Time to shed the ‘progressive mystique’ and confront racism in Seattle

The 1960 sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, NC is often cited as the beginning of the civil rights movement. At the time many white Greensboro residents considered themselves racially progressive. (Photo from Library of Congress)
The 1960 sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, NC is often cited as the beginning of the civil rights movement. At the time many white Greensboro residents considered themselves racially progressive. (Photo from Library of Congress)

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.”

A Seattle Public School classroom in 1995. Seattle parents were behind a lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court challenging the use of race to determine school assignments. (Photo via Seattle Municipal Archives)
A Seattle Public School classroom in 1995. Seattle parents were behind a lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court challenging the use of race to determine school assignments. (Photo via Seattle Municipal Archives)

“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.


  1. Clearly you have never lived in the South. I just returned to the Northwest after 11 years living in Richmond, VA…Richmond where a giant Confederate flag hangs just off the hightway, where several white men stand nearly daily with Confederate flags outside the art museum because they are angry that the museum dared to stop flying the Confederate on museum property. I am not saying Seattle is perfect, there is racism everywhere but, Seattle has a much better track record than the racist South. Did you know that some counties in Virginia closed public schools because they refused to integrate? There are people who missed years of school because there was no school to go to. Also, I went to Seattle public schools during the 70’s and 80’s. Bussing was terrible. Integration was a great idea but how the district went about it was insane…they shipped kids to one school for K-2nd then another for 3rd and 4th then another for 5th while at the same time setting up the “gifted” program at the South end schools that re-segregated them.

    1. Ms. McCulloch, sometimes the worst racism are the places where you aren’t even allowed to acknowledge its existence. I can tell you that my children have barely ever even met a black child in their expensive school district. They are so far removed from race politics, because they have no exposure whatsoever to poverty or minority groups that are more common elsewhere. I worry about them all the time, whether they will be able to exercise their empathy properly.

  2. Really excellent and concise case for the realities of racism and white denial. The “good schools” and “good neighborhoods” narrative is the progressive’s tool of segregation. We don’t come out and say it, but we all know what it means. Thank you Sharon.

  3. Thank you! Yes, definitely very concise and a good comparison and reminder to the work that needs to be done and why “colorblindness” only exacerbates the problem of racism.

  4. Melissa clearly doesn’t understand the basic point of this piece: racism still exists in Seattle and likely even more so on the Eastside. While, yes, Seattle is lightyears ahead of many Southern cities of similar size, racism is still grossly present in Seattle’s power structures. In 2005, Seattle and King County sought to end homelessness as part of an initiative from the Bush administration. After spending nearly a billion dollars, Seattle’s homeless problem as ballooned whereas homelessness rates for cities of similar size and the rest of the country declined during this same time. Only one-third of Seattle’s population are people of color, but two-thirds of the homeless are people of color. This in a city where there are only more homeless people in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York.

    It’s difficult for Seattle to claim tolerance and embrace of racial intolerances when there is much more the city needs to do to achieve what it claims.

    1. “…and likely even more so on the Eastside.”

      Do you have any basis for this, or are you just showing your own prejudices? In fact, the Eastside is exceptionally diverse, and also has a huge influx of immigrants as well as young tech workers.

      How about we stick to things we know about?

      1. Right, I didn’t attend a school that was over 70% white and placed little priority in being inclusive of people of color (Lake Washington High School). And I would have no perspective at all, not living in a city (Kirkland) almost 80% white for fifteen years whose police force views non-white youth as the city’s top crime problem. I must have imagined those years.

        1. Thank you, Ben, for sharing your perspective. My children are going through this now in Bellevue School District, but prior to that, Lake Washington School District. There was no acknowledgement of any kind of problems with Washington state schools when there were school shootings. A boy was arrested who had threatened a shooting back in February 2014, a boy who had attended International School, lauded as among the nation’s top 15 schools. It was his senior year, so seven years at this school and no one at the school took any responsibility for his state of mind. It’s business as usual, the day after such horrors.

  5. Sharon, great article–thank you! Also, could you please tell me where the photo used for the article on the Facebook page is from? (The one with the teacher, students, and police officer.) Thanks!

  6. Seattle neighborhood freeze out at Harrods Food Court, London England

    I am not from Seattle, we moved here in 1975. I am from Park Ridge, Ill. Home of Hillary Clinton, Harrison Ford and the late Harry Wappler, KIRO TV Weatherman extraordinaire. My wife is a Yorkshire lass from Bradford , England. We met in London while I was going to Art School there in the early to mid-1970’s. We returned and moved immediately to Seattle arriving late May 1975.
    While living for 3 plus years in London I attended theater as much as possible seeing everything the Royal Shakespearian Company with Sir Laurence Olivier performed at the Old Vic to West End openings and fringe at the Roundhouse. I was a student of art and life. After moving to Seattle our children spent summers with cousins in Yorkshire and we visit friends nearly yearly in London, taking in as much theatre as we can.
    In 1978 we bought a 1902 “relic” on the west side of the hill by Judkins Park, in an area called the Central District, “the CD”. Our house has beautiful views of the Olympics, the sound, sounds of gulls, ferry and train whistles, smells of salt water and Gais Bakery doughnuts. Our neighbors, except a vile one ( but every block has one), are wonderful with street bar b ques and Christmas eve parties. We raised our children here with little crime and a wonderful multi-cultural upbringing. Having been raised in a wealthy WASP monoculture we wanted our children to grow up with expanded cultural horizons. So where am I going with this?
    A couple of years ago on one of or nearly yearly trips to England to visit family and friends Doreen went a week ahead and I flew later and visited friends before catching a train to Yorkshire. Kevin Spacey is the artistic Director at the Old Vic now with the Royal Shakespearian Theater Company now housed in the National Theatre. I caught his latest the night before I took the train. On the way to Kings Cross Station I broke my tube trip at Knightsbridge to buy some food for the two hour train trip at Harrods Food Court.
    I took my number and waited in line. There was a rather portly cockney fellow taking numbers and directing servers to help you pick what you wanted from the display cases. As I stood in line a couple joined behind me. When I am in London in winter I wear a cloth coat to blend in and save the NW Goretex and fleece for Yorkshire outdoor rambles. I had my cloth coat on when the REI Goretex and REI fleeced couple in their light hikers smiled at me and looked intently at their “Time Out” magazine. I overheard them talking about theatre and it was obvious it was their first time in London or even abroad. They asked me if I knew about ticket office’s for plays and I began to tell them about rush tickets, buying from the theatre ticket office and other alternatives to tourist ticket touts on the streets in the West End.
    The woman blurted out, “Hey you’re an American”. I said yes and that I had lived in London, my wife’s English and we visit here regularly. I told them about Kevin Spaceys new play at the Old Vic and a premier at the Royal Court in Sloane Square that night. All this occurred while we slowly approached our respective turns. The Cockney was within earshot and was definitely overhearing the conversation.
    The conversation was great. They eventually asked “where are you from”? I said ‘Seattle”. They said “Ohh, we are from Seattle too”! Then came that inevitable question that is unique to Seattle, “Where in Seattle are you from, we are from Queen Ann”? I smiled and relished my answer “We own a house in the Central District”. Their faces froze. The woman actually shifted her hand bag from the shoulder that was facing me to the other shoulder, turned around as to not face me. The man just shut up and looked beyond me as if I did not exist. I pretended not to notice and began talking more about theater in London but I was totally ignored as if I did not exist. Do I need to remind you I am in Harrods Food Court in London, not at a Metro Bus Stop at 3rd and Pike St.. I stopped talking and continued to wait.

    The Cockney called my number, smiled at me and assigned a person to fill my order. I was handed my order when the Cockney called the next number. When the couple walked up the Cockney belted out in a loud voice, “I heard how rudely you treated that man you’ll not be served here” and called the next number. Stunned and humiliated the couple stood for a few seconds and left. As I made my way out the Cockney and I exchanged smiles. I love the fairness and honesty of the English perhaps that is why I married one.

    Paul Byron Crane
    Landscape Architect

  7. http://www.seattle.gov/office-of-immigrant-and-refugee-affairs/2010-census

    we have a large % of our immigrant population coming from asia – if a portion of those come from economically less advantaged countries and are first generation making a life here in seattle, how is it 100% proof racism that they are part of “asian pacific islander poor”

    granted the white-guilt editorial peddling works well as psuedo journalism, but there isn’t much here that really shows much insight. maybe just write a piece on insensitive things that white people say to people of other races, because we know white people are the only ones capable of being insensitive.

  8. “(Kirkland) almost 80% white for fifteen years whose police force views non-white youth as the city’s top crime problem. ”

    Black people make up only 6.8% of Seattle, but every single year for the last 10 years (at least), over half of all annual murders in Seattle have been committed by black people. I’ve lived in Seattle and I’ve been to Kirkland, so I doubt those police were wrong. Non-white youth are Seattle’s top crime problem and they are most likely Kirkland’s top crime problem too.

  9. The author and others might be interested in this debate about racial profiling that occurred early this summer on the Wallingford blog, Wallyhood. I was shocked and dismayed by the entrenched denial in much of the “liberal” Seattle community.

    (While you’re there, peruse the closed forum topic about camper vans on Northlake way for more indication of the bigoted people who apparently live in Wallingford!)

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