There’s no question that white Seattle has a blind spot when it comes to race. Sadly, for example, two back to back blow ups this summer made that point clear and have now defined Seattle for me: 1) the revealing temper tantrum from single family home owners at the mere suggestion that Seattle’s exclusive zoning is tied to a history of discrimination; the “Who me?!?” backlash to that charge ended up sinking one of the most overdue and important policy proposals this city has seen in decades, an attempt to add flexibility to our single family zones.
And 2) the reaction to the Black Lives Matter protesters who shut down Bernie Sanders speech at Westlake. It’s “rude” to take the microphone away from Sanders? Are you kidding? Sanders is on the national stage, running for president. Dude has the mic. The crowd’s entitled reaction, and the aftermath blowback, exposed Seattle’s privileged, white liberal majority for being tone deaf.
So, I certainly applaud this city’s formalized (and evidently necessary) commitment of running all its policies through a race and social justice lens. Take the mayor’s recent crackdown on hookah lounges, for example. I’m glad Patricia Lally, the director of the city’s Office of Civil Rights, is conducting a racial equity analysis.
But let’s be honest: You don’t exactly need the city's Office of Civil Rights to suss out the obvious: Scapegoating East African immigrant businesses for neighborhood violence is racist on its face.
Race matters when it matters, and yes, there are plenty of times when white liberals don’t see that race matters—and need to have it pointed out. But the most overused words of 2015 so far are equity and social justice. And it’s been equally cringe worthy to watch my fellow white urbanists tying themselves in knots to justify green policies by couching urbanism as another brand of social justice. I’m guilty of this insecurity complex too. I published a guest manifesto on PubliCola last June by the leaders of the local Sierra Club titled “A Social Justice Urbanism.”
Yes, there’s power in intersectionality, and there’s plenty of overlap in progressive causes—women’s choice is also an economic issue, for example, just as the fight for $15 is a women’s rights issue. But the current urgency many greens feel to frame no-brainer environmental musts (like undoing our dependence on cars and building denser cities) as if urbanism is a twin cause with the Black Lives Matter movement, misses the larger point of the environmental calamity at hand.
Don’t take my word for it. Ta-Nehisi Coates, arguably the country’s leading African American intellectual, whose Between the World and Me, a treatise about the struggle of being black in America (named as a finalist for the National Book Awards this week), thinks so too.
I was on vacation last week, far away from Seattle, and I settled in to read Coates's book. And bam: He segues into the transcendent ending of his book with these lines—“Plunder has matured into addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons...must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.” He then makes the case that fighting sprawl and lowering carbon emissions is today’s paramount cause. "And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions," Coates concludes, "across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth."
Moving in the opposite direction of Seattle's white activist class, Coates's climactic conclusion ties the black struggle to the environmental cause, not vice versa.
I noticed a similar pivot to Coates's by a local African American environmental activist I interviewed earlier this year about the Rainier Avenue South car diet. Here’s what I wrote about her in the magazine in July:
Phyllis Porter is a 50-year-old African American mom, who, as a staffer for Rainier Valley Greenways, has led community organizing efforts for protected bike lanes and traffic calming measures. Her group has turned the pro-pedestrian agenda into a social justice issue, initially demanding, for example, that more money from the mayor’s transportation levy go toward safe routes to 28 of the city’s low-income schools. Porter...chuckles at the “equity” branding white liberals use to frame the debate, but offers: “Whatever it takes to get something done down here.”
Yes, urbanism benefits poor people and people of color, but that’s because it benefits everybody. Liberals need to stop condescending to communities of color by telling them that light rail and bike sharing are good for them too. Duh.
That patronizing spin, it seems to me, is more important for self-aggrandizing white liberal environmentalists to hear themselves say than it is for communities of color to hear them say it. Save it.
And save the planet by getting on with the mission that’s right in front of us. I LIKE urbanism in its own right.
On a directly related note, I LIKE that the city council neighborhood committee unanimously voted yesterday to finally approve the $100,000 Department of Neighborhood grant for the Cheasty Greenspace in Southeast Seattle; they froze the money for the bike and ped trail there last August. But environmentalist activists like Friends of Cheasty Greenspace leader Joel DeJong have since convinced the council that activating green spaces in cities is great public policy for: low-income kids, the fancy and not-so fancy bifurcated neighborhoods around the space, schools, weekend warriors, wildlife enthusiasts, pedestrian commuters, light rail commuters, and, well, everybody.
It goes before full council on Monday.