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Portland City Council White by Law?

Sunday, August 31, 2014


In the past 100 years, only 4 percent of Portland’s city council members have been racial minorities. 

According to legal experts, it is almost impossible in the current structure of city government for minorities to get elected. 

"When people see that there are no people of color represented on the city council, they automatically assume there are no people of color that live in the city," said Cyreena Boston Ashby, director of the Portland African American Leadership Forum.

“We're just really missing sound leadership that understands race relations and just equity in a relevant way."

Critics say politics and power have kept the system the way it is. 

“It’s a pretty simple, straightforward system,” said Darrell Millner, a professor of Black Studies at Portland State University. “The people who have the power now have no motivation to change it.” 

Mayor Charlie Hales was traveling and could not be reached for comment at press time. 

Portland voters elect their leaders citywide, which makes it harder for minorities and those lesser-known in the community to get elected. 

Slideshow Below: Oregon's Racial History

“Once you do that, you pretty much guarantee you’re not going to have effective diversity in those offices,” Millner said. “You never have in Portland because that political process has been controlled by a political elite.” 

So for decades the city has gone on without a minority leader, a voice to speak for Portland’s citizens of color, Millner said.

Activist and former Oregon state Rep. Jo Ann Hardesty said inequality continues in Portland because it’s easy to be progressive here without talking about race. She claims white liberals are talking about diversity but not delivering. 

Jo Ann Hardesty

Jo Ann Hardesty.

 “The Democratic Party in Oregon is just too white,” she said. “I think if people were elected by district, just like we do for the legislature, I think we would have a lot better outcomes.” 

Former Mayor Tom Potter, who served from 2005 to 2009, said the at-large system is unfair to minorities and others who may not be well known citywide. 

“I think it's a moral violation,” Potter said. “You may be well known in your community but you have to go out and meet other people.

"That inherently places a greater burden on people who have no connections.” 

At-large systems struck down 

Nearly all major U.S. cities elect their leaders on a district or ward basis. In a district system, cities are divided into wards and a council member is elected from each area. The city council acts as a legislative body and the mayor as an administrator.

Lawsuits based on the 1965 Voting Rights Act have forced reforms of at-large government systems like Portland’s around the country. The U.S. Department of Justice has determined in many cases that the at-large system, when it keeps minorities from being elected, is illegal. 

The city of Yakima, Wash., is facing a civil rights lawsuit filed by two residents who claim the city’s at-large form of government is blocking Latinos from the city council. 

Though Yakima has a 41 percent Latino population and a 22 percent voting age Latino population, there has never been a Hispanic council member.

The suit goes to trial Sept. 2 and will be the first of its kind in Washington state, said Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which filed the suit on behalf of the residents. 

In 2001, the U.S. Justice Department ordered the village of Chester, N.Y. to change its at-large system. The department filed a complaint against the city in 2006 for its at-large system, saying it was hurting the voting strength of Hispanics.

A similar case was filed against the Euclid School District’s School Board in Ohio, claiming the at-large system of electing school board members “dilutes the voting strength of African American citizens due to racially polarized voting.”

Challenges to change

Darrell Millner

Darrell Millner

 It's unlikely, however, that such legal cases will ever be brought against Portland because its minority population is so small and dispersed. 

In order to trigger the violation, someone would need to demonstrate that if districts were drawn in Portland, there would be an area that would include over 50 percent minorities.

Portland’s population is predominantly white, with only 6 percent African American and 9 percent Hispanic or Latino. 

Even if Portland was split up into 10 council districts, it’s unlikely there would be an area with a condensed enough minority population to make it work. 

East Portland is the most diverse section of the city. But all told, minorities combined, including blacks, African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and others make up only 28 percent of the city’s total population.

“If you can’t do that, even if there’s a problem, there’s no effective solution to it,” said Robert Rubin, a civil rights attorney out of San Francisco who specializes in voting rights cases. “There is not a remedy for every legal wrong.”

The makeup of the city’s minority population and a lack of a state voting rights act make it difficult to bring a case in Portland, despite the obvious lack of diversity on the council, legal experts say. 

“Even though it’s not technically or legally a violation I think morally it works against the democratic principles and that to me is an issue the city hasn’t dealt with,” Potter said. 

Boston Ashby said while there is a lot of talk about diversity in Portland and Oregon society as a whole, there is little action. 

"I think what happens is that ... there is political will at times, but I think there’s a lack of political pressure to really, really push for that stuff to come out," she said. "They don’t even know what is or isn’t racist.

"They’re ill-equipped. The truth of the matter is they’re ill-equipped. It’s a way that goes beyond, 'I like black people. I think they're nice.' " 

Some looking to change anyway 

In Portland, voters have voted against changing the city’s form of government eight times, including one as recently as 2007, backed by then-Mayor Potter.

City Commissioner Steve Novick agrees the system favors people who can raise lots of money. He’s not surprised that the at-large structure has not changed to wards. Under the current model, city commissioners run different parts of the city's bureaucracy, which gives them a lot more power than if they were just legislators.

“It’s good for us individually,” he said. “You get to be an executive and a legislator. It’s a fascinating job."

Boston Ashby agrees that the system favors the independently wealthy. 

“People of color, women particularly, very rarely are either in a position or are wiling to be able to take a leave of work," she said. 

But not everyone thinks the at-large system is bad. 

Michael Durrow ran for city council in the May primary. But Durrow, whose father is black and mother is white, does not blame the form of government for his loss. 

“I think we need the at-large form of government. I think that it works for us,” he said. He thinks the main reason for the lack of diversity on council is because too few minorities are running. 

“That’s the solution to that,” he said. “We need more minority candidates that have enough experience running to win on a regular basis.” 

Others in the minority community agree and are working to do just that.

Hardesty points to other groups such as the Portland African-American Leadership Forum, which advocates for the well-being of African-Americans through government and civic advocacy as well as the Portland Urban League, which has a young professionals group that encourages minorities ages 20-40 to get out and empower their communities, as an example that a new generation of minority leaders are emerging in Portland.

Michael Alexander, President of the Portland Urban League, declined to comment for the story.  

Hardesty herself is working on building a coalition to take over the council as three seats – Hales, Amanda Fritz and Novick – are up in 2016. 

“We’re building a multiracial coalition to identify candidates, raise money for them and help them campaign,” she said. “With three seats open, we hope to have a woman and a person of color, in the three-people slate.”

But Millner cautions that as long as the status quo remains, he doesn't expect anything to change. 

"They have a stranglehold on keeping it the way that it is," he said. 

Boston Ashby said without minority representation, the issue of equity can't be tackled. 

"What happens though, without adequate representation, is the chance for someone to bring it up on the elected official level," she said. "It's not natural to them, maybe."


Related Slideshow: Slideshow: Oregon’s History of White by Law

Oregon’s history of exclusionary laws forcing minorities out of the state with the punishment of a lashing led to fewer minorities in the state to the present day. Experts say the state’s discriminatory past has aided in the lack of diversity in elected city leadership. 

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Slavery is declared illegal in the Oregon Territory but the state passed a so-called “Lash Law” that required blacks, “be they free or slave – be whipped twice a year until he or she shall quit the territory.”  

The “Lash Law” was the brainchild of Peter Burnett, who came to Oregon from Missouri and later became the the first governor of California - and the state’s first governor to resign after criticism from the legislature.  

The whipping law was considered too harsh and was never enforced. The punishment for staying in the territory was changed to forced labor.

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The Oregon Donation Land Act was enacted by the U.S. Congress to promote homestead settlement in the Oregon Territory. This increased the number of emigrants on the Oregon Trail.

The act granted free land to “Whites and half-breed Indians” in the Oregon Territory. The act also prevented non-whites from claiming land in Oregon even if they had already settled here.

The act resulted in about 3 million acres being claimed in Oregon and Washington. 


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In 1848, the state passed an exclusion law banning any blacks or anyone of mixed ethnicity from residing in the state. The law was repealed in 1854. 

Another exclusion law, keeping blacks out of Oregon, was added by popular vote to the Oregon Bill of Rights in 1857. 

The law to exclude blacks received more votes than another constitutional change that would have banned slavery.

An enforcement law for the exclusion, however, was never passed and the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution voided them. 

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Oregon adopted a law requiring all blacks, Chinese, Hawaiians, and Mulattos residing in Oregon to pay an annual tax of $5.

If they could not pay this tax, the state made them maintain state roads for 50 cents a day.

Interracial marriages between blacks and whites were also banned.

It was against the law for whites to marry anyone one quarter or more black.

The law banning interracial marriage was not repealed until 1951. 

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The Ku Klux Klan flourished in Oregon. By the mid1920s its membership was estimated at between 14,000 and 20,000 with numerous sympathizers, who were not official members. 

The KKK was very active in Ashland, Ore. in the 1920s.   

“While the Klan may have been new to the state, the attitudes and issues it exploited were not. Racism, religious bigotry, and anti-immigrant sentiments were deeply entrenched in the laws, culture, and social life of Oregon, and few Oregonians questioned the Klan's doctrines of white supremacy, “ Eckard Toy of the Oregon Historical Society stated. 

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The Oregon Legislature, dominated by members of the Klan, passed a number of restrictive laws. The Alien Land Law prevented first-generation Japanese-Americans from owning or leasing land.

The Oregon Business Restriction Law allowed cities to refuse business licenses to first-generation Japanese-Americans. 

Then-Oregon Gov. Walter Pierce, though not a member, was supported by the Klan and promoted the Klan’s agenda.

Pierce won his election to the state’s top position in 1922 with the help of the Klan. He also served in Congress from 1932 to 1942, representing Oregon's 2nd District. 

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The 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution granting equal rights to all and nullified Oregon’s exclusion law.

But, the state didn’t repeal its exclusion law, amending the state constitution to remove it from the Bill of Rights, until 1926. 

In 1927 the Oregon State Constitution was amended to remove a clause denying blacks the right to vote. 

Photo: A bill was introduced shortly after the first exclusion law came into effect, seeking exemption from the law for some current black residents

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1935 - 1953

Oregon law officially segregated Mexican students on the basis of being of Indian descent.

It exempted “White Mexicans,” those fair-skinned descendants of the Spaniards who do not have “Indian blood." 

The NAACP fought segregation during the 1930s and 1940s and pushed for an Oregon Civil Rights bill that wasn’t signed until 1953, according to the Oregon Historical Society. 

The Public Accommodations Bill made it illegal to discriminate in public. 

Photo: Lane County Historical Society 

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Racial tensions escalated into riots in Portland’s African American communities in Portland. 

What was supposed to be a movement to galvanize the community turned into a multi-day riot in which residents threw bottles and rocks and damaged property.

Police, who were mostly white, clashed with young residents of North and Northeast Portland, where a large number of blacks lived at the time.

The riots came during the Civil Rights Movement, when black Americans were fighting against racial segregation and discrimination. 

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1974 -2003

Charles Jordan spent 10 years as Portland’s first African-American city council member beginning in 1974. He also served 14 years as director of Portland's Bureau of Parks & Recreation, retiring in 2003.

The city renamed a North Portland building the Charles Jordan Community Center in 2012. He died in April 2014 of a long illness.

Jordan was lauded for his work with Parks & Recreation. 

"Jordan changed Portland’s landscape - under his leadership, 44 new parks and natural areas were added to Portland’s parks system," said city officials. 

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Portland’s second and last-to-date black city councilor, Dick Bogle, was elected in 1984 and served until 1992.

He died in 2010.

Bogle was also the first African-American TV journalist on the West Coast and and served for years with the Portland Police Bureau before getting elected to council. 

Bogle served from 1984 to 1992. 

Photo: Maynard Institute 

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1990s to present

"In the last two decades, Portland’s North and Northeast neighborhoods have seen significant public and private investments, steep increases in housing prices, and changes in demographic and economic profile of residents that have resulted in displacement (voluntary and involuntary) of low-income residents and small businesses. 

The key distinction between revitalization and gentrification is the negative consequence of involuntary residential displacement," one city study on gentrification stated. 

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Oregonians voted to remove all racist language from the state constitution.

Though the discriminatory language was unenforceable due to federal laws and amendments to the U.S. Constitution, it was not until this election that removal of several examples of institutional racism were taken out.

The language included:

"No free Negro, or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate.” 

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Trader Joe’s gentrification: The Portland African American Leadership Forum opposed the development of a Trader Joe’s store at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard over fears that it would raise rents and push poorer residents out of their neighborhood. 

The company withdrew its plans for an $8 million store after the negative community reaction.  The store could have received $2.4 million in city incentives. 

PAALF said in a statement at the time that the group did not have a problem with Trader Joe's but with the city's back-room dealings and the lack of public involvement in the project. 



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