Every time I write about the ways systemic racism plays out in our policies and society, the response I get is almost always an assortment of the same few messages. 

Usually they fall along these lines: “Why do you have to make everything about race? Focusing on race is the REAL racism.” “Why do you dwell in the past? Slavery is over, we have a level playing field now, why can’t you move on?” And the perennial favorite, “I don’t see color. I have a family member who is a minority and they pulled themselves up and became successful, so why can’t the rest of you?”

When we only look at inequality through our individual experience and lens, it can be hard to see the patterns and contours of the problem as a whole.

It’s particularly hard when we are looking at issues like the racial wealth gap, where even the discussion of the topic forces us to take stock of our own privilege, the legacy of generational wealth transfer (or lack thereof) and the connection between race and economic inequality. 

But it’s exactly this issue that researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Prosperity Now are shining a spotlight on with their new report, “The Racial Wealth Divide in Seattle.” Prosperity Now works with people of color and low-income people to build financial security. The report is part of their Building High-Impact Nonprofits of Color project to support nonprofits in addressing racial economic inequality in local communities. 

The report looks at the roots of the persistent and yawning wealth gaps between white Seattle residents and residents who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).

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For example, the median white household income in Seattle is three times that of Native American residents and more than two times that of Black residents.

Even before the pandemic, Black workers were three times more likely to be unemployed than white workers. More than 60% of Black and Native renters are cost-burdened in housing, compared with 42% of white residents. Cost-burdened means spending 30% or more of your income on rent and utilities.

Tellingly for our pandemic times, 41% of Seattle households of color are in “liquid asset poverty,” or without enough assets to withstand three months with a lack of income. On the small-business side, the value of white-owned businesses in Seattle is about 12 times the value of Black-owned businesses.

It’s one thing to see where things are now but it’s another to understand how we got here. 

One of the most critical drivers of racial wealth inequality in Seattle is the history of residential housing segregation, restrictive deeds and covenants and redlining, which are explored in the report. These factors have prevented BIPOC people from building and transferring wealth, leading to disparities in homeownership where over 50% of white residents are homeowners but just over 25% of Black residents own homes. Seattle also has the dubious distinction of being the third most gentrifying city in the country.

Ebony White, director of the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at Prosperity Now. (Courtesy Ebony White)

Ebony White, the director of the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at Prosperity Now, said one of the things that makes this report different than other reports looking at economic and racial inequities is taking that longer view. The report looks at the “policies, practices and events” that brought us to where we are today.

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“Modern-day racial and economic inequalities [are] the byproduct of America’s most powerful people and institutions [having] created false narratives that there is [a] hierarchy of human value, and human worth based on race,” White said. “Therefore, we have systems in place that prohibit BIPOC communities’ ability to participate in society at the same level and to create wealth for their communities.” 

The wealth gap report is designed to be an accessible data tool for nonprofits, policymakers and others to see more clearly the problem as a whole so they can advocate for policies that will better serve communities of color. It’s from the grassroots organizations and communities themselves where you find the best, most innovative solutions, White said.

Communities Rise is one of the five nonprofits that are part of the Building High-Impact Nonprofits of Color Seattle cohort. Others include Africatown, White Center Community Development Association, Urban Impact and the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. 

Jodi Nishioka, executive director of Communities Rise. (Kelly Chandler)

Communities Rise Executive Director Jodi Nishioka said while much of the information in the report was not new to her, it is important for funders, government and others to move from, “we kind of knew this” to “but now we really can see it.”

Nishioka said our culture has contributed to this persistent focus on individuals vs. systems.

“Our American Western view of individuality and capitalism really creates a structure where folks can look at that and say, ‘Oh, it’s not about race [or] class. It’s about these individual people [who] aren’t working hard enough or don’t have the talent. So it’s not about past wrongs. It’s about the people now,’” Nishioka said. “And that’s coming from one, a place of privilege and two, really not having a deep understanding of race and its impact on our society as a whole, and how deep it runs, and of the systemic barriers.”

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White hopes the report and the nonprofits leading the work in communities help drive more equitable policies.

“Seattle has an opportunity to advance more local policies that are inclusive and rooted in racial, economic and wealth equity, [and] justice solutions for all residents.”