When I moved to Seattle in 1999, I encountered convolutions of racial politics that astounded me. Nearly everything was so...
When I moved to Seattle in 1999, I encountered convolutions of racial politics that astounded me. Nearly everything was so oddly repressed — or so layered in the doublespeak of political correctness and regional “civility” — that most conversations surrounding it had been rendered meaningless.
The World Trade Organization protests, which took place a month after I had found my first apartment here, were overrun by white activists, with only a handful of minorities participating. No significant dialogue took place afterward over why many African Americans supported certain policies of the WTO, such as the expansion of free trade into Africa.
When a young white man was killed by a predominantly black mob in Pioneer Square during the Mardi Gras celebrations of 2001, people hemmed and hawed around the race issue; everyone was eager to put it behind them quickly.
I later had a backyard dinner with a group of white artists in Wallingford. After I said that I had recently lived in Memphis, one dinner guest quickly told me that “racism isn’t a problem in Seattle.” This was a bizarre assertion, given how many angry community meetings I had seen in the predominantly black Central District with then-Mayor Paul Schell.
I moved away last year, but I’ve been following Seattle’s racial and political environment from afar, only partly because I’ve written a book that touched on the subject. I was especially intrigued by King County Councilman Dwight Pelz’s bid against sitting Seattle City Councilman Richard McIver. Here were two veteran politicos running for one City Council seat, both with experience representing minorities and both sharing similar political values — the only two real differences between them were style and skin color.
Race was barely mentioned during the campaign season; if anything, it was generally avoided by both candidates. Then, in the closing days of his electoral campaign against McIver, Pelz told a Seattle Times reporter that liberal guilt may have played a role when McIver won the endorsements of Seattle’s daily newspapers. In a publicly distributed e-mail, McIver took offense: “If you were quoted correctly… your comments are deeply insulting.”
Then, nothing. Most people probably thought this was a good thing. Trouble is, the incident does reveal a rift few are willing to acknowledge.
Pelz and I have something in common: We both ran and lost City Council campaigns to McIver. In 2001, I managed Grant Cogswell’s grass-roots campaign for the same seat. So I, too, was involved in a white person’s campaign against the only elected African American on the council.
Back in 2001, Cogswell was prepared to jump into the issue of skin color — but no one was asking. Out on the campaign trail, we did talk about race among whites, but only in private conversations, and they often came out of people’s mouths as quasi-confessional statements: I can’t vote for Grant because I feel uncomfortable voting against the black guy. The voter rarely cited real support for any of McIver’s policies, making race an ipso facto qualifier. I would say that 3 to 5 percent of white voters voted for McIver simply because he was black.
African Americans in Seattle, of course, had their own perspective. At none of the predominantly black candidate forums we attended did Cogswell find a truly open-minded audience; people had judged him by the color of his skin before he could even speak. Cogswell was berated at a couple of black forums to such an extent that McIver himself stepped in to say a few kind words on Cogswell’s behalf.
So, when Pelz chalked up some of his setbacks to racial guilt, I can understand his frustration. The fact of the matter is, race is a factor in politics in Seattle, especially when a black candidate is involved. And it’s a uniquely Seattle problem when everybody wants to pretend it’s not.
One of the latest ideas in race relations is that to get past race, we must simply ignore it; in time, the problem will resolve itself. I don’t completely buy that. For a city like Seattle, just the opposite has to occur: People have to start speaking about race more openly.
I’m not referring to the kind of kaffeeklatsch talk that Seattleites are so famous for. Simply put, if racial issues are going to honestly be addressed, the knee-jerk instinct for polite consensus must end; in fact, race as an issue has to be discussed at the possible short-term cost of “getting along.” Opinions have to be aired even when they are discomforting, misinformed or prejudiced.
Perhaps that will happen soon, probably it won’t, but it needs to happen sometime.Phil Campbell is the author of “Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics” (Nation Books, 2005). He currently lives in New York City. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org