Editor’s note: The writer of this letter requested anonymity in order to protect their job at the city of Seattle. This letter has been very lightly edited for style.
I am a City employee. I am white. And I am disgusted by Mayor Durkan and Seattle City Council. I write to you anonymously, as my City employer has recently provided guidance that we employees are not to speak with media, and I firmly believe that my job would be in jeopardy were I to attach my name.
This week, amidst the backdrop of protests across the country related to police abuse of force and the disparate impact of this unchecked force on communities of color, particularly Black Americans, Mayor Jenny Durkan stood in front of protestors in Seattle and sought to draw some parallel between the experience of her Irish ancestors and that of Black Americans. This is not the first time she has evidenced a total lack of understanding, appreciation, or humility as it relates to communities of color.
Here, the story is familiarly white and dominant—that the savior (Durkan) blessed an undeserving African American (Best), not because she had earned it, but to placate a protesting minority community. Gratitude should flow.
I was an employee at the Seattle Police Department the day that Mayor Durkan announced her appointment of Carmen Best to Chief of Police, following a botched selection process conducted in secrecy that left final decision-making in the hands of unaccountable actors selected by the mayor, with no oversight. Following an uproar from the community—largely rooted in the racial implications—after Best was eliminated from consideration for unknown reasons, Durkan reversed course and not only agreed to reconsider Best, but appointed her to the permanent position in August 2018.
Beware the framing of this as a win, when in fact the process itself was so broken that it did more harm than good. Had the process been transparent, legitimate, and competent, Best—a 26-year veteran to the force, a Black woman—would have been lauded and rewarded for her very real achievements. Instead, she became Chief of Police with a permanent asterisk attached to her promotion —not because she didn’t deserve it, but because white dominant culture moved her through a flawed process that humiliated her and eroded trust in the legitimacy of that process, while also reinforcing racist tropes that the success of communities of color comes only at the benevolent hands of a white savior. Here, the story is familiarly white and dominant—that the savior (Durkan) blessed an undeserving African American (Best), not because she had earned it, but to placate a protesting minority community. Gratitude should flow.
No white mayor of any major city, having once been a federal prosecutor, has lived in any space devoid of privilege.
I worked for the City when the mayor nominated Jason Johnson to direct the Human Services Department, and then withdrew his nomination amidst a surge of grievances expressed by department employees and City council members that the process had been flawed, and carried with it serious racial implications. Again, the mayor evinced a tone deafness, responding by installing Jason as an interim director indefinitely, as if her personal pride were more important than the ongoing trauma woven into the fabric American racism. And, as leadership under the interim director has borne out, promoting people unqualified to the challenges of the times ensures a legacy of destruction and oppression, as they, in turn, preside over the hiring of more people unprepared to lead on these issues.
As a City employee, I have sat in numerous rooms when the mayor has mentioned the fact that she was the first out lesbian federal prosecutor in the United States in response to direct questions about how she plans to address the very real concerns of institutional racism in the City’s administrative, social, and political structures. No white mayor of any major city, having once been a federal prosecutor, has lived in any space devoid of privilege.
The lack of leadership does not stop with the mayor. City Council has also failed the community. The City’s approach to institutional racism, for which Council holds oversight, is fundamentally flawed, at best. Racial Equity Toolkits, a requirement of all City Departments, are rarely completed, and when they are, they are often dominated, sometimes written entirely, by white leadership. Change Teams are stagnant across many departments. Administrative and departmental leadership is primarily white and, often, lacking the qualifications necessary to address institutional racism within their own departments. This increasingly translates into complete silence when conversation is most necessary. And the people elected to vision an equitable path forward for the City—which includes instituting fair and legitimate processes, nominating and appointing persons with appropriate experience and skills, and holding accountable those leaders to adequately and consistently confront and address these issues within their departments—have failed.
Councilmembers have become expert screamers, riling impassioned bases, but yelling is no substitute for doing, and the answer is not solely leveraging departmental budgets (although that can be effective). Instead, members of Council should evidence the creative and solemn ability to wrap the values it espouses into effective legislation aimed at quantifiably impacting institutional racism across City departments.
The need to address racism and white dominant culture is not a convenience that ebbs and flows with the politics of the day. It is galling to think that any contemporary elected leader believes that conversions at politically opportune moments, following long and deliberate periods of drought, dupes the public, and specifically communities of color, in any way. The need to address these issues remains long after the attention fades. It always has. Times such as these call for competent and dedicated leaders, driven by commitment to the community and to the future, not their own careers. Seattle will not change until the people elected to run the city do—or are changed.