Though the Puget Sound has elected many people of color as their leaders, the issue of race remains one that needs to be addressed, writes Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell. He is proposing legislation that will strengthen the city's efforts against institutional racism and social disparity.
IN 1997, Gary Locke was governor; Norm Rice, mayor; Ron Sims, King County executive, John Stanford was superintendent of Seattle Public Schools and Richard McIver, Martha Choe, Cheryl Chow and Charlie Chong served on the Seattle City Council — all people of color.
In 2009, we elected a new King County executive, mayor and Seattle City Council. While three people of color ran for mayor and one for City Council, none advanced beyond the primary.
When President Obama was elected, the Republican National Committee elected as its head Michael Steele, the first African American to hold this position.
Is every door open to racial minorities, which therefore eliminates all race-based policies? In my work with youth, I meet children who are dealt nearly every card against them: poverty, absentee parents, abuse and violence in their home. But these kids are of every background — white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed race, etc. What role does race now play in our country and, in particular, Seattle?
Voters took pride in looking beyond race in 1997 to elect its leaders. Indeed, that was the profound realization of President Obama’s victory. But looking beyond race is not the same as being colorblind; pretending race does not exist is not the same as creating equality.
Looking beyond race means recognizing that our government and social institutions continue to perpetuate advantages that disproportionately channel wealth, power and resources to certain privileged groups and that race continues to play a role in such disproportion. The solution is not being colorblind; it is being inclusive of those who do not enjoy a history of privilege. The concept of privilege recognizes that we still have a system in which people benefit or are disadvantaged without necessarily doing anything themselves.
In Seattle, 9.4 percent of whites live in poverty. The rates for people of color are alarmingly and disproportionately higher: 30.9 percent for Native Americans or Alaskans; 30.2 percent for African Americans; 18.8 percent for Hispanics; and 15.3 percent for Asians. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Hispanics are incarcerated at nearly double the rate of whites. These statistics are not simply poor human choices, but attributable to our history and institutionalized behavior.
The word “race” is traced to a 1508 poem by William Dunbar referring to a line of kings, yet race has no genetic basis. There is no one characteristic or gene that distinguishes all the members of one “race.” Two random Chinese may be as genetically different as a Chinese and an African.
Yet race is such a powerful social idea that it continues to define our differences. Communities of color talk about race because of their history of exclusion and lack of privilege. Even today, a bad experience may cause them to ponder whether their skin color had something to do with it. As noted African-American author James Baldwin wrote, “Being white means never having to think about it.”
I am introducing legislation to the Seattle City Council that will strengthen our efforts against institutional racism and social disparity. Mayor Greg Nickels had the vision to initiate this work. We will continue to drive it.
When we determine how we embrace societal change, we will commit to see who may be disproportionately impacted because of their skin color, socioeconomic status or any other difference. This “Race and Social Justice lens“ will focus on how similar the dreams of all boys and girls are, regardless of race, but we will value inclusiveness above all else.
Yes, race does matter if it reminds us every day why we must remain fully committed to the value of inclusiveness.
Bruce A. Harrell is a member of the Seattle City Council and will chair the Energy,
Technology and Civil Rights Committee for 2010.