Why Seattle needs to talk about race

Crosscut archive image.

Marissa Janae Johnson speaks at the Saturday rally downtown as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, right, watches.

This is the first in a series of Crosscut stories discussing race in the Puget Sound region.

When protesters Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford took the pulpit from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Westlake Park on Saturday, they threw gas on the fire of a debate that touches on race, social justice and Seattle nice. The response, which has blown up on social media and comment boards in the past few days, has largely scattered the population into two camps, either supporting or opposing the jarring takeover of the rally.

Many of the people who were upset that the rally was interrupted believed this was neither the correct time nor approach to speak about racism. “We have to remember why we were there in the first place,” wrote representatives from Social Security Works WA, which organized the Sanders event, “because our health care and retirement systems are at risk.”

Others, like Ijeoma Oluo in the Seattle Globalist, argue there is no right or wrong time for the Black Lives Matter movement. “People are dying in the streets,” she writes. “1 in 3 black men born today will likely see prison. For us, everything is about Black Lives Matter."

This debate over whether the women’s approach was appropriate has become something of a binary, in which you either support or oppose their tactics on Saturday. In reader letters to the Seattle Times, the protestors are painted as either rude or effective. Even the photography that has followed depicts images of standoffs and opposition.

It would be tempting to make those sentiments about Saturday the final story, but the debate is much more complicated, says state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, who has been an occasional contributor to Crosscut. “They’re ... trying to rationalize and quickly move to a place of black and white rather than gray,” she says.

On a broader level, the rally and ensuing hubbub beg the questions: Who has the right to say what and when about racism? And how does a city as white and segregated as Seattle talk about race?

The black women who precluded Sanders Saturday defied the stereotype of Seattle’s passivity, pointing a finger in the face of the mostly white crowd and calling them racist. The crowd's reaction was mixed, although the boos seemed to outnumber the supporters.

“Nobody likes to be called a racist,” says Sen. Jayapal, whose recent Facebook post on last Saturday’s Sanders event has been shared nearly 50,000 times.

“A lot of people went into defense mode,” says Diana Falchuck, who does anti-racist organizational development through her organization European Dissent. The response came as no surprise, she says. “We know so much about the fact that that’s going to happen, that we are going to respond that way.”

Tim Harris, executive director of Real Change, agrees. “There was defensiveness from white people and people being freaked out that somebody said they were racist,” he says.

For Harris, Jayapal and almost certainly many others, the post-Sanders discussion has not gone very well. Jayapal’s Facebook post, later published in The Stranger, is titled “Why Saturday's Bernie Sanders Rally Left Me Feeling Heartbroken.” Although Jayapal has received considerable positive feedback, she says she also been inundated with nastiness, not only from trolls, but also from moderate liberals.

There has been considerable debate specifically about Jenae and Jacqueline, the two most visible women in the protest Saturday. One of them wore a Sarah Palin pin, which some have used to distance the women from the “real” Black Lives Matter movement.

But should a Sarah Palin pin have bearing on how thoughtful the conversation around race should be? “Everyone was at the micro level,” says Marcus Green, executive director of the South Seattle Emerald. “But that’s not the question.”

Racism can be difficult to detect in Seattle, for those who are not the target of it. At 67 percent Caucasian, the Emerald City is the fifth whitest big city in the United States. Less than 8 percent of Seattle is black.

And yet racism exists. Last May, 13 rental properties in Seattle were found to discriminate against black people. More recently, 23 percent of alcohol and pot citations were found to go to African Americans.

Minorities are also disproportionately affected by societal ills. Homelessness, incarceration and school discipline all tilt heavily toward African Americans.

This is what academics mean when they talk about “institutional racism.” “All too often,” says Quintard Taylor, Bullitt Professor of American History at the University of Washington, “blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans ‘talk’ about race without understanding the historical context in which it is shaped in a place like Seattle. Thus it is not surprising the people talk past each other even when they are well-meaning.”

“We just need a lot more education about the history of race and institutionalized racism,” Jayapal says. “When I read some of the [negative] things written to me, I think people have no idea what has happened in this country.”

All of us, black and white, own a piece of this generations-old racism, says Jayapal, and we all need to be a part of the conversation about solving it. It is not OK for white people to put on the headphones and sit on the sideline.

“A lot of times white people want people of color to tell them what’s going on,” says Jayapal, who was born in India and raised in Indonesia and Singapore. “But really white people need to explain to each other what’s going on… At the core there is the need for good white people to actually have the conversation about what it means to co-exist with this tension.”

Whether or not you agree with the tactics at the rally on Saturday, this is certain: The event, and the larger Black Lives Matter movement, have forced us to think critically about race in America, and to discuss it publically.

“If you’ve been on the sidelines and are just now realizing that other people don’t have the same opportunity,” says Sheley Secrest, economic development chair of the Seattle NAACP, “then respect those who have been fighting and let them lead.”

You might be surprised at what you learn, says Professor Taylor. “There is no one ‘black’ position on race in Seattle, just as there is no one ‘white’ or ‘Asian’ position,” says Taylor. “There is a diversity of opinions just within the local African American community based on age, gender, education, social class, length of stay in Seattle, employment (or unemployment), whether one is a native or a migrant (or an immigrant) to Seattle, and even the geography of the city.”

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray told Crosscut that while he did not personally support the tactics of the Black Lives Matter protestors, he would like to see the conversation about race move beyond just police reform and outside of the downtown core. "The discussion needs to be broader than just between 23rd and Downtown," he says. "Seattle has its issues it needs to deal with around race, but so does the rest of the region.”

"This is not going to be an issue that will be short or easy," says Murray. "We as a country don’t fully yet understand that we are in a historic moment. The need for action won’t go away."

Correction: A previous version of this article said the event organizer was Washington CAN. In fact, Washington CAN was not the sole organizer, but a part of the Social Security Works WA coalition responsible for the event. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.