A couple of days ago, I got a link to an online conversation, titled “Racism in Seattle,” which began with a white man who said he’s lived in the Central District for about a month.
He wrote that while he was sitting on his porch, a black couple walked by and said he was “bringing the neighborhood down.” He asked the woman her name, and she said, “We’re black people. That’s all you need to know.”
Well, you can imagine the conversation that followed was not entirely on point, or well-informed, but did in some ways offer useful context and spur further thought.
Having one party’s partial description doesn’t allow a thorough adjudication of this particular event, but there are broader conversations worth having.
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For starters, the postings demonstrated how post-racial we are not. Race affects personal encounters just as it does issues that make the news, from a death in Florida, to local crime, Supreme Court rulings, Paula Deen’s treatment of employees, to the demographics of national politics.
President Obama, who’s been on a speaking tour promoting his proposals for reducing economic inequality, said something that relates to all of that.
“Racial tensions won’t get better.” he told The New York Times. “They may get worse, because people will feel as if they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot. If the economy is growing, everybody feels invested.”
Some of the people who posted comments about the Seattle incident said maybe because the guy was new to the Central District, he didn’t know the history, that economics had transformed what had been the heart of Seattle’s small black population.
They didn’t try to justify the behavior of the couple, just to say it might be more involved than he knew.
Someone mentioned redlining, the practice by which banks for years deprived some neighborhoods of the loans that would help people buy and keep up homes. The original poster said he’d never heard of that. What a poor job we do of educating people about their country.
Obama in The New York Times interview elaborated on the connection between racial and economic equality. The 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington is coming up this month, and the president said economic justice was a large part of the agenda. Jobs came first in the title the organizers gave it: “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
There was also a thread in that online discussion about whether Seattle was really a liberal city.
Around the time of the 1963 march, most black people in Seattle were limited to menial jobs. The CD became the black neighborhood in the first place because of restrictions on black people living elsewhere in the city. In 1964, Seattle residents defeated an open housing referendum by a 2-1 ratio. Bias here generally has been more polite but still effective at privileging some at the expense of others.
Just like the rest of the nation, we have a history that affects how people see each other in the present. Maybe the couple was motivated by that. Maybe they were just rude.
Maybe the guy on the porch looked at them the way some people look at me, like I shouldn’t be. Just about every black man I know can describe that look, but none of us would insult someone just sitting on his porch.
Heck, friends of mine (he’s black, she’s white) moved to a neighborhood in North Seattle a few years ago and woke up to chicken parts on their porch, followed in subsequent days by other unpleasant things. They guessed who it was, but didn’t retaliate. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, you just have to let it go, chalk it up to individual character.
I’ve heard some white people marvel that the fuss over Paula Deen was about her using the N word in the past. But that wasn’t it. She treated black people like they were still on the plantation, used black people’s work to grow rich while they stayed poor, and she talked to and about them as if they were children. The flap wasn’t about politeness; it was about ongoing exploitation.
White workers are feeling that in droves these days as income and wealth gaps widen between Americans at the ends of the economic spectrum.
We have a lot of big institutional issues to work on for everyone’s sake. Seattle has to address bias in policing and school discipline. The country needs jobs that pay a wage that allows people to pay their bills and maybe buy something that’ll keep someone else in a job.
And we need better education all around, from math to history. The man on the porch wrote that the comment about redlining gave him a better understanding of what might have been going on. I said understanding, not excusing.
In another post, he said he’d lived in a nearly all-black neighborhood in California, one that wasn’t being transformed, and everyone was kind to him. Context makes a difference.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com