Bright Lights

Portland Nice: The Rose City’s Thorny Race Politics

By Rhea Combs May 18, 2012 Published in the June 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

Portlanders revel in discussions about “diversity” and “equity,” but rarely do they directly wade into the deeper subject belying the city’s lack of diversity and equity—namely, race. The magazine’s monthly Bright Lights discussion series at Jimmy Mak’s jazz club gave it a try on April 9 with a trio of some of the city’s most respected and accomplished black leaders.
They held nothing back.

Developed in conjunction with the Portland Monthly’s March feature By the Grace of God about the changing role of African American churches in the face of gentrification, the talk carried the title “Portland Nice: The Rose City’s Thorny Race Politics.” A newcomer to Portland who has worked with Reed College, Wieden & Kennedy, and arts groups on diversity issues, I moderated the discussion and brought together Dr. Karen Gibson, Portland State University Associate Professor of Urban Planning; Tony Hopson, founder and CEO of Self Enhancement Inc (SEI); and Rev. Dr. W. G. Hardy, minister of Highland United Church of Christ. The subject: what I describe as “progressive tolerance”—Portland Nice—an ostensible understanding and acceptance of differences, coupled with an appearance of understanding that in fact lacks in sincerity or a willingness to change behavior.

In the first 12 minutes, Gibson, Hopson, and Hardy gave a bracing, unvarnished recent history of the African American experience in Portland.

Gibson pointed out that the issues affecting Portland’s livability for many of its residents of color are the same issues the Portland City Club identified in a report on race relations in 1968: housing, jobs, education, and police—the same issues a lot of African Americans are concerned with in 2012. The difference, however, according to Gibson, is that in 1960 “80 percent of the black population lived within a two-square-mile district from the freeway to the 22nd [Avenue], and from Lloyd Center to Columbia Boulevard…. Today, 14 percent of that population lives there.” The impact of this harsh reality is displacement, lack of community, and a loss of economic wealth for the African American community in Portland.

Hopson and Hardy, both originally from Portland, lived those changes and offered powerful testimony about how disinvestment in the community moved them to do what they do, Hopson creating SEI and Hardy following his father’s footsteps into pastoring a church as well as developing a nonprofit organization, Highland Haven.

All three offered candid advice to city officials and white residents who might want to truly put their progressive ideals to work. As Hardy put it, in order to create a truly equitable city, it is important to “break down the barriers and be genuine with what can be done and how [the city developers] respond, and not just do it and shake a hand with one hand behind the back, which is how development happened here in Portland.”

Looking ahead, the trio agreed that the city’s long-range plans should include “look[ing] beyond bricks and mortar and the environment to a focus on the people,” according to Gibson. This approach requires lifting the veil of platitudes and politeness and focusing on transparency as well as an equitable distribution of resources. Hopson noted that African Americans must acknowledge their own culpability in sometimes protecting their self-interests—as he fully admitted to doing when he was single-mindedly trying to start SEI.


To truly create an inclusive and forward-thinking city, Hardy said, means “being able to work beyond the boundaries when working with someone who sees beyond the boundaries.”

In other words, stop being nice, start looking at how the “City that Works” is not working, and get down to the hard work of making a city more livable for all.


Since the April 9 discussion, I’ve fielded a number of ideas for how that hard work might happen, ranging from an “Equity School,” similar to Outdoor School, where teachers and students are required to participate (while specific schools and districts currently participate in cultural equity training, a statewide commitment to training educators and students would be remarkable), to the city offering remediation or even repatriation for families disproportionately affected by gentrification in North and inner Northeast Portland.

Indeed, with the city preparing for a new mayor, coupled with its reputation as a group of progressive, independent-minded citizens, Portland is poised for a major sea change—something that is less invested in being polite or nice and instead is committed to sincerely embracing the tremendous diversity that makes this special place home.

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