Guest columnist Henry W. McGee Jr. writes about studies that show that U.S. cities are becoming more dominated by whites as citizens of color are being priced out to to the cities' inner suburbs. Seattle and Portland share those patterns, an indication that wealth disparities persist.
THE recent Seattle Times story on the whitening of major U.S. cities exposes what students of urban America know well: Citizens of color are more and more relegated to the inner suburbs of America’s cities.
This aspect of the racial legacy of disparate wealth characterizes West Coast cities, including Seattle and Portland. San Francisco’s officials even formed a committee to explore ways to recruit African Americans to return from Oakland and the East Bay.
The disruption, displacement and racial transformation of Seattle’s Central Area ghetto, adjacent to downtown Seattle, and its African-American residents are like the stories of the large American cities the story revealed. I’ve recently done research exploring the continued process of displacement of African Americans in Seattle from a short distance of downtown, to their dispersal throughout the south and southeast sections of Seattle and its environs to such inner suburbs as Tukwila, Renton and Kent — places that were once working- and middle-class communities where African Americans could not safely walk after dark.
Traditionally the most marginalized of the nation’s marginalized, more and more African Americans are being priced out of urban cores and into the inner suburbs. A surge of young, wealthy, well-educated and mostly white newcomers are buying up and remaking Seattle’s Central Area. Once-shunned inner-city areas have become populated by the children of former white-flight veterans, who, unlike their parents, want the proximity, the convenience and the hipness of living close to downtowns where they work and play. Interestingly, this process commenced a decade after the civil-rights movement wound down.
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In Seattle, what had been the largest black-majority community in the Pacific Northwest — in the Central Area — has become more white than African American. Relative to the national cities The Times’ story discussed, Seattle presents gentrification and its issues in microcosmic dimension, in a city far less-polarized racially than larger U.S. metro areas.
Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, as many other U.S. cities, are beginning to look demographically like the European pattern exemplified in cities like Paris: marginalized groups, often not of European descent, are situated in rings around the cities.
Former Seattle Mayor Norman Rice once declared that Portland is the whitest city on the West Coast, and my recent demographic study of Portland confirms that the African-American presence in the city’s core has reduced significantly over past decades. At one time this population was insulated from inflated house prices because of racial prejudice.
African Americans in Northeast Portland developed businesses and social institutions over time, and this growth and its cultural richness was the upside of the racial discrimination that foreclosed their access to housing in all of Portland, save their segregated enclave. More recently, this relatively small African-American population has been priced out so thoroughly that many of them have in the past decade moved beyond the city’s airport to outer suburban areas, and even into an adjoining county east of the city.
In the heralded “post-racial” America, no greater proof exists of the continued racial wealth disparity between African Americans and Euro Americans than the economic exile of African Americans to the inner suburbs of the United States.
Henry W. McGee Jr., a professor of law at Seattle University, is writing a book on African-American displacement from West Coast cities. He is the recipient of the 2011 Association of American Law Schools Minority Groups Section Clyde Ferguson Award for distinguished professional achievement.