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Yes, that city full of white people is Portland

A snappy Atlantic piece brands us, again, as the pale place

Writer Sandra Tsing Loh is a treat: smart, funny, surprising in her unexpected soft moments that pop up between the sharp jabs. Her piece "Class Dismissed: A new status anxiety is infecting affluent hipdom," in the March issue of the Atlantic is tasty literary candy. (I found it this morning thanks to a nudge from Portland Mercury blogger Alison Hallett.)

Loh revisits Paul Fussell’s "Class: A Guide Through the American Status System," some 25 years after its debut, and from the first, she hits just the right pitch, refreshing our memories of the work, and allowing those of us who never read Fussell to pretend like we did:

For readers who somehow missed this snide, martini-dry American classic, do have your assistant Tessa run out and get it immediately (Upper [class]), or at least be sure to worriedly skim this magazine summary over a low-fat bagel (Middle [class]), because Fussell’s bibelot-rich tropes still resonate.

One of the observations Loh makes is this one:

In the relatively affluent post–Cold War era, the search for self-expression has evolved into a desire to not have that self-expression challenged, which in turn necessitates living among people who think and feel just as you do. It’s why so many bohemians flee gritty Los Angeles for verdant Portland, where left-leaning citizens pride themselves on their uniform, monotonously progressive culture—the Zipcars, the organic gardens, the funky graphic-novel stores, and the thriving alternative-music scene. (In the meantime, I’ve also noticed that Portland is much whiter than Los Angeles, disconcertingly white.)

It should be noted that this is a minor point in Loh's essay, but it triggered the usual mental squirm I feel when this point is made, and remained stuck to my brain like a tiny Post-It as I read on.

Yes, Portland is, as a young friend of mine says, way white, less than 7 percent is African American. This always throws off outsiders from bigger cities, who visit here (or move here in the sort of sudden pack-up-and-start-over swoop that Portland still inspires) and fall for the hip, young, relatively affordable Rose City. A place where you can be taken seriously as a writer even when you spend 30 hours a week as a barista or retail clerk at an age when all your friends elsewhere are eyeing retirement.

Periodically someone writing from elsewhere in the world notices that the city's diversity is more geographic than anything else. I don't need to look up any stats to know that a large chunk of the local population has transplanted here. Proof is the unusually large number of license plates from other states, including an inordinate share from New England. It's as if Portland has a magnetic pull that reaches across the country and grabs cars. Well, cars driven by white people. White people who don't bother to register their cars until they've lived here for two years.

Still, I feel defensive every time I read another one of these observations about our lack of color. I've got my share of irritating garden-variety white-liberal guilt, but this is something different. Flat statements about the whiteness of Portland are accurate, but dismiss the vibrant black community that is here. Those observations ignore the uphill battle the first black Portlanders faced, long before the city traded its working-stiff nature for the present navel-gazing ethos.

African American families who go way back in this town have ancestors who bucked some remarkable historic trends. Oregon came to statehood with a clause that barred blacks from living here; that was one way to avoid that messy slave debate and keep jobs safe for white immigrants. This city that prides itself on equal rights for bikers is in a state that didn't give blacks the vote until 1959. (For more on this history, check out the excellent piece by Gosia Wozniacka that ran earlier this month in the Oregonian.)

Knowing this racist history won't ease the "disconcerting" feeling Loh describes, it might worsen it for some. To me, though, it is reason to bristle when an outsider points to our pale city, and leaves it at that.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett writes and edits for Crosscut. You can e-mail her at kimberly.marlowe.hartnett@crosscut.com. She also blogs at Type Like The Wind.


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