Portland's racist past smolders beneath the surface
Americans live in a world where issues of race often populate headlines: the deaths ofand , 's controversial kneeling during the national anthem, the deadly white supremacist , Virginia, and the rhetoric around building a .
In cases of tragedies, people rush to social media to communicate their shock. "How could something like that happen here?" they wonder. Then, some condemn the individual involved in an atrocity and file the event away in their minds as a sort of enigma -- a case in which a bad man entered an otherwise good city and did something unthinkable.
When you delve deep enough beneath the surface of such "otherwise good cities," however, you often find deep-rooted issues that may have contributed to an event. That's what the latest "CBSN Originals" documentary, "Portland | Race Against the Past," does with the presumed liberal enclave of Portland, Oregon, where in the spring of 2017,were stabbed by a white supremacist on a MAX train after coming to the defense of two minority women he was harassing.
As with similar cases across the country, Americans responded with incredulity: Portland? Many people on the ground in Portland, however, were not shocked. Quite the opposite.
Keegan Stephan, a caucasian political organizer who spent his high school years in a suburb of Portland tells CBS News: "When I first saw the news, I flashed back to my time there and some of the really violent racist comments I'd hear white people in the presence of white people make. It made perfect sense to me that that sort of violent, racist behavior was going on in Portland and that it had led to this."
Oregon historian Walidah Imarisha agrees. "I was absolutely not shocked," she said. "I didn't meet any people of color who were shocked. They were horrified. They were terrified. They were enraged. They were saddened. There were many emotions happening, but surprise was not one of them because we live in Portland every single day and we see the mask that Portland puts on for the rest of the world. And we see that it is paper thin and we have to look under it every single day."
Experts point to a few pivotal events in Oregon's history that set the scene for events that transpire today.
When Oregon became a state in 1859, it did not become a slave state. People often assume that it entered the Union as a free state, but that isn't the case, either. Oregon entered the Union as its sole no-blacks state -- a little-known fact that has eluded many Oregonians.
"I've met many Oregonians who are very proud that Oregon came into the Union a free state. And the reality is much more complicated," said Imarisha. "That same law that outlawed slavery also included the black exclusion law that said that black people weren't allowed to live in Oregon, and it included the Lash Law that said that black people would be publicly whipped every six months, up to 39 lashes, until they left the state."
The language remained on the books until 2002. And when the 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified across the country in the years after the Civil War, giving black men the right to vote and granting citizenship and equal protection under the law to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States," Oregon failed to ratify those amendments for nearly a century.
Due in large part to the inhospitable nature of its constitution, by the 1920s, Oregon had developed the largest Klan membership per capita of any state in the Union.
"One thing that many people don't understand about Oregon is the importance of the Ku Klux Klan," said Judith Margles, executive director of the Oregon Jewish Museum. "[Oregon's] Klan in 1923 was the largest Klan west of the Mississippi. And if we think about the issues that we're facing with white supremacy today, they didn't just happen, right? The white supremacists didn't just decide in the 1990s, 'Oh, let's come to Oregon and see what havoc we can raise.' Of course, there's a direct line from white supremacists today through to the Ku Klux Klan, right back to 1844 to that first exclusion law."
Continue reading at CBSNews.com.