Seattle’s Not So Hidden History of Racism

by Nikkita Oliver 

Seattle is often hailed as the bastion of progressive bliss and liberal hope. When I go home to Indianapolis, Indiana, people often comment on how progressive and liberal Seattlelites are up here in the great Northwest. When I hear such comments I often ask, “Progressive or liberal as compared to what?” If the rest of the country (especially Indiana) is our measuring stick, we really aren’t doing so well.

One of the greatest myths in Seattle is that racism is not really a problem here and we are actively undoing racism. Which sounds a little like a contradiction. Why do we need to undo racism if it is not really a problem here? Well, because it is a problem in Seattle; a deeply rooted covert kind of problem.

Yes, we have the “Race and Social Justice Initiative.” Yes, we have a myriad of other programs and offices that purport to be undoing racism. Yes, we have a lot of white people who are fluent in anti-racist jargon. Yes, we have a lot of events and opportunities and to discuss race. However, the reputation of this city in many ways covers up a history of racism and genocide which is still impacting the black and brown communities of Seattle today. But even more, this history is actually benefiting many white Seattleites, developers and the City; as well as contributing to Seattle’s progressive and liberal image.

So what history am I talking about and what is the impact of said history today? In less than 800 words (so by no means comprehensive) I want to pseudo-break down two examples.

First, our Native family; whose cultural symbols, names, and history are used all over the northwest region. Think about the Duwamish, the First People of the City we call Seattle, the city named after Chief Si’ahl. Yet,the Duwamish still remain federally unrecognized and mostly unrestored to their ancestral lands. In 1865 the Seattle City Council passed a law banning the Duwamish from the City (as well as burning their longhouses).

While 1865 seems fairly far back, the impact of the 1865 ban and the resulting ramifications are still affecting the Duwamish today. So, what has the City of Seattle done, aside from lifting the ban, to restore the Duwamish to their ancestral lands and to ensure they receive some tangible benefits from the use of their cultural capital and imagery? Mostly nothing. Yet, the cultural capital of the Duwamish and other native tribes is regularly appropriated to beautify the City, seal public/government documents, and to attract tourists. A visitor to the City who does not know our history would look around, see all the native images and think, “Wow! Seattle is so inclusive.” But I would ask, “Where are the flesh and blood Duwamish in our city today? How are they living?”

Second, consider the Central District where Seattle’s black population was historically redlined to four of Seattle’s 119 census tracts. Originally, Seattle’s black community was forced to live in the Central District due to racially restrictive housing covenants. Having experienced this sort of racism before we, black people, did what we always do. We created something great and beautiful with the scraps we were allotted. Out of the Central District grew a booming black community and cultural arts scene. However, where does the Black community of Seattle live today?

The CD was recently named the “Historic Central Area Arts & Cultural District” for its, in the words of Mayor Murray, “…enormous contribution to Seattle’s cultural identity…” The City aims to preserve the legacy and designate the Central Area as a “hub for black art and culture;” which is grand aside from the fact that many black folks can no longer afford to live in the Central District. The CD is rapidly gentrifying and becoming whiter by the minute. The idea is great! However, as long as gentrification continues what the City is building is a neighborhood wide museum of Black arts and history in Seattle in which white people live and black people visit.

The above are just two examples of how groups historically marginalized and disenfranchised by racism in Seattle are faring today. There is so much more to be said and many more histories to be addressed such as the anti-Chinese laws of the 1800s and Japanese internment in the 1940s to name a few. Seattle needs to take seriously acknowledging and addressing its racist history and the present ramifications. Otherwise, all of the cultural symbol-making is really just symbolic and ultimately amounts to cultural appropriation. Let me be clear, when I say “address” I mean ensure that those most impacted and those whose cultural capital is being used are the actual decision-makers and beneficiaries of just change and development–including land and economic.

As it stands now, the City, businesses and white liberals benefit from the tokenization of black and brown cultural histories, experiences and symbols as landmarks, tourist attractions, memorials to inclusiveness, a facade of unity, and city development strategies. We are acceptable in this city as murals and totem poles, but we are not allowed to actually live here. Yes, Seattle uses the image of Chief Si’ahl as the City seal and the MLK mural is still there at Cherry and MLK (on the side of Fat’s Chicken and Waffles, formerly Catfish Corner), but we, flesh and blood black and brown people, are rapidly disappearing from the City who loves our image more than our presence and equality.

Nikkita Oliver is a Seattle based poet, educator, organizer and lawyer. 

CC licensed image by Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

4 thoughts on “Seattle’s Not So Hidden History of Racism”

  1. Gentrification, in itself, is not a form of racism. While it’s convenient to lump this into your article, it clouds the issue. The sum oppression of minorities cause lower wages and the inability to keep pace with housing. This can be racism, sure, but you don’t really talk about this. Seattle is racist, of course, if you live here and/or are raised here. The first issue is to stop aping what the liberal white people want you to say. If you look at the census, Seattle used to be a very white place. it has become more diverse and less white. Your focus on black people moving out of the Central District, doesn’t highlight the growth of blacks in other neighborhoods or even the increase of Asian Americans or Latinos overall. Perhaps you don’t value them as much as you like going to your favorite punching bag, white people, as if that is all that matters. Sure, you realize that there’s a problem. Now, open your eyes and see for yourself and think for yourself and not follow the white liberal’s agenda. It’s easy for that white girl straight out of college picking up some pet project and realize that there’s racism going on then go back to her white boyfriend and live their lives in the affordable Central District with all their white friends doing white people things. Let us all be more active about being a better city and let’s start with ourselves and look for the hard answers and not the easy white ones.

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  2. Nikkita Oliver thank you for this. You speak aloud the questions, thoughts and conversations of us black and brown folks. You are appreciated. Much love to you.

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