Rachel Macy heard the man before she saw him.
“He was saying that he was a taxpayer and this was his train,” said Macy, a member of the Klamath tribe from Southern Oregon. “And that people of color were ruining the city.”
Macy was on the MAX train when a man began screaming racist things at two teenage girls and other passengers and stabbed three men. Two of them died. Now Macy fears the color of her skin could make her a target for other racists.
“Every time I have to take public transportation, just walking down the street, I realize I don’t want to be noticed,” she said. “I am afraid.”
Last week’s stabbings on a MAX train in Portland prompted an outpouring of support for the victims and dismay that a hate crime could occur in a city known for its progressive politics. But for many people of color, the attacks were less a surprise and more just an escalation of things they’ve heard and felt for years in America’s whitest big city.
Fear is not a new feeling for many in Portland’s communities of color, though the TriMet attacks have amplified it — particularly among the region’s Muslim communities.
“In terms of conversation, we’re all scared really,” said Dana Ghazi, who grew up in Syria and recently earned a master’s degree at Portland State. “We feel there is this message that ‘You’re not welcome here, no matter what you do.’”
Umu Tullah is a college student from West Africa who sometimes wears a hijab. She says most of the women in her family are now avoiding public transit; they could have been those girls harassed on the train.
“You have to really be careful, because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “It really is scary.”
Mohanad Elshieky, a stand-up comedian from Libya who moved to Portland three years ago for school, got a call from his father in Benghazi after the MAX attack.
“He was like, ‘Hey, I’ve been seeing Portland all over the news. Stay safe,’” Elshieky said. “And I was like, ‘This is the most ironic thing that ever happened to me — a man who lives in the midst of a civil war is asking me to be safe in Portland.’”
Elshieky, like many in the city of Portland, have come out to support the stabbing victims and says he considers the men heroes. But he wonders whether the same outpouring of gratitude and sympathy would have occurred if the men were not white.
“A lot of people of color have been killed before in this city by a white supremacist or by the police,” he said. “Now that two white people get killed, people are like, ‘Oh people are getting murdered here.’ But I’m like, ‘This is not the first time.’”
Garrett Hongo, who is Japanese-American, remembers being followed and nearly driven off the road by a car of white men, as he was coming home late one night from a fishing trip in Central Oregon. Another time, his son was chased through the streets of Portland by white supremacists.
“This is not something that’s just recent,” said Hongo, who teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon. “These things have been ongoing and people of color know about them. An unfortunate thing is it takes a murder to bring attention to these issues.”
As Hongo suggests, the TriMet attacks are just the latest in a string of racist incidents across the region. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the three months after the election of Donald Trump, Oregon had 50 reported hate incidents.
With Caucasians making up more than 76 percent of its population, Portland is the whitest major city in America. The state was built on exclusion laws, that made it illegal for African-Americans to enter or live in Oregon. At one point, Oregon had the highest per capita membership in the Ku Klux Klan, said Portland State sociologist Randy Blazak, who has spent 25 years studying hate crimes and hate groups.
“It’s part of the explanation of why Portland is as white as it is in the year 2017, this long racial history that the state has,” Blazak said.
Nineteen-year-old Alexis Bright is a fourth-generation African-American from fast-gentrifying Northeast Portland. She says she often feels like she faces a different reality from her white peers.
“As a person of color, especially in a predominantly white society, you are very aware of these dangers that a lot of people can comfortably ignore,” she said. “But for you, it’s in your face every day.”
That can be exhausting, says Zahir Janmohamed, who is a policy director at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. He also co-hosts a podcast on race and food called “Racist Sandwich,” where the issue of Portland’s whiteness is a frequent theme, and he wrote a much-shared opinion piece for CNN after the attacks titled “Portland Isn’t As Liberal As You Think.”
“I know people who leave,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking because there’s so many great things about the city. And yet people don’t feel comfortable here, so they leave.”
Among them: Janmohamad himself. He’s leaving Portland later this year.