Keegan Stephan is a writer, political organizer and law student in New York City.
Last week, a white supremacist allegedly stabbed two men to death and severely wounded another who tried to intervene as he hurled racial slurs at a black woman and a Muslim woman. Yet one of the most shocking aspects of the incident was where it occurred: Portland, Ore. Many Americans consider the city to be a progressive utopia, to the point of televised parody. The truth is far more complicated.
I went to high school outside Portland, and I encountered more overt white supremacy there than anywhere else. Progressive politics and discrimination are not mutually exclusive. Many classmates who would have described themselves as progressive expressed white supremacist ideals, often in violent terms. Without diversity, overt racism often goes unchecked. And where it goes unchecked, it persists.
While Portland is indeed progressive on many political issues, it is still the whitest large city in America — and that’s by design. Before becoming a state in 1859, Oregon passed laws that prohibited slavery but also required all African Americans to leave the territory. It simply wanted no black people. It went so far as to make the “crime” of being black punishable by floggings until the “perpetrator” left. Thus, when Oregon joined the union, it joined not as a free state or a slave state, but as a no-blacks state, the only state to do so.
Even as the rest of the country began to extend rights to African Americans after the Civil War, Oregon held fast to its racist origins. When the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, giving black men the right to vote, Oregon was one of only a few states not to sign on, and refused do so until 1959. While the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868, granting citizenship and equal protection of the law to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” Oregon did not ratify it until 1973.
The state left on the books anti-miscegenation and other laws that clearly violated the equal protection clause well into the 20th century. Until 2002 , the Oregon constitution even insisted that “no free Negro, or mulatto . . . shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate.”
Technically, these laws were unconstitutional despite Oregon’s refusal to ratify the 14th Amendment, and anyone prosecuted under them should have been able to successfully overturn their conviction. Yet their existence still served to intimidate; the weight of the state’s criminal-justice system stood behind them, as Portland proved just as willing to enforce Jim Crow-style segregation as the Deep South, even banning black people from public swimming pools into the 1960s. The possibility of successfully challenging the application of these racist laws in federal court, even for those with the means to do so, offered little comfort.
I was lucky enough to live across the street from Judge Belton Hamilton, the first black federal administrative law judge in the state. (A black justice still has not been appointed to Oregon’s highest state court.) One of the kindest and most generous men I’ve ever met, Hamilton told me that he never felt safe living in the state under these laws. He told me that he had to draft legislation in order to legally marry his wife (a Japanese American woman) and to buy his house in our small suburb. But although Hamilton may have helped to rewrite the laws, he never successfully changed the hearts of all our neighbors. I remember his house being vandalized regularly growing up. I remember helping him pick toilet paper out of his trees and scrub swastikas off of his stone walkway — in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
As tragic as last week’s murders were, they should shock no one. In a state that sought to exclude black people entirely, and that openly discriminated as long as the Jim Crow South, no one should be surprised that violent, white-supremacist ideologies still flourish. In the 1920s, Oregon had the largest Ku Klux Klan membership per capita of any state; in the 1980s, white nationalists chose Portland as a place to establish themselves in the Northwest; in 1988, a skinhead, egged on by two others, beat Nigerian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw to death with a bat; in 2016, a white supremacist was charged with a hate crime after mowing down a black teenager named Larnell Bruce with his SUV; just two months before this latest attack, ProPublica and BuzzFeed found that Oregon has recently had more documented hate crimes than any other state. A white nationalist rally is still slated to take place just two weeks after this latest double slaying.
In this painful moment, I hope Portland does not uncritically insist that this was an isolated incident. I hope that it seizes this moment — when the city’s hearts and minds may actually be open to critical analysis and radical change — and attempts to seriously address the deep-seated white supremacy in its midst.