in the states demographics showing a large white population. According to the 2017 census, 13% of the US population is black while in Oregon it is only 1.9%. Meanwhile the national white population is 76.6% and in Oregon it is 85.1 %.
Link to OPB’s Local Color documentary https://watch.opb.org/video/opb-specials-local-color/
LInk to ridiculous history podcast https://www.ridiculoushistoryshow.com/podcasts/oregon-was-a-white-supremacist-paradise.htm