Oregon’s urban/rural divide mirrors American electorate

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On Jan. 2, 2016, a group of armed militants seized and occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, an extensive tract of land in a desolate area of Eastern Oregon. When I learned of this, I remember thinking to myself … Oregon? The state on the left coast that consistently had become a bastion of liberal democratic electoral success? That Oregon? How is it that a state known for its progressive leanings was now dealing with a group of disgruntled ranchers and militia-members who were hell-bent on sending the federal government a message that they were tired of being taken advantage of?

Back then, I was living in the Coachella Valley in the Southern California desert.  Little did I know that in a few short months, when a long-planned retirement from the blue-collar world was about to commence, my wife was offered a dream job in the Northern California coastal town of Crescent City, roughly a 30-minute drive south of the Oregon border.

To make a long story short, she accepted the offer, and we currently reside in the small coastal town of Brookings, Ore. Just a stone’s throw from Crescent City, Calif.,  Brookings sits along the Pacific Ocean amid towering pines, picturesque mountain ranges and magnificent rock formations. In short, it’s about as close to paradise as you can get.

But paradise is relative. It’s relative to the person making that claim. While there is so much to like here, there are contradictions and cultural norms that combine to create a climate of fear. A fear of others who may not look the same. Fear of changing demographics. Fear and resentment of federal and state governments. And, perhaps the biggest concern of them all: the end of white male dominance. To that end, Brookings isn’t much different from the area in Eastern Oregon where the militia-members made their stand. Different in landscape? Yes. Different from social and cultural norms? Not so much.

And Portland may as well be thousands of miles away.

This dynamic … this division between urban/suburban areas and rural communities is playing out throughout the United States. It’s been happening for several years, and the division only intensified since the election of the first African-American president in 2008. The election of Donald Trump has put it on steroids. Rural America is pissed.

Again, while Oregon is a consistent Democratic stronghold as far as elections go, it represents a microcosm of the great divide in America. And now that I’ve lived here for over two years, I decided to dig a little deeper into my new home state. Is there something in its history that might explain the divide? Is there something deeper … darker, if you will … that lingers beneath all of this? Is there a racial and/or economic component?

Immigrants, African-Americans and the Ku Klux Klan

Much to my surprise, as I began taking a look at Oregon’s history, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I noticed a demonization of immigrants and African-Americans that not only mirrored the Deep South, but also the divisive rhetoric we’re still hearing today. Much of it early on was pointed at Chinese and Japanese immigrants who flocked to Oregon for the many jobs that were being created during construction of the transcontinental railroad. It didn’t take long for anti-Chinese immigrant sentiment to emerge. In fact, this negative sentiment prompted Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which was the first law in the nation to deny naturalized citizenship to a specific nationality.

African-Americans also seized upon the new railroad construction as many flocked to the area to take jobs such as porters and dining-car waiters. So in a sense, the industrial revolution, coupled with the new railroad, attracted substantial numbers of non-white people to Oregon, which caused a significant backlash among the white majority who did not like the “invasion” of minorities.

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, the backlash continued for several years, and by the 1920s, Oregon’s social and cultural life reflected a mostly homogeneous society, with social cultural, and religious conformity at the forefront. Naturally, an organization such as the Ku Klux Klan knew how to capitalize on such exclusivity and arrived on the scene in 1921. Shockingly, the Klan gained so much influence that it dominated the state legislature, with Klansman Kaspar K. Kubli even being elected Speaker of the House. With Klan influence, several pieces of legislation passed that reflected anti-immigration sentiment.

Eventually, the Klan wore out its welcome, but for several years in the 1920s, its racist and divisive platform ruled the day. I can’t help but think that some of the rhetoric and hate espoused by them had a profound effect on future generations of white Oregonians.Portland

The rise of Portland

Much of the urban-rural divide in Oregon that resonates today can be traced to the historical influence of its largest city, Portland. At the end of the 1800s, Portland was home to a quarter of Oregon’s population. Most of the influx of immigrants settled here, including Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Germans, Irish, Russians, Italians, Filipinos and Koreans. Also, Portland was the center of the African-American community.

With so many immigrants settling in the area, coupled with its unbridled economic dominance in the state, it’s no wonder many politicians from rural areas began to distrust Portland’s power-brokers. According to historian Earl Pomeroy, the tensions between urban and rural Oregon existed because “Portland was large enough to stimulate and arouse its neighbors, but not large enough to stifle them.” It’s pretty clear that these same sentiments exist in present-day Oregon. Even though Salem is the state capital, there’s no doubt the real power in the state still resides in Portland … and the hate from rural Oregon continues unabated.

State of Jefferson

So now that I’ve established some historical perspective as to where some of Oregon’s urban-rural divide began, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the influence of pro-white/anti-government groups in the area. The history of Oregon is filled with stories of violent and racist groups. Communes, cults, alternative religious communities and militias have been part of the state for generations. In fact, according to The New York Times, Oregon has been home to nearly 300 of these groups since 1856, including the Christian Identity movement, Posse Comitatus, Aryan Nations and the Roy Masters’ Foundation of Human Understanding. In fact, according to some historians, the state primarily was founded as a kind of white utopia.

So with that backdrop, it makes sense that there is a movement taking place here that would establish a 51st state, which would encompass much of Northern California and rural Southern Oregon. The newest state would be called the State of Jefferson.

Much of the State of Jefferson movement and the movement associated with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge incident is similar. There is an inherent distrust of government. To put it in even simpler terms: These individuals are tired of being told what to do by city slickers in Portland, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and of course, Washington, D.C. The State of Jefferson people, in particular, are riled over increases in taxes and fees generated by the federal government and “liberal” statehouses in the big cities. The fact that most of these cities also are home to a diverse population surely has something to do with it as well, although they do not acknowledge it. Less government, fewer taxes, and freedom are what drives the movement, they say.

I don’t doubt their sincerity, but the creation of a mostly white state with little regard for the rest of the country cannot be far from the goal here, in my opinion.

Final Thoughts

I’ve learned quite a bit about my new home state. I have to acknowledge that the amount of racial hatred sprinkled throughout its history surprised me. I hadn’t realized the Ku Klux Klan had a presence here years ago. I had heard about the militia movements. And you can’t help but notice the State of Jefferson signs as you drive around the mostly rural areas of the state.

But even as rural America rebels against urban dominance, there are signs of the progressive nature of Oregon as well. For example, the first sign you see driving along Highway 101 from the Northern California border into Oregon is State Line Cannabis. In fact, in my small town of Brookings, we have approximately eight cannabis dispensaries in operation. After Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational weed, Oregon was not far behind. Here in Brookings, while many lament the presence of weed dispensaries, most accept them. It brings in tax money and creates jobs … even conservative residents can appreciate that.

The people who live in Brookings respect one another. There isn’t a lot of diversity, but neighbors help each other, and there seems to be a genuine appreciation of this region: the clean air, pine-filled forests, pristine rivers, ocean, mountains and so much more.

But while those things are real, so are the deep divisions. The political landscape continues to fracture along partisan and racial lines. The State of Jefferson movement isn’t going away anytime soon. Portland is and has been one of the most progressive big cities in the country, and its influence continues to grow.

As I sit here, looking out over the beautiful Pacific Ocean, I can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for Oregon. I’ll be here for a while. Maybe for the rest of my life. I have a feeling that progress will win in the long run. Hopefully, inclusiveness will triumph over exclusivity. But it’s not a given. Old habits, beliefs and norms are hard to change.

Again, we see this playing out on a national scale as well. But perhaps the recent election is a forerunner of things to come for America. A much more diverse group of individuals will head to Washington in January. Texas nearly elected a charismatic progressive Senate candidate. Georgia voters nearly elected the nation’s first African-American female governor. Things are changing. I can feel it in the air.

I have my doubts that rural Oregon and the rest of rural America are on board.

Note: Much thanks to the Oregon Historical Society website for helping out with this post.

4 comments

  1. Thanks for this good article! I’m a progressive Portlander who stayed in Brookings a number of times in my job with state government (yes it is beautiful!), also many other rural communities in Oregon. I’m aware of Oregon’s deeply racist history; it accounts for much of our state’s lack of racial diversity today.

    Here’s what I’ve learned both from direct experience and from Robert Wuthnow’s extensive research. Rural communities feel differently about where they live than city people do. They feel more connection and obligation to each other, more pride in their place on earth, and much deeper frustration with government for intruding on their lives, not understanding their local context, and not giving them needed help. They wish they could be more self-sufficient than it is possible to be in today’s economy. Rural people feel disrespected and talked down to by urbanites. I once experienced vicious bite-back from local officials when I posed what I thought an innocent question. Their venom amazed me; it was directed at things much bigger than myself.

    How to mend the urban-rural divide, or even be a small part of the solution? I’d suggest that city folk (like myself) engage more with rural folk, and not just by using their often beautiful areas for vacations. We need to overcome our us-against-them thinking. Teaming together on community projects would be ideal. High school sports events are great ways to come together; these are often the heart of rural vitality. I’m starting to get involved with a non-profit called Better Angels; it promotes bipartisan dialogue, hopefully rural-urban dialogue too.

    Thanks again for this article, and warm wishes on your new life in Brookings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Alison. Thanks so much for your kind words. I could not agree more with you. The divide is enormous in this country. The Democrats are losing this battle. There’s a debate within the party about whether candidates, especially presidential ones, should even bother talking to rural folks. All I can say is … they better.

      And whoever evolves in 2020 as the Dem nominee better have a strategy to deal with this. You cannot just ignore groups of people. They do have legitimate concerns and I think that the Dem who is able to project this ability to talk to rural America AND urban/suburban America will come out on top. Are we not all in this thing together? I mean, that’s kind of the progressive mantra isn’t it?

      Again, thank you and I appreciate you checking us out. Dialogue is so important!!

      Jeff/Brookingslib

      Like

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