The Rundown After Sundown: With Low Wages and High Pollution for People of Color, Justice in Seattle is Just Talk

by K.D. Senior

Justice is an abstract concept implored in the name of fairness, impartiality, and equity. These are often used interchangeably, but maintain subtle distinctions. Fairness can be understood as treatment without favor or discrimination. Impartiality can be understood as neutrality and objectiveness. Equity can be conceptualized as the application of fairness and impartiality.

This is what we know as justice. All justice is not the same, especially in regards to society, its structures, and its effect on communities and individuals. The term “justice” — and even its plural form, “justices” — refers to those who are responsible for the administration and application of these abstract concepts to a concrete reality. Judges, magistrates, lawyers, policemen, and sheriffs are the keepers and representatives of this so-called justice.

Another application of the term justice is the penalty of violating a law or the restitution of a wrong. Justice comes in a multitude of flavors and variations specific to certain struggles. New conceptualizations like economic justice, social justice, and environmental justice pepper the lexicon of so-called progressives, and when invoked by white people — especially by white liberals — these terms represent the new-left’s optimism and the triumph of their neoliberal politics. Especially now that the reality of Trump’s America has been upon us.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Seattle, a city that touts itself a champion of progressive politics, but is rife with inequality. For most people of color in Seattle, not only has justice been evasive, it has been virtually nonexistent. So how can Seattle extol the virtues of fairness while worker wages continue to stagnate, as they are pushed out of their homes? How can Seattle say it is impartial, but it’s Black and Brown residents are routinely faced with micro-aggressions, discrimination, and are often socially isolated? How can the city say it fights for equity, but over 12,000 of its residents, a disproportionate amount of them Black and Brown, sleep outside in squalid and inhumane conditions?

In Seattle, these things are constantly discussed, yet the conversation never leads to tangible action. This inaction, however, has tangible consequences. Workers struggle through a precarious cash-poor existence, many Seattleites live socially segregated lives, and hundreds of vulnerable people have died, and will continue to die homeless, alone, and on the street with little to no dignity.

While Seattle develops, it steps on the hands of middle-class families, the backs of low-wage workers, and the necks of people experiencing homelessness. Seattle has reaffirmed at every opportunity that it has been given that there is very little, if any, space for vulnerable people. How is this fair, impartial, or equitable? Are the city’s ideals of justice merely hollow platitudes, or just unattainable and quixotic?

Seattle doesn’t merely exist in the economy of poverty, it thrives in it. Deemed to be one of the most productive economies of the United States, it is home to numerous technological titans such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing. When these companies expand or contract, the effects are felt all throughout the city, from the very top to the bottom.

With the proliferation of the gig economy and other types of app-based employment such as Lyft, and Uber, Seattle’s working class residents are finding it harder to make ends meet. As app-based employment increases, the number of workers living without viable benefits increases, and while task oriented labor benefits the large corporate startups that promote it, it rarely proves lucrative for the worker.

A GeekWire article recounts the experiences of workers in the gig-economy and its shortcomings. “I was living in my van, waking up every morning, and having to go work about 12 hours a day just to get ahead and then putting part of that back into my car, gas, and then barely making even 20 bucks in that 12-hour period,” a worker recounts. Most of the app-based employment seems to operate much like a pyramid scheme based on cheap labor and conditional-work where workers fight viciously to get ahead, often to no avail.

Amazon, Seattle’s resident behemoth, is immersed in both the conditional-work and employment models. Amazon contracts with the U.S. Postal Office to deliver packages but also employs independent delivery drivers in a way reminiscent of Uber. The author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, James Bloodworth went undercover in one of the company’s U.K. fulfillment centers and described what many would think is a dystopian nightmare. Workers are monitored rigidly, by other staff, and by handheld devices used to track “time off-task,” and an hourly rate of productivity. A point system was instituted, with each infraction earning a point, sometimes for not keeping up with the pace of work in the warehouse, and other times, for taking a sick day or even going to see a sick child.

The work in an Amazon fulfillment center is grueling, harsh, distressing, and workplace discipline is punitive. Afraid for their quotas and productivity levels to drop, workers, are afraid to take breaks or even go to the restroom, so they persevere. This is evidenced by the author finding a bottle of urine on a shelf in the U.K. fulfillment center where he was undercover.

A Seattle Times article about a similar fulfillment center in Kent corroborates this account, with the author quoting an employee speaking as plainly as they can with an Amazon Representative present, “We are allowed to go (to the bathroom), but you can’t stay for that long … four or five minutes is OK — six minutes tops.”

These deplorable conditions disproportionately affect Black and Brown Amazon Employees, because Black and Brown workers are over-represented in fulfillment center positions. From 2014 to 2015, Amazon hired 15,514 Black and Brown workers for labor-intensive warehouse jobs and only 1,467 Black and Brown workers for office jobs. Amazon as of 2017, boasted that it employed 125,000 U.S. workers, and is one of the biggest employers in Seattle, touting around 40,000 employees.

The salary of an Amazon fulfillment worker averages around $28,000 yearly, and the median cost of living in Seattle on average is about $77,000 yearly. The average Amazonian warehouse worker cannot afford to live in Seattle. Black workers are forced further south, farther and farther away from a better economic opportunity, often times taking their poverty with them. Latinx workers do not have much better economic outcomes. In what way is this lopsidedness fair?

Seattle (at least from the perspective of white people), has the reputation of being a welcoming and staunchly anti-racist sanctuary. In a survey, almost two-thirds of its (mostly white) residents think of the city as welcoming to people of color, although only about two-fifths of them understand the challenges actually faced by black and brown people.

“Black lives matter” signs proliferate on the lawns and in the windows all over gentrifying neighborhoods in Seattle — replacing households filled with what were once Black children and Black faces — white liberals patting themselves on the back for being “one of the good ones.” Three out of four white people have only white friends, and Seattle, a city that is more than fifty-percent white, couldn’t possibly be the exception to this rule.

Although it is a contentious subject, many people perceive and feel the effects of the social phenomenon in Seattle called the “Seattle Freeze,” where Seattleites isolate newcomers. This isolationist attitude is attributed to many things: transplants coming from out of state, the bad weather, Seattles “Nordic” (read: white) roots, or simply unfriendliness. The Seattle Freeze is a tool of Seattle’s racial segregation. Seattleites constantly overlook the legacy of the city’s racial antagonism and segregation. In 1942, after the United States joined an international war against Nazi Germany for putting humans into camps, Seattle’s municipal government was doing the same, with it’s own internment camps for its once burgeoning Japanese community. White liberals in Seattle overlook the legacy of redlining black communities and the inequity it has caused, and is still causing. “That was in the past, that’s not us anymore,” or “That was a long time ago, things are different now.” But is that even true? Has it ever been true?

Black people in Seattle are continuously subjected to economic stratification, social exclusion, police brutality and physical segregation at the behest of Seattle’s white population. Although white liberals claim Seattle has always been egalitarian and accepting to its residents of color, especially to its Black ones, history proves that this is nothing more than delusion. The typical “b-but I have Black friends” defense (even though most people who say this do not) is simply par for the course.

The feigned innocence of Seattle liberals is a covert weapon of white supremacy. These are the people who show up to Black and Brown spaces, in the name of peace, and levy criticisms about experiences they do not share. They are the kind of people who say things like, “Why don’t they protest somewhere else?”

Seattleites will speak fondly of protests when they are “peaceful” (read: not Black or angry) and sanctioned by police — the same police willing to beat and brutalize Black and Brown bodies for exercising their first amendment rights and willing to protect Nazis.

People in the city may wonder how this happens, but all it takes is a look in the mirror. White liberal Seattleites are the instituted go-betweens for the spread of gentrification that displaces Black and Brown neighborhoods and the increase in police presence to collect the rest of the community that remains. Seattleites like to ignore the glaring reality, that they are just as racist as their parents and their parents before them. In 2018 there are still white men who feel the need to remind Seattleites of color the unspoken sentiment that they’ve been made to feel in the city, and everywhere else white men happen to exist in America. “Wrong neighborhood? White people are going to bury you … We built these streets! White men built these streets!” As the city develops, and homes are destroyed It is as unnerving as it is, it’s true. White men did build these streets, but over the graves of Natives, and the backs of Black and Brown laborers. If all Seattleites are created equal, then where is the impartiality of this man’s statement?

As the city grows, poverty grows, and for all the lip service trotted out about equality and sustainability in Seattle, one would assume that everywhere in the city would be sustainable. Poverty and pollution in Seattle go hand-in-hand. In fact, in the most recent race for the mayor of Seattle, both candidates made lofty concessions about the inadequacy of the city’s green infrastructure. Almost a year later, not much has been done in the communities that need it most. Pollution not only makes the lives of Black and Brown Seattleites harder, but shorter. A myriad of health problems can arise from living in an excess of pollution, and people who live near it have worse health than those who don’t.

Kids in the Duwamish River Valley have some of the worst medical outcomes compared to their counterparts who do not. People of color have always populated the Duwamish River Valley — before the creation of Seattle, and after its creation — only to have been harmed by the environmental harm caused by ecocide.

Poverty does not create equitable conditions, and thus the inequity can be found in the environment surrounding poverty. Front and Centered, a coalition that studies pollution in communities of color, has found that most of the pollution that is slated to be dealt with exists in communities with high concentrations of minorities. Neighborhoods located close to freeways, airports, and industrial facilities absorb air pollution in large quantities.

These neighborhoods are located further south, and far from the gaze that matters most, the white one. The richer, and whiter you are, the cleaner your environment. Environmental injustice is a culmination of economic and social justice struggles. There is no kinder way to state the dubious implications of Seattle’s environmental racism.

People of color, are forced to migrate into undesirable area after area, at the whims of white people and development. Anti-Colonial Scholar and Father of Afro-Pessimism describes the way people of color live in the city:

“The town belonging to the Natives, the colonized people, the ‘Shanty-Town’, the ‘Negro-village’, the ‘medina’, the ‘reservation’ is a place of ill-fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little, where or how. They die there. It matters little where, or how … It is a world without spaciousness, men live there one on top of the other … The native town, is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light … The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees … A town wallowing in the mire”

In what way, is this equitable?

If Seattleites cares so much about justice, when will the talk stop, and the acting start?

Featured Image by K.D. Senior.

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