Economic inequality and race relations cried out for attention in 2015.

Share story

This past year the country and this region have been wrestling with some big issues. A couple of them involve persistent problems that flare up every couple of generations. How we deal with them will matter for our future.

Both race and economic inequality claimed a lot of attention, and neither is going away in the new year.

I wrote last January about a teach-in organized by professors at the University of Washington. Teach-ins were big in the 1960s, the last time there was as much social unrest as we have today over the role of race in this country. I wrote:

“One of the speakers, Stephanie Smallwood, a UW historian, displayed a quotation from a former slave who said, ‘Us ain’t hogs or horses … us is human flesh.’

“Smallwood asked how is it that in the 21st century, people still feel it is necessary to declare, Black Lives Matter? Why is black humanity still in question?”

UW President Ana Mari Cauce launched a race and equity initiative to improve education and reduce bias.

College students and other young people have been at the forefront of calls for justice this past year as they often were in the 1960s. Seattle University has a #blacklivesmatter-inspired initiative called Moral Mondays, which includes programs that invite people to explore issues of justice and equality. I wrote about one in October. Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, was the speaker and she urged people to get involved in their communities, by voting, serving on juries and supporting organizations that are doing work they believe in. That’s good, practical advice.

Much of the revived pressure for racial justice comes from the frequent absence of justice in the justice system when it comes to black, Latino or Native Americans. Videos show violent deaths, statistics show arrests and incarceration at disproportionate rates. This year, judges and law-enforcement leaders have been grappling with those issues. And schools are being called out for their role in creating a school-to-prison pipeline for minority children.

That has been a recurring topic for me, including a column in August about a community discussion of the pipeline and one in April about King County’s commitment to avoid jailing juveniles when other kinds of intervention would be more productive.

Just as the country was born with racial inequality, it has always lived with economic inequality, which is also subject to rise and fall, depending on which policies have the upper hand at any given time. Public policies from tax rates to labor laws have favored the wealthiest among us for at least a generation, and what we have to show for it is a huge gap between rich and poor and a shrinking middle class.

Did you see the story this week about the richest Americans shaping public policy to allow them to avoid paying their share of taxes? And right next to it on the front page of The Seattle Times was a story about housing becoming so expensive in this region that the typical family can’t afford a median-priced home.

Seattle is increasingly a city for the well-to-do. A lot of lower-income families wind up clustered together, particularly in South King County, which makes social mobility more difficult as jobs and opportunities are concentrated where the money is.

Homelessness and a building boom coexist. Low-wage work and a demand for high-skilled labor increase side by side. That doesn’t bode well for us.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Justice issues and economic inequality are intertwined. The Plymouth Housing Group’s luncheon, which I wrote about in September, focused on building a more just society. That is what our goal should be, whether our focus is housing, the environment, gender or racial equality. The start that a baby gets in life matters, the quality of education a child receives matters. How judges, police officers, employers, teachers do their jobs matters in the fight for a more just society.

Only history can judge whether this moment is as critical as it seems to be. But it certainly feels like a time for all of us to pay attention to the stress points in our country. Whether they result in wider rifts or stronger bonds depends on all of us.