Oregon’s ethnic make-up has become increasingly diverse since 1940, and especially since 1960. The state was on the receiving end of the remarkable African-American diaspora to defense-industry jobs on the West Coast during World War II. Although Washington state’s numbers have always been higher, Oregon’s African American population increased from 0.2 percent in 1940 to more than 1 percent in 1960 and to 1.6 percent in 1990. The 2000 census enumerated 1.6 percent as “Black or African American,” with another 2.1 percent of the population listing both African American and one other group identity.
In 2000, American Indian and Alaska Native residents comprised 1.3 percent of the population, with 2.5 percent reporting American Indian and Alaska Native and one other racial identity. People with Asian ancestry comprised 0.6 percent of the state's population in 1940, 0.5 percent in 1960, and then increased sharply to 2.4 percent in 1990. The 2000 census lists 3 percent of the population as Asian in a broad category that includes Asian Indian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and “other Asian.” Another 3.7 percent of Oregon's population identified themselves as Asian and one other category.
Among the state’s ethnic groups, Oregon’s Hispanic population has shown the most striking growth since World War II. Mexican American immigrants began coming to the Northwest to work as agricultural fieldhands, especially in Idaho and eastern Washington, early in the twentieth century, and their numbers have grown with each passing decade as former migrants have become permanent residents and citizens. During World War II, the bracero labor program, a “guest-worker” scheme, brought large number of Mexican American agricultural laborers to work in the fields and food-processing plants in Oregon and other Northwest states. After the war, large numbers of families from the Southwest and northern Mexico flocked to the region in search of work. According to the 1970 census, Hispanics comprised 1.9 percent of Oregon and Washington's population, a number that increased to 2.7 percent in 1980, making them the largest minority group in the two states.
The 2000 census shows Hispanics increasing to an astonishing 8 percent of Oregon’s population, a number that suggests their growing political influence. Based on the 2000 census, the secretary of state’s office created a newly redistricted state legislative seat that covers the area between Salem and Woodburn, an area where many Mexican Americans live. Although other Hispanic and Latino ethnic categories are included in the census figures, Mexican Americans are by far the largest of those groups.
While Oregon’s population has historically been a largely Caucasian one, the new immigrant groups moving to the state since 1940 have considerably enriched its ethnic make-up. Overall, the immigration of new ethnic groups to Oregon has increased its minority population from 3.6 percent in 1960 to 13.4 percent in 2000.
© William G. Robbins, 2002