African Americans in Oregon: A Labor Market Perspective

by Sarah Cunningham

May 10, 2023

According to 1940 Census records, Black or African Americans made up 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 2021, 14% of people in the U.S. identify as Black alone or Black in combination with one or more other 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 These laws, all later rescinded, largely succeeded in their aim of discouraging free blacks from settling in Oregon early on, ensuring that Oregon would develop as primarily white.”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 38% over the last decade to 137,400 people, according to American Community Survey (ACS) 2021 estimates. Two out of five (41%) Black people in the state identify themselves as Black or African American in addition to one or more other races. Oregon’s Black population is relatively young, with a median age of 27.4 years in 2021 compared to 40.1 years across all races in Oregon.

Oregon’s Black residents are centered in the state’s urban core, with 87% living in the Portland Tri-County area compared with just 59% 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 2 percentage points to 20% from 2010 to 2021. 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 3 percentage points to 13% 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.
Graph showing an increasing share of Black Oregonians attain high school diplomas, bachelor's and advanced degrees

Educational attainment for Oregon’s Black residents was essentially the same as for all Oregonians in 2021.


According to U.S. Census Bureau, workers who identified as Black made up roughly 3% of the state’s workforce in 2021. The share of Black workers in Oregon has grown at roughly four times the rate of the state’s overall workforce over the past decade (71% vs. 17%), increasing from 34,000 people in 2011 to 58,000 people in 2021.

In 2021, most Black workers in the state worked in management, business, science, and arts occupations (42% of workers); followed by sales and office occupations (23%); and service occupations (21%). Black workers are more likely to work in service occupations compared with all workers (21% vs. 17%) and less likely to work in natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations (2% vs 9%).Graph showing Oregon's Black Population is More Likely to Work in Service Occupations; Less Likely to Work in Natural Resources, Construction, and Maintenance Occupations than All Workers

According to the Census Bureau’s Quarterly Workforce Indicators, the most common industries of employment in 2022 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 (20%) and accommodation and food services (10%).

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 8.3% compared with 6.4% for all in Oregon’s labor force in 2021.
Table showing Oregon employment status by race 2011 vs. 2021

Along with improving labor force participation rates, real average annual wages for Black workers in Oregon have increased by 31% over the decade to $55,452 in 2021. The rate of growth has been faster than the 24% wage growth that was experienced across all workers during this period. Nevertheless, average annual earnings for Black workers were 16% lower (or $10,176) than earnings for all workers.
Graph showing Black Workers in Oregon See Real Wages Rise Faster than For All Workers, But Wage Disparities Persist

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 a higher end of the educational attainment spectrum, with Black workers in Oregon with a bachelor’s degree earning median wages roughly $12,000 less than their equally educated peers from 2017 to 2021. Black workers with some college or an associate degree statewide earned $10,000 less than all workers. The smallest difference was for people with a high school diploma; Black workers earned about $5,000 less than all workers with that level of education.Graph showing 2021 Median Wages of Full-Time, Year-Round Oregon Workers by Race and Educational Attainment

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 $42,000, $60,000, and $80,000 respectively from 2017 to 2021. Median annual wages were nearly $18,000 (42%) higher for Black workers with a bachelor’s degree compared with 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.” 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.

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.

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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