Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of a speech given to City of Seattle employees at the Office of Civil Right’s Race and Social Justice Initiative Summit, on Thursday March 24th.
by Marcus Harrison Green
In preparation for this speech today, as any good journalist would do, I thought I’d solicit a wide array of opinions on our city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI). I couldn’t think of any place better to pull them from than the people who live in my community of South Seattle. For those who have never, or rarely ever, ventured south of the I-90 corridor, that’s the place that actually harbors all that mythical diversity we trumpet in this city.
My interactions there, which the individuals I spoke with allowed me to share, told me everything I needed to know about our city’s commitment to racial and social justice.
The first person I spoke with was a white male who had recently moved to the area from Green Lake. As a former city worker, he could recite the credo of the Race and Social Justice Initiative ad nauseum. He bragged about it how much it advertised Seattle as indeed being America’s most progressive city; one shining brightly in an otherwise dimly lit country.
He was proud that the RSJI endured attacks from Fox News, and welcomed the onslaught of venom poured on the city including it being called a bulwark of left lunacy and white guilt run amok. (He literally seemed on the verge of fervently chanting our city’s name, like Trump supporters chant USA at the sniff of oxygen).
But then I spoke to others…
I talked to young Black man, confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. When I asked him about RSJI, his reply was a lot less glowing.
It was hard for him to fathom the city’s oath that every decision it makes has a community’s best interest at heart, because he was in the process of being evicted from the apartment he’d lived in for the past 7 years. His disability check could no longer cover his rent, which had nearly doubled in the past year. He asked why, if his community’s best interest was really taken into account by our city’s policies, why then was the basis for our affordable housing dictated by the city’s overall median income of a little over $71,000? Why was it not instead determined at a more micro-level for neighborhoods, such as the one he lived in near Rainier Beach, where many residents made less than 30,000 a year?
The next person I spoke with was a young transgender woman of color who had difficulty buying into the fact that Seattle Public Schools, just like our city, had declared a commitment to racial equity. She had just been suspended from her school for the second time in as many months, left to fall further and further behind in her academic work, because her teacher found fault with her “tone of voice.” Not that she was in any hurry to return to a place where she felt unwelcomed and persecuted because of who she was.
And it was tough for a Latino grandmother I sat down with, who is raising her five grand children on nothing but a social security check and food stamps in the fourth richest city in the nation, to fully embrace Seattle’s message of racial and social equity, as her economic plight was so dire that she made the choice to defy her Catholic faith in taking one of her grandchildren for an abortion because there was no way to afford to feed one more mouth.
What they saw on the ground was hard to square with our city’s towering claims that it strives to create racial and social equity.
And when I brought it to their attention, that RSJI gives the City a way to suggest, stress, and emphasize what actions City departments and lawmakers can take, and that the City could and should influence the school district, I was met with the same answer.
Then, why doesn’t it?
If our city affirmed, and shouted, and proclaimed that it was working to end racial and social inequity, why would it not submit on every level to an initiative that can assist with that objective?
Because the words touted so often by our city leaders that speak to Seattle’s commitment to justice for all of its residents, as beautiful as they may be, act to many as mascara to cover up our blemishes, and when it wears off, what remains is a reality that is unbearable without a concealer.
Because what we see when we look into the mirror is a reflection of the reality that in a society where racism has been baked so solidly into its core, there is no portion of that society that can be naive enough to believe it can escape bigotry’s clutches if the weapons used to combat structural racism are wielded only selectively, and without force.
The racial and social disparities that continue to exist in education, in employment, and police interactions in this most liberal of cities is testament to that.
I know that many of you sit here, people who are change agents, people who have and continue to exhaust your voice, and your energy, and your emotion behind this initiative.
I know that you keep banging your head against the juggernaut that is city bureaucracy, only to be left bleeding, as you run the very real risk of losing your job should you bang too hard.
I know that this happens even with the civic innovations and victories our Race and Social Justice Initiative has produced – such as requiring that departments use the Racial Equity Toolkit at least 4 times each year, if not more, and rallying departments to take concrete steps, now, so we can actually have Zero Detention for the youth of this city.
Because in a city where officials were unable to foresee the uproar from communities of color at the construction of detention center that disproportionality imprisons their youth, were unable to discern the impact of roadwork on businesses on the 23rd Avenue corridor, and were unable to anticipate the fury from proposing a blanket closure of East African businesses, it doesn’t appear that every branch or our City government is beholden to its declared intentions.
I know you, as city employees, don’t have it easy. You must serve as the unwilling recipients of rage spirals. You encounter colleagues daily who have limited patience in engaging around racial justice because it adds one more thing on a workload that already runneth over. You often commit no errors and still fail. There are times you must feel like Sisyphus in his futile attempt to push his bolder up the hill, only to have it roll back down.
And what else can I give, you ask?
More is what the young man, the student, and the grandmother I mentioned earlier are asking for, more from you seated here, and especially from the ones who are unfortunately not here.
Because you are the first point of contact for the marginalized and discriminated against in this city, you provide a safety net for those who have nothing else to fall back on. They depend on our City’s services and governance more than anyone else. And the people in those communities are increasingly the exact demographic of those cast aside in the rest of this country.
And you have the opportunity to grant those demands.
They demand that you contemplate yourself and your actions while working at the City. No matter how fervently you say you adhere to the principles of equity and justice, they demand that you search inside yourself to ask, “how am I culpable in a system that continues to produce racial inequities in our city no better than anywhere else?”
They demand that this pursuit of race and justice and equity not be left at a 9 to 5 job, but be an ever present companion in your life.
They demand that you not see yourself simply an alley in racial justice organizing, but as an accomplice, who has just as much investment in dismantling a racist structure as anyone else.
They demand that even when you look at our policies and practices through a supposedly racial justice lens you are sensitive to the fact that the image you see can still remain murky because of ignorance.
They demand that while you at the City may set the table, what is selected on the menu for dinner should be prepared by those communities you say you serve.
They demand that the best assessment delivered by a racial equity analysis comes not from a calculated evaluation, but from the judgment of our City’s behavior toward communities of color as experienced by those very communities.
They demand that you value your ability to listen more than you do speaking.
As a friend recently told me, it means nothing to be the first City to implement a RSJI. But it means a lot to be the City that uses it as an effective tool to help our communities craft their own destinies.
They demand a lot. I know. But they do so because a lot is still needed.
And yes I know it can be overwhelming.
And yes I know that it will require creativity, an ability to push the envelope even harder than some of you do now.
But I also know that is the only way RSJI will truly ever make a difference in this city. That is the only way it will be more than just another noble cause that marches slowly towards a death caused by ineffectiveness.
You have even reason to throw up your hands, and say, “I can’t.” And to go on with the status quo, and do the bare minimum required of you in your position, to never seek to expand your empathy or knowledge base farther than your own understanding of issues, because to do the opposite, especially as a City employee at times, takes herculean heaps of courage and tenacity.
But, as my mother tells me: In this world that is not fair, and not perfect, and will never be Utopian… in this world where people receive privileges due to a stroke of luck at birth because of their gender, race, and class, it is not your fault that you are born into it as it is… but it is absolutely your fault if you leave it that way when you depart from it.
This applies to all of us. For those in positions of public service, as you are, it should spark the questions most important to your position: Why am I here? and Who do I serve?
Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that I come from a place of high authority. I come from a place of experience.
I failed to answer those questions the way I should have, by not doing my job as a journalist serving the under served in this city, including the Black community.
You see, someone in my life, who I love a great deal, was the victim of rape when she was eight years old. And as we grew up together, I witnessed firsthand the effects of that incident that still plague her life. There’s not a month she doesn’t contemplate ending it.
So even though I’m an atheist, the theology of hell has always been an appealing one, for the sole reason that I believe rapists should have a permanent residence there.
But when my community asked me to cover and aggressively investigate, the killing of Che Taylor, the African American man killed by SPD officers in North Seattle who was convicted of sexual assault more than two decades ago, I ignored them. I chose not to even send a reporter to cover it.
I ignored them when they asked, why aren’t you doing more? I ignored them when they asked me to overcome my own prejudices so that I could focus not on an injustice done once by a man, but the justice that needed to be afforded him in this present day. I ignored them when they said we need you to serve us, and not yourself, for the sole reason that that is what you claim to do.
I chose. And I failed them, by not listening to them. I chose to fail them because in my shortsightedness I believed that all the sleep-deprived nights writing articles, all the creditability I had amassed with my community, all the work I had done pushing myself to the point of exhaustion with being a non-profit new source, I thought gave me cart blanche to not be vigilant, to not be accountable.
I’ve learned from that experience. It is vigilance to the values you claim to embody that keeps you moving in this work. It is accountability to those you fight for that fuels you despite mental and physical fatigue, and frustration. It affords you an answer to the questions: Why am I here? and Who do I serve?
Today, you are here, some of you by choice, some of you by requirement, but regardless, those questions are before you. They will be before you long after you leave this building today and the emotion spurred from your speakers and the workshops you attend has long been extinguished. Those questions will be with you tomorrow at your Department meetings, and the day after when you receive a phone call from an impassioned city resident at their wit’s end. They’ll be with you when you’re seated at the table with power, and it comes your turn to speak.
They will be with you the next time you sit down with another City agency or department and you’re tempted to see a bona fide collaboration with them around matters of race and social justice as optional, as opposed to necessary, to achieve Seattle’s stated goal.
And your answer to those questions as an individual, as a City, as a department, as a mayor, as a superintendent, as an aide, as a policymaker, as a program manager, as a councilmember will speak with a magnitude that reverberates through this city’s halls, and its streets and its classrooms, and the lives of its residents.
It is that answer that allows us to truly do what has never been done before in this country: To build a city that has destroyed and dismantled the mechanisms of racism, a city that behaves as a new Athens, a metropolis that awakens our world to a new society and advanced democracy.
I hope you locate that answer, and I hope it’s the right one, because there is a city full of people eagerly awaiting your response.