Council Passes Resolution Directing
Race and Social Justice Work to Continue
City Employees and Department Heads Commit to Heighten Efforts
Below the press release (11/30/09) is an editorial I wrote about the Race and Social Justice Resolution.
Seattle – Today the City Council passed a Race and Social Justice Resolution intended to heighten the City of Seattle’s awareness of institutional racism and social disparities. The Resolution, sponsored by Councilmember Bruce Harrell, seeks to carry forward and strengthen the initiative begun by Mayor Nickels. Councilmember Harrell believes that “Mayor Nickels had the vision and courage to drive this important work which demonstrated his recognition that race and social disparities continue to exist throughout our city. The initiative can result in a healthier and more efficient work environment and better city services to all communities.
Department heads, change teams, city employees and community leaders were all on hand to support the legislation. Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, on behalf of the Mayor and the City’s executive team, expressed their gratefulness that this important work will continue.
The Resolution states the strategies and tools to address racial and social disparities and describes the goals of improving workforce equity, contracting equity and best practices to achieve equal access to city services.
“This work must continue because all people in Seattle benefit when we demonstrate inclusiveness in how we make decisions, how we provide basic city services and how we manage change. This is the first piece of legislation on this issue and Seattle’s commitment in this area has already been nationally recognized.” says Mayor Nickels.
A key component of the work going forward was the 2009 establishment of a Race and Social Justice Community Roundtable. This group consists of individuals from community organizations, business, philanthropy, education and others with the mission of extending this work beyond city government and into the community. Councilmember Harrell “looks forward to working with the Roundtable and moving this effort beyond City government.”
Seattle Times Editorial (Saturday, 11/28/09)
Looking beyond race, not by being colorblind, but inclusive
In the Pacific Northwest, history was made in 1997 when Gary Locke was elected Governor, Norm Rice was Mayor, Ron Sims was King County Executive, John Stanford was the Superintendent of Public Schools and Richard McIver, Martha Choe, Cheryl Chow and Charlie Chong served on the Seattle City Council – all people of color.
In 2009, Seattle elected a new King County Executive, Mayor and Seattle City Council. While three people of color ran for Mayor and one for City Council, none advanced beyond the primary.
When our country elected President Obama, the Republican National Committee elected as its head, Michael Steele, the first African American to hold this position. Since every door seems to be open to racial minorities, do race-based policies still make sense or are they passé? Can I claim that my African American children are disadvantaged and should be treated differently because of their race? We have tried to give them every opportunity possible –education, exposure to the other cultures, music, sports, you name it. In contrast, I have met white children who were dealt nearly every card against them: poverty, absentee parents or a parent on drugs, abuse and violence in their home. I therefore pose the question about the role race now plays in our country and, in particular, Seattle.
The diverse political landscape of 1997 was a result of our voters looking beyond race to elect its leaders. Indeed, that was the profound realization of President Obama’s victory. But I contend that looking beyond race is not the same as being colorblind. In fact, pretending race does not exist is not the same as creating equality. Looking beyond race means recognizing that our government and social institutions continue to perpetuate advantages that disproportionately channel wealth, power and resources to certain privileged groups and that race continues to play a role in such disproportion. In order to address these inequities, we must acknowledge that race is still a factor. The solution is not being colorblind; it is being inclusive of those who have not enjoyed a history of privilege.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 9.4% of Whites in Seattle live in poverty. The rates for people of color are alarmingly and disproportionately higher: 30.9% for Native Americans or Alaska Natives; 30.2% for Black or African Americans; 18.8% for people with Hispanic ethnicity; and 15.3% for Asians. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six (5.6) times the rate of whites. Hispanics are incarcerated at nearly double (1.8) the rate of whites. In fact, in 2005, Hispanics comprised 20% of the state and federal prison population; a rise of 42% since 1990. I contend that these statistics are not simply a result of poor choices by racial groups, but direct results of history and institutionalized behavior.
The English word “race” is traced to a 1508 poem by William Dunbar referring to a line of kings. Race has no genetic basis. There is no one quality, characteristic, or gene that distinguishes all the members of one “race”. Two random Chinese may be as genetically different as a Chinese and an African. Yet, race is such a powerful social idea that it continues to shape our thinking and our institutional development. Communities of color continue to talk about race because of their history of exclusion and lack of privilege. Even today, an isolated experience may cause them to ponder whether their skin color had anything to do with it. As noted African American author James Baldwin wrote, “Being white means never having to think about it.”
On November 30, 2009, I introduced legislation to the Seattle City Council that will heighten and strengthen our city’s awareness of institutional racism and social disparity – a system where people benefit or are disadvantaged without necessarily doing anything themselves. This is an initiative that Mayor Greg Nickels began, I believe, out of his heart because there was no huge political advantage in doing so. This City Council remains committed to that cause. Yes, we should continue to look beyond race as we elect our leaders but this is not the same as ignoring race. At the core of how we address societal change, should be a commitment to also observe who is excluded from the road to success because of their skin color, socioeconomic status or other differences such as gender, age, sexual preference or physical ability. Once we see through this lens, what we call the “Race and Social Justice lens”, we will see how similar the dreams of all boys and girls are, regardless of race and how important it is to value the inclusiveness of those who are underprivileged. Yes, race does matter if it reminds us every day why we must remain fully committed to inclusiveness.
Bruce A. Harrell serves on the
Seattle City Council and will Chair the Energy,
Technology and Civil Rights Committee for 2010