African Americans in Oregon: A Labor Market Perspective

by Sarah Cunningham

February 17, 2021

According to 1940 Census records, Black or African Americans comprised roughly 10% of the U.S. population in the years prior to World War II. During that same period in Oregon the state’s 3,600 Black residents made up just 0.3% of the state’s population. The Census’ most recent estimates show that as of 2019, 14% of people in the U.S. identify as Black alone or Black in combination with one or more races, yet just 3% of Oregon’s residents identify as Black. Why do so few Black people live in Oregon? According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, “Oregon's racial makeup has been shaped by three black exclusion laws that were in place during much of the region's early history. These laws, all later rescinded, largely succeeded in their aim of discouraging free blacks from settling in Oregon early on, ensuring that Oregon would develop as primarily white.” The small share of Black residents in Oregon in combination with the state’s relatively small population make comparing labor market outcomes for our Black residents with the state’s overall population challenging. This article analyzes available data to capture the economic landscape of the Black population in Oregon, how it has changed over the past decade, and how it compares with the state as a whole.

Oregon’s Black Population is Diverse, Young, and Growing

The number of Black people living in Oregon has grown by 28% over the last decade to 124,500 people, according to American Community Survey (ACS) 2019 estimates. One in three Black people (37%) in the state are Black or African American in addition to one or more races. Oregon’s Black population is relatively young, with a median age of 28.4 years compared to 39.7 years across all races in Oregon.

Oregon’s Black residents are centered in the state’s urban core, with seven out of 10 (71%) living in the Portland Tri-County area. Outside the state’s largest metro area, Lane County is home to the second-largest share of Black people at roughly 7%, followed by Marion County (6%). The share of the Black population living in these five counties differs considerably with the state’s overall population, with 84% of Black people living in one of those five counties compared with just 61% of all Oregon residents.

Educational Attainment On the Rise

Black residents in Oregon have achieved increasing levels of educational attainment over the past decade. The share of Black people whose highest level of educational attainment is a high school diploma (or equivalent) increased by 5 percentage points to 23% from 2010 to 2019. The share whose highest level of educational attainment is a bachelor’s degree increased by 6 percentage points to 20%, and the share with a graduate or professional degree increased 2 percentage points to 12% of the state’s Black population. Increased levels of educational attainment typically improves employment outcomes in terms of lower unemployment rates and higher earnings, which we will explore in the following sections.
Educational attainment for Oregon’s Black residents was essentially the same as for all Oregonians in 2019.


According to U.S. Census microdata, workers who identified as Black alone or in combination with one or more races made up roughly 3% of the state’s workforce in 2019. The share of Black workers in Oregon has grown at roughly three times the rate of the state’s overall workforce over the past decade (59% vs. 20%), increasing from 33,000 people in 2010 to 52,500 people in 2019.

In 2019, most Black workers in the state worked in management, business, science, and arts occupations (42% of workers) followed by service (24%) and sales and office (18%) occupations. Black workers are more likely to work in service occupations compared to all workers (24% vs. 18%) and less likely to work in natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations (3% vs 9%).
According to the Census Bureau’s Quarterly Workforce Indicators, the most common industries of employment in 2019 for workers who identify as Black alone included industries that were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic such as health care and social assistance (18%) and accommodation and food services (11%).

Labor Market Outcomes

The Black population’s labor force participation rate has increased to become higher than for the state’s overall population, driven in part by increased levels of educational attainment in the Black community and overall improving labor market conditions. However, Black Oregonians continue to suffer from a significantly higher unemployment rate at 9.0% compared to 5.5% for all in Oregon’s labor force on average from 2015 to 2019.
Achieving higher levels of educational attainment may help Black people improve their individual employment outcomes, but national data show that Black people still face unemployment rates nearly twice as high compared with all in the labor force across all levels of educational attainment.  
Along with improving educational attainment, unemployment and labor force participation rates, real average annual wages for Black workers in Oregon have increased by 18.1% over the decade to $47,500 in 2019. The rate of growth has been faster than the 14.6% wage growth that was experienced across all workers during this period. Nevertheless, average annual earnings for Black workers were 15.0% lower (or $8,412) than earnings for all workers.
Wage gaps between Black workers and all others are persistent across all levels of educational attainment for full-time, year-round workers over the age of 25. The largest wage gap occurs at the highest end of the educational attainment spectrum, with Black workers in Oregon with advanced or professional degrees earning median wages roughly $12,000 less than their equally educated peers from 2015 to 2019. Black workers with some college or an associate degree statewide earned essentially the same median wage ($37,000) as workers of all others combined with a high school diploma or equivalent ($40,000). Oregon’s broad trends are consistent with national-level data, with the Black workers earning lower median annual wages ranging from $2,700 less for those with less than a high school diploma to $17,000 less for those with an advanced or professional degree compared with all other workers with the same levels of educational attainment nationally.  
Wages consistently increase along with educational attainment for both groups of workers nationally and statewide. Black workers in Oregon with some college or an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, and an advanced or professional degree earned a median wage of $37,000, $56,000, and $68,000 respectively from 2015 to 2019. Median annual wages were $19,000 (51%) higher for Black workers with a bachelor’s degree compared to those with some college or an associate degree.

Factors like age, gender, and occupation are hard to control for in Oregon due to sample size limitations that affect data reliability, but national data show that none of these factors can completely explain why an earnings gap exists. The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis explains in a study of their own labor market that, “Unequal labor market outcomes are not a consequence of the labor market alone but also reflect the institutionalization of systemic racism through less opportunity in education, housing, location, and the criminal justice system.”

Keep Moving Forward

Though only a small share of the state’s population, Oregon’s Black population is diverse, young, and has grown quickly over the last 10 years. Black Oregonians have achieved higher levels of educational attainment over the past decade and have experienced better economic outcomes including higher labor force participation, lower unemployment rates, and higher earnings. However, disparities in labor market outcomes between Black people and all in Oregon persist and may worsen in the short term during the COVID-19 pandemic recession and its recovery, as research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco shows that relative labor market outcomes for Black people improve under tight labor market conditions and worsen during recessions.

Eradicating economic disparities between marginalized groups of people will increase the U.S.’s overall economic output and improve the lives of individuals and families. To keep moving forward towards better economic outcomes, a combination of individual and policy-level efforts are necessary. Individuals can increase their earnings and decrease their likelihood of becoming unemployed through education and training efforts. Key federal agencies such as the Federal Reserve Bank of America can act in ways that promote economic recovery and expansion for longer periods of time, and state and local government can ensure their policies are inclusive of everyone in their communities. Businesses also have a role to play by examining and improving their policies related to the hiring, retention, and promotion of workers. 

Additional Information

For Oregon employers looking for ways to better support diversity in the workplace, Partners in Diversity offers a variety of resources tailored for employers and professionals of color in the Pacific Northwest.

For more information about Black workers and proposed solutions to improve their employment outcomes, see the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ recap on its event Racism and the Economy: Focus on Employment.


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