When I started reading “Whitewashing the South: White Memories of Segregation and Civil Rights,” I really didn’t think it had much to do with Seattle.
Sociologist Kristen M. Lavelle interviewed older white southerners who had lived through segregation and civil rights in Greensboro, North Carolina — often cited as the birthplace of the sit-in movement which launched the entire civil rights movement.
But then I got to this: “During the segregation era, North Carolina had the reputation of being the most racially progressive southern state.”
“The city of Greensboro,” Lavelle continues, “in particular had long prided itself for being a unique space of racial enlightenment…” Lavelle aptly refers to the city’s attempt at billing itself as racially advanced when it clearly was not, and cites its “progressive mystique.”
And my eyes widened as my jaw dropped a million miles to the floor. Racially enlightened? Progressive mystique? That sounded awfully familiar.
This is the same way Seattle loves to think of itself today.
Ryan Nickum wrote in “37 Things You Should Know Before Moving to Seattle” that Seattle is a “bastion of progressive lefty-ism” which “prides itself on its tolerance.”
Alexjon’s wrote for BuzzFeed, “We’re such a welcoming town for people of all races, religions and sexual orientations.”
In 2010, G. Willow Wilson published an AOL News piece about Seattle’s 98118 neighborhood, “America’s Most Diverse Zip Code Shows the Way,” which rocketed south Seattle into the public imagination as a post-racial paradise.
And much is currently being made of a U.S. city ranking by experts from UCLA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology naming Seattle the nation’s third most liberal city.
Elder white southerners interviewed by Lavelle recalled their childhoods in racist Greensboro as also a time primarily of “interracial harmony” and “tolerance.” Participants shared “racial goodwill stories” where they were “uninvolved in the racial oppression of African Americans under segregation.” They often saw themselves as racially enlightened moderates, and passive bystanders.
But that was a different time and place right? Seattle is nothing like Greensboro, and is, in fact, better than most of the country today. Maybe it’s even a leader in racial justice, ahead of its era, right?
No. Not quite.
If you try clicking old headlines boasting Seattle’s 98118 diversity, around half of them don’t work anymore.
Why? Because shortly after Rainier-Valley-the-racial-utopia became seemingly common knowledge, it was discovered that the proclamation was actually a fable.
“We don’t measure whether one zip code is more diverse than another,” a Bureau specialist was quoted saying, adding that people responded to the idea of 98118 diversity because it was positive but, “Around [the Census Bureau] we think of it almost as an urban myth.”
Statements pushing Seattle’s diversity and “leftyism” mask the reality that despite being a liberal city, Seattle’s racial outcomes are perhaps no better than anywhere else.
For example, few Seattleites seem to be aware of the large role our city has played in re-segregating America’s schools. In 2007, courtesy of a suit brought by a group of predominantly white Seattle parents (Parents Involved In Community Schools v. Seattle School District), the Supreme Court dealt a huge blow to education equity when it declared U.S. schools could not seek to achieve/maintain integration by taking account of student race.
Kathleen Brose, who led parents in suing the district, wrote that considering student race in school assignment was “illegal…immoral and just plain wrong.”
“Seattle schools have never been segregated; they are currently integrated,” she stated with conviction in a Seattle Times op-ed.
Greensboro resisted schools taking account of race too — when the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional inthe 1954 Brown v. Board decision. It took seventeen years for Greensboro to comply with the ruling.
And when the city finally did begin compulsory busing, many white parents deeply resented their children’s new, long commutes. White families were accustomed to and preferred the neighborhood school system that had long privileged their families. Greensboro’s “progressive mystique” then concealed how power was still being monopolized and African Americans were still being subordinated.
Seattle’s “progressive” present in this regard is far too similar to Greensboro’s “progressive” past.
Consider that Kathleen Brose originally opposed the school district because her own daughter was denied admission to nearby Ballard High School (69% white 2012-2013) and assigned instead to Franklin High School (6% white 2012-2013).
Just a year after Brose claimed that Seattle schools were integrated, Seattle Times education writer Linda Shaw reported that actually, “nearly three decades after Seattle Public Schools integrated almost all its schools through busing, that racial balance is long gone.”
By 2011 segregation across Seattle schools was worse than it was in the 1980s, a trend reflected nationally. Then in 2013 Seattle Public Schools fell under federal investigation when it was uncovered that Black students were being suspended more than three times as often as white students beginning in elementary school.
But it’s not just in education that Seattle sees broad racial disparities. Seattle is a majority white city yet its homeless population, which has grown dramatically, is very disproportionately people of color, particularly Black men.
Seattle also represents one of the largest concentrated populations of Asian Pacific Islander poor in the nation. In 2010, the Seattle Police Department came under federal investigation after the fatal shooting of a homeless Native American woodcarver. Investigators found SPD had engaged in excessive force that violated federal law and the Constitution. Seattle’s Police Union has traditionally held the reputation of being hostile towards antiracist efforts (a position which current union president, Ron Smith, only recently disputed). Meanwhile Seattle officers just keep making headlines for racist rants, abuse of power and discriminatory acts caught on camera.
There is an important takeaway here: history tends to repeat itself and Seattle is at risk. We need to be very careful about using loaded language like “racially progressive” when the problem of racism is nowhere close to being solved here or anywhere else.
Lavelle points out there are striking similarities between the elder white southerners she interviewed and colorblind views today that assume everyone has the same opportunities and rationalizes (or altogether refuses to see) persistent inequities.
The point for us Seattleites is that the progressivism and colorblindness we ascribe to has been used before, and to very ill effect. Such beliefs lull us into complacency and even render us complicit.
Racism is not a problem that “other” people need to deal with. It’s our problem too; something we all need to acknowledge, address and undo.
Wake up Seattle and shake off your “progressive mystique.” We still have a lot of work to do.