Out of my recent demographic research, I have begin to realize facts about my own country that were, before, unknown to me. I have grown up and spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, and while I knew that the Pacific Northwest was different, I thought that much of the difference was exaggerated, and was the result of a mixture of positive and negative stereotypes from both inside and outside. But there are observable demographic differences between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington and any other large city in the United States. Seattle and Portland, according to the 2000 census, have the first and second highest high school graduation rates amongst the 30 largest cities in the country. They have the fourth and sixth lowest poverty rates amongst those cities. There are perhaps more statistics I could give, and statistics being what they are, they would probably not all support my point. But I think enough of them do to show that one of my subjective experiences in Portland is not just my imagination: in Portland, I never had to take it for granted that there was a big area where I shouldn't go because "those people" were there. I have only recently realized that not having the idea of a threatening, unmalleable inner city underclass is a privilege that many Americans never have.
Needless to say, that underclass is often minority. African-American across the northeast and rust belt, Hispanic from Texas through California. I will not claim that I grew up with no racism around me, or that I don't have a big sludge of unfortunate prejudices and bad thoughts. But my life was never defined by a fault line between us, and them. There were never "no go" zones, or hordes of people who I had to pretend didn't exist. I grew up in a world that (and I am just realizing this), was very egalitarian compared to much of America.
Now that I have finished bragging about how cool Portland is (which any hipster can tell you), there is some bad news behind this. Portland (and Seattle) are egalitarian in part because of heavy institutionalized racism, and part because of mere chance. Oregon was founded by people who were trying to escape the inequalities of the Eastern United States, which was in danger of falling back in feudalism. When Oregon was signed into statehood by James Buchanan on Valentine's Day, 1859, right before the Civil War, its constitution prohibited slavery...and then, in the next amendment, prohibits "Free Negroes or Mulattoes" in the state. This last part wasn't rescinded until 1926 (although, of course, it would have gone against the 14th Amendment). In the 1920s, with the rise of the Second Klan, Oregon was a state ran by people fairly openly associated with the Ku Klux Klan. Much of the Klan's activity was focused on anti-Catholic activities, but behind its prejudice, there probably were some economic motives. Catholic immigrants were often (like blacks in the North), low paid workers, and thus a threat to the white protestants that made up most of Oregon's population until that point. Along with this active racism, there is another reason that Oregon didn't attract an urban underclass: during the industrialization of the latter half of the 19th century, Oregon never developed heavy, labor-intensive industries. During the Great Migration that brought black workers from the south to the cities of the Rust Belt and Northeast, Oregon was both too far away from other population centers, and didn't have enough employment available, to attract large numbers of unskilled or semiskilled workers. It was not until World War II that Seattle and Portland attracted large industries and large amounts of minority workers.
So because of this history, I grew up in and around a city where I was mostly free from the inevitable, creeping effects of a mixture of racism, fear, classism & cynicism that seems to make up the background mindset of many Americans. I grew up honestly believing that I was living in a society where everyone, of every race and background, could participate in economic and social life. And this progressive optimism was formed--- in part --- because the founders of Oregon wanted to exclude anyone who could make up an underclass from the state. I am still trying to decide whether this irony is a good or bad thing.