Racial Diversity in Oregon… Or the Lack Thereof

diversity2“Racial diversity” and “Oregon” aren’t often found in the same sentence. I know, because I checked online: it only gets 78,000 hits, compared with 128,000 for a search combining “Klingon” and “Oregon,” and 530,000 for “Oregon” and “mermaid.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Oregon is about 4 million. Around 88% of those people are white, which would be about 3.5 million. After Caucasians, the next largest group are Latinos at 13%, Asians at 4%, Native Americans and African Americans each at 2%, and Pacific Islanders at 0.4%. These numbers don’t add up to 100% because they have been rounded to the nearest whole number, and because some people identify as more than one race.

Latinos have a long history in Oregon. In the early 19th century, the Viceroyalty of New Spain laid claim to land all the way to the Columbia River. Mexican vaqueros running mule trains were among the first people of European descent to venture into the Oregon Country, and Oregon pioneers like Vicente Ortega and Guadelupe de la Cruz left their mark on Oregon history. However, the Latino population did not really begin to grow until a labor shortage during and after the Second World War led employers to invite large numbers of Latinos, especially Mexicans, to come and work on what were supposed to be temporary jobs. Since then, the Latino population has continued to grow to its current size of half a million people.

Most of you will have heard that the Oregon Constitution of 1859 was the only state Constitution to legally exclude African Americans from living in the state, on punishment of flogging. This provision was never carried out on any of the African Americans who were already in Oregon (and had been since York explored alongside Lewis and Clark), such as Corvallis resident Louis Southworth (who homesteaded alongside what was known for many years as “Darky Creek”), but it probably helped deter African Americans from moving here. So did the KKK in the 1920s, when the Klan was at its peak. The Oregon Klan was the largest outside the South.

Like Latinos, Asians originally came to Oregon not as pioneers looking for a new home but as workers hoping to earn money and return to their homelands, but as is so often the case, visitors come to love the land, or simply find it inconvenient to go back, and wind up staying and raising families. After 19th century racism which confined Asians to “Chinatown” ghettos, the Immigration Act of 1920, which cut off almost all immigration from Asia and the World War Two internment of Americans of Japanese descent, Asian Americans are now seen as a “model” minority, which is nice although not quite the equivalent of actually being accepted.

Like Asians, Pacific Islanders also came to Oregon to work, send money home, and eventually return, but not all did. They were never extremely numerous, but they also had an impact on Oregon history, as towns with names like Owyhee and Aloha can attest.

Sadly, a white agenda can be seen in groups such as the Northwest Front, a member of which recently posted a card at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library. The group is dedicated to making the Pacific Northwest an all-white “homeland.”

The idea of an “all-white” Oregon is absurd, seeing as many of our white 88% the Front delights in have no reason to wish their neighbors away. Oregon has a diverse population which is going to become more diverse in years to come, and the majority of us seem to like it that way.

By John M Burt