This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Toby Thaler did not sue the city to stop backyard cottages; instead, he spent years filing legal challenges to stop the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which, after significant delays, allows slightly more density in a sliver of exclusive single-family areas that make up the vast majority of residential land in Seattle. Marty Kaplan is the activist who worked to prevent the expansion of backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments.
UPDATE: Since this post was published, a GoFundMe has been set up for people to contribute to the college fund of Lhorna Murray’s son Carter. Find out more and contribute here.
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and just days before protests against anti-Black police brutality and injustice exploded across the country, Seattle City Council member Alex Pedersen fired his lone Black staffer, Lhorna Murray, on May 20. A white Pedersen staffer, Alexa Halling, quit in solidarity with Murray, both Murray and Halling confirm.
Murray, a longtime community organizer who joined Pedersen’s campaign as a volunteer after he was “the only candidate who came to my community”—Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing development in Magnuson Park—says she believed she was hired “to bring the voices of the people who aren’t heard to the table, and who I feel like desperately need to be part of the conversations and part of the solutions. But the circumstances of my employment and the culture of the workplace made it pretty difficult to authentically be able to accomplish that.” Instead, Murray says her job was limited to checking emails and responding to constituents, plus scheduling Pedersen’s weekly in-district office hours.
City Council member Alex Pedersen, who has a Black Lives Matter sign on his office door, fired his lone Black staffer in late May, in the midst of a pandemic and unprecedented unemployment. One of his white staffers quit in protest.
Pedersen, whohas a Black Lives Matter sign on his office door, directed questions about the upheaval in his office to council communications director Dana Robinson Slote, who said she couldn’t comment on personnel matters.
His campaign platform included reinvigorating traditional neighborhood groups, restricting density (often framed through the lens of “protecting trees”) and protecting street parking in neighborhoods. His top policy hire was longtime neighborhood activist Toby Thaler, best known in recent years for suing the city to stop modest upzones in a sliver of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Density is a housing accessibility issue, which makes it a racial justice issue as well.
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Multiple staffers on the second floor expressed surprise that Pedersen would fire his council aide without providing her with a path to another job at the City in the middle of an epidemic that has caused massive unemployment and cratered the job market. Employees of council members can be fired at will, but no one I talked to in council offices said they were aware of any issue with Murray’s performance that would justify firing her without notice.
I have filed a records request for any confidentiality agreements or NDAs signed by staffers for every council office to see if any other offices require staffers to sign NDAs. The confidentiality agreement, which I have seen, says that the employee will “never” reveal any information that “is not generally known outside the context of the employment and is disclosed or obtained by the Employee as a consequence of his or her confidential relationship to the Employer.” With few exceptions, all communications by city council staffers are a matter of public record under the state Public Disclosure Act. Pedersen’s campaign focused on accountability and transparency, as has his rhetoric on the council.
“Racism isn’t always as overt as a knee on your neck. White progressives love to pat themselves on the back and give themselves credit when we protest racism racism, but racism doesn’t start with murder.” —Former Alex Pedersen staffer Alexa Halling
Ex-Pedersen staffer Halling says she quit “to protest the firing of my coworker Lhorna.” Although a nondisclosure agreement Murray’s colleague Halling signed when she took the job prevented her from talking on record about conditions in Pedersen’s office or the specific reasons why she quit, she said that, in Seattle, “racism isn’t always as overt as a knee on your neck. White progressives love to pat themselves on the back and give themselves credit when we protest racism racism, but racism doesn’t start with murder.”
The fact that Halling quit to express solidarity with Murray speaks to “who she is at the core,” Murray says. “She totally forfeited her livelihood, whereas most people”—those who consider themselves “allies”— “don’t even want to have an uncomfortable moment. …Every day that I knew Alexa, and every time there was something happening that wasn’t right, Alexa spoke up.”
The diversity of the council’s staff has increased as the council itself has become more diverse, but there are still only a relative handful of Black staffers, and no Black council members, on City Hall’s second floor. And, as Murray notes, “there’s a difference between having a diverse office and listening to a diverse set of opinions.”
Murray says she’s confident she’ll land on her feet. But she says her experience working for Pedersen, and her firing, has served as “a really valuable lesson” for her 18-year-old son, who volunteered on Pedersen’s campaign and who cast his first-ever vote for him.
Murray says she spent considerable personal capital convincing friends and neighbors in her community to vote for Pedersen over activist and filmmaker Shaun Scott, who is Black, telling them that “what he didn’t know, he was willing to learn.” Last week, she says, “he was having to make phone calls telling his friends he’s not going ot be able to go to [college] with them” because Murray, who’s a single mom, can no longer afford it.
African Americans, especially children, are far more likely to be kicked out of Seattle libraries than patrons of other races, according to data the South Seattle Emerald obtained from the Seattle Public Library (SPL) through a public disclosure request.
Between January and July 2018, more than a third of patrons who received “exclusions” (notices, which can be verbal, that a patron cannot return to the library for a period ranging from a partial day to two years) were African American. Of 764 exclusions that included information about a patron’s race (61 did not include this information and have been excluded from this analysis), 33.4 percent (or just over one third) were African American; 7.5 percent were Hispanic or Latino; 55.5 percent were white; and the rest were another race.*
The racial disparity is even more stark among children who receive exclusion notices: Every one of the 52 kids under 16 who were excluded from library branches at least once this year was either Black (43) or Hispanic (9). (The total number of child exclusions was greater than that number—72—because some children were excluded from libraries a half dozen times or more. Throughout this post, the term “exclusions” refers to specific incidents, and the term “individuals” refers to specific people, who may have been the subject of more than one exclusion.)
Sixty-seven of the 72 juvenile exclusions occurred at just five branches, all located at libraries in neighborhoods with more low-income people and people of color than the city at large—Columbia City, High Point, Douglass-Truth, New Holly, and South Park. At South Park, all but six of 27 exclusions in the last year were children or adolescents under the age of 16.
Patrons’ races were determined by library staffers based on physical observation. According to library spokeswoman Andra Addison, the library does not ask about or keep track of patrons’ races. For that reason, it’s hard to determine what percentage of Seattle Public Library patrons overall are people of color, and how that compares to the Seattle population at large. According to Addison, it’s impossible to compare library users at any specific branch to the Seattle population.
“Each neighborhood is unique and has its own set of demographics that don’t necessarily reflect the general population of the city,” Addison says.
However, it is possible to compare the system-wide exclusion data to the city as a whole. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Seattle is 7.1 percent African American, 6.6 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 69.2 percent white. In other words, the library is excluding African American patrons at a rate nearly five times greater than their presence in the Seattle population.
The overwhelming majority of people asked to leave libraries across Seattle—81 percent of 862 exclusions, a number that also accounts for people whose race was not included in the documents the library provided**—were male. Just four of the library’s 27 branches—the Central library in downtown Seattle and neighborhood branches in Ballard, the University District and Capitol Hill—accounted for almost two-thirds of all exclusions.
Children, like adults, were often excluded for being disruptive or noisy. In one instance, four African American boys between the ages of 10 and 12 were playing games on laptops in a meeting room at the High Point branch when one complained to a library staffer that his friend had smacked him on the arm with a laptop cord. All four boys received exclusion notices and had to leave the library. In another, a group of three children—two Hispanic, one black, all between the ages of 4 and 10—were excluded because they were eating candy under the computer tables at the Columbia City branch. (Addison notes that many people who get excluded from libraries may have been warned repeatedly before a library staffer issued a formal exclusion notice.)
Other incidents included a 12-year-old Black girl who was excluded from the Columbia branch or three days for “talking and laughing extremely loudly”; another 12-year-old girl who was excluded for a week for eating at the public computer terminals; a 10-year-old Hispanic boy who was excluded repeatedly from the South Park branch for using his sister’s library card number to log in to a computer; and a Black 9-year-old boy who was excluded for riding his scooter in the Douglass-Truth branch in the Central District. Several incidents were classified as “assault,” including a 9-year-old boy (the same one that was riding his scooter) who allegedly spat on another patron; the boy who smacked his friend with a laptop cord; and a Black nine-year-old girl who spat at a staffer after verbally abusing and “harassing” library staff and being asked to leave.
Addison, the library spokeswoman, says parents drop off their kids and leave them unaccompanied “at several locations, such as the Columbia, South Park, Rainier Beach, Douglass-Truth, High Point and Delridge branches.” Libraries do not include dedicated child care facilities.
The information provided by SPL does not indicate how many of the children who were excluded from library branches were unaccompanied minors, although none of the staff notes indicate that a parent or guardian was present during any of the 72 exclusion incidents involving children. One note mentions that a staffer told five girls, whose ages ranged from 10 to 14, that she knew their parents and they should be ashamed of themselves for throwing rocks at someone’s car and behaving in a threatening manner toward her. At that point, the incident report notes, “the juveniles backed off towards the park across the street” and the staffer called Seattle police, who later took a report from the staffer at her home.
Addison says that in many cases, “staff are familiar with the children and the parents and have been in contact with them before there is an exclusion because our goal is for everyone to be successful using the Library. Sometimes parents tell us to have the youth leave on their own and others come pick them up. Staff always work to try to ensure the safety of youth and to try to engage with the parents. In some cases, we do not have parental information and youth have come to the Library on their own.”
The library’s unaccompanied children policy states that when unaccompanied children are being disruptive, threatening other patrons, or acting inappropriately, library staffers are supposed to “attempt to contact the parent or guardian of the unattended child. In the event that the parent or guardian cannot be reached, the child will be placed in the care of the Seattle Police Department.”
Library patrons can be excluded for violating any of the library’s official rules of conduct, which fall into four categories in increasing order of severity. Category A, for example, includes violations such as littering, sleeping, and “disruptive behavior,” while Category E includes serious transgressions such as using drugs on library premises, violent assault, or pulling the fire alarm. Staffers can issue exclusion orders for up to seven days on their own; longer exclusions require the approval of higher levels of management. (See the library’s full exclusion policy here).
The data provided by SPL breaks down the reasons that patrons were excluded into categories defined in the rules of conduct (examples include “disruptive behavior: Noises, human noise” and “harassment: verbal: discriminatory and/or obscene names: non-staff member”), but those categories encompass a wide range of behavior that library staffers must deal with on a daily basis.
Addison says the rules “address behaviors, and because we are dedicated to improving educational and information access to everyone, an exclusion is a last resort. Unless it is a serious violation, staff start with educating patrons about our rules and then follow up with warnings if the behavior or behaviors continue.”
“It is somewhat difficult to make suppositions, but insecurely housed African Americans may not have as many options for welcoming, available spaces to frequent during the days,” Addison says.
Ryan Dowd, director of a large homeless shelter in Illinois and the author of The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness, trains library workers around the country in practices that he says can reduce the number of exclusions by up to 80 percent. His trainings encourage library workers to learn how to relate to patrons with different backgrounds and build relationships with people who use the library frequently (often homeless people with few non-social-service places to go during the day) so that when they do break the rules, they’re more likely to comply when asked or leave voluntarily.
“I teach that where the behavior is coming from matters,” Dowd says. “A lot of disruptive behavior comes from past trauma. if you understand that, oftentimes—not always—you can mitigate the behavior or step it entirely without having to punish it.”
For example, Dowd says “if the guy came in an hour earlier and you said, ‘Good morning, hey, how are you doing?’, he’s a lot more likely to comply later, because you greeted him. He knows it’s not personal.” Addison acknowledges that “some of our patrons come in often, sometimes every day, all day and staff become familiar with them over time.”
Disparities were evident across branches. The downtown library, for example, excluded a higher than average percentage of patrons for alcohol- and drug-related violations, while a plurality of exclusions issued in Ballard were for violating previous exclusion orders. (Ballard, along with Capitol Hill, also had an unusually high number of people excluded for sleeping or lying down on library property.) The University branch, meanwhile, expelled patrons for indecent exposure or lewd conduct at a rate three times higher than the city as a whole.
Individual violations ranged from falling asleep, snacking, or bringing a bicycle into the library lobby, to threatening other patrons with a knife, picking scabs and bleeding on library property, and overdosing in the library restroom, leaving a lighter and needle on the ground.
Along with a pattern of racial disparity, the exclusion data illustrate real challenges facing library staffers in 2018. In a city without an adequate safety net to catch people who are struggling with addiction, homelessness, and untreated mental illness, library workers have become the front-line social service staff for the entire city, and the data bear this out. Leaving the racial disparities aside for the moment, there is a bigger issue here: Libraries aren’t supposed to be all-purpose social service agencies. The staff aren’t trained for it, the facilities aren’t built for that purpose, and patrons who are disruptive—whether because they’re passed out at a computer someone needs to use for homework or shouting at other patrons because of untreated mental illness—make libraries less hospitable places for everyone.
“The Library’s goal is for everyone to use the Library successfully,” Addison says. “We can only do that by maintaining an environment that allows everyone of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to learn and access Library resources and services.”
One option—the one that Dowd suggests—is to train library workers for their new role as “first responders” for people dealing with major mental health and substance abuse issues.
“That is your job, whether that’s what you signed on for or not, in the sense that it’s unavoidable,” Dowd says. “I think that when you come to terms with the fact that this, at least in 2018, is a big piece of the job and acquire the skills to do it well, things just go a lot better than pretending it’s not part of the job.”
Another alternative is to approach the problem of library rules violations from the perspective of root causes—if people are passing out drunk, shooting up, acting out, and exhibiting signs of poorly managed severe mental illness at our public libraries, a better alternative to kicking them out would be to give them options. If Seattle and its regional partners were to invest in daytime shelter and drop-in options, job training for people with employment challenges, addiction treatment and harm reduction, and programs that actually appeal to bored kids and teenagers looking for something to do while school is out, it would go a long way toward addressing the problems that make libraries challenging spaces for both staff and rule-abiding patrons.
* None of these numbers account for people who report being more than one race, who make up about 6.5 percent of the Seattle population; including those numbers slightly increases the percentage of both mixed-race black and mixed-race white Seattleites. Additionally, “Hispanic” describes an ethnicity, not a race, although people of Hispanic origin are often subject to discrimination based on their perceived background and the color of their skin.
** Further context: After de-duplicating the data to include the names of individuals excluded multiple times only once, and after removing all exclusions where race was listed as “unknown” or was not listed, I arrived at a list of 613 individual patrons excluded during those months whose race was identified by library staff. Of those individuals, 32 percent were African American, 7.5 percent were Hispanic, and 56.4 percent were white.
To look at the data a different way, just 72 patrons were excluded from library branches more than once, but those 72 were excluded a total of 223 times. Of those who were excluded repeatedly, 38.9 percent were black, 9.2 percent were Hispanic, 47.2 percent were white, and the rest were other races or ethnicities. Compared to the total population of people removed from libraries, in other words, those who were excluded repeatedly were more likely to be black or Hispanic and less likely to be white.
The story of the school-to-prison pipeline is a familiar one: Nationwide, young Black men in both public and private schools are more likely than their White counterparts to be disciplined, tracked into special education classes, and suspended for the same infractions, contributing to higher dropout rates and subsequent incarceration. Seattle is no exception to this nationwide phenomenon. In Seattle public schools, African-American boys are nearly three times as likely as White boys to be referred to special education, and fall far behind their White counterparts on nearly every standard measure of success—from third-grade reading scores, to seventh-grade math proficiency, to graduation rates.
Earlier this year, Mayor Ed Murray announced a new initiative, called Our Best, that aims to close this achievement gap by doubling the number of Black male mentors, providing a clearinghouse and technical support for existing programs that serve young Black men, and creating a new special advisor to the mayor on young Black male achievement. The program, which is modeled on former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, aims to increase the number of Black boys who graduate from high school, provide Black young men between the ages of 14 and 24 more pathways to “meaningful, well-paid employment,” and reduce the percentage of young Black men entering the criminal justice system.
Admirable as those goals may be, some advocates wonder: What about the girls? Young Black women face unique challenges that aren’t shared by young Black men, including pregnancy (four in 10 Black girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy or parenthood as the reason), lack of economic opportunity (the jobs that are available for female high school dropouts pay significantly less than those available to male dropouts), and abuse (girls are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and harassment.) Black girls are also far more likely than Black boys to be single parents without other sources of support, which compounds the impact of lower wages. Little wonder, then, that the median net worth of single Black women is $100, compared with almost $7,900 for Black men and $41,500 for single White women.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the founder and director of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and a law professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Columbia University, was one of the first prominent African-American writers to ring the alarm bell about My Brother’s Keeper back in 2014 when she wrote a New York Times op/ed titled “The Girls Obama Forgot: My Brother’s Keeper Ignores Young Black Women.” (Crenshaw is also known for coining the term “intersectionality,” which describes overlapping social identities and related systems of oppression.) The following year, Crenshaw and the AAPF published a report titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” which chronicled the “hidden toll of race on Black girls,” including the astonishing fact that Black girls are six times as likely as White girls to be suspended from school for the same infractions—a gap in suspension rates that dwarfs the gap between Black and White boys.
I sat down with Crenshaw in Seattle earlier this summer.
Erica C. Barnett [ECB]: Mayor Ed Murray has argued, essentially, that if the city can address the achievement gap for young Black men, the benefits will accrue to all Black students, including young women, without the need for a separate program addressing young women’s specific needs. Specifically, part of the argument is that when boys end up in jail, it destabilizes the African-American family structure and forces women to take on all the responsibilities in a family, including earning a living and taking care of kids and other family members. What do you think of the argument that addressing Black boys’ issues will ultimately help address Black girls’ problems as well?
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw: Where do I start? Trickle-down social justice doesn’t work any better than Reaganomics did. If there is a crisis with respect to Black families or Black communities, it is a crisis that can’t be fixed by trying to embrace a nostalgic desire for Ozzie and Harriet. That ship has sailed. It sailed a long time ago. What’s most important is to recognize the ways that boys and girls who are from socially marginalized groups are marginalized by a variety of factors.
Gender correction is not at the source of the solutions for African-American people or for any people. These frameworks are effectively foregrounding a framework that appeared in the 1960s, and even at that time it wasn’t really accurate to what was happening. This is [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan effectively warmed over and reproduced over 50 years later. [Moynihan, who served as assistant labor secretary under President Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote a now-infamous 1964 report called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” that argued for racial self-help and the restoration of the traditional family as the solution to racial economic inequality]. The Moynihan thesis was basically that equality would always outpace what African-Americans were able to expect as long as their family structure was non-normative. To think that the source of inequality is incomplete socialization to gender norms is to ignore a whole variety of structural and historical dynamics that impact both boys and girls, men and women.
“If there is a crisis with respect to Black families or Black communities, it is a crisis that can’t be fixed by trying to embrace a nostalgic desire for Ozzie and Harriet.”
So what about the job market? What about the under-resourcing of public schools? What about stereotypes about men and women, boys and girls? What about suspension and punishment that happens inside of schools and outside of schools? What about geographic isolation and segregation? All of these are structural, institutional, historical factors that together contribute to the wide variety of inequalities that African-Americans face? To essentially say that the problem is located in the individual, as opposed to the structure in which the individuals live, is to effectively let off the hook an entire history of subordination and do so by essentially saying that, ‘the inequality rests in you, Black boy,’ rather than in the society that constructs the situations in which people live.
ECB: If you were creating a program within a school system to address those structural inequalities more directly, what would it look like?
KWC: I think there should be targeted programs for socially marginal and struggling students, and those students come across all genders. It’s not just one gender that’s struggling. I think the measurement of what counts as a crisis is also a problem, because the conversation up ‘til now has assumed that the only students in crisis were boys.
We’ve heard all about the school-to-prison pipeline, the disproportionate suspension rates, and all that, but if you actually look at the data from the Department of Education, the disparities between girls of different races is greater than the disparity between boys. Basically, it’s the way that we frame social problems that is the problem. Assuming that the girls are doing okay, or ‘the girls can wait,’ is basically assuming that ‘whatever is going on with you is basically irrelevant; the racial disparity between you and White girls is something that isn’t the primary point of concern.’
“If you actually look at the data from the Department of Education, the disparities between girls of different races is greater than the disparity between boys.”
What we know is that the long-term consequences of being pushed out of school for girls are in some ways even more consequential over the long term, because the jobs available for girls without a high school diploma actually pay less than the jobs that are available for boys without a [high school] diploma. If you add to that the fact that the majority of Black children will, at some point in their lives, rely either wholly or in part on the income of their mothers—to ignore that, to ignore those real family formations [in exchange] for the ones that we fantasize about, is basically to say, ‘All of you can wait until we get the ideal family formation that we want.’
That kind of framing of families is almost only expressed with respect to racialized communities. Outside of that, we have a completely new idea about what counts as a family. We have a completely new idea about gender roles. But when it comes to remediation—treating Black folks as sort of in need of gender repair—we’re back to old ideas about that.
ECB: A lot of what I’ve heard from supporters of these kinds of programs is that Black women are strong; they can provide for themselves; they’re the rock for their families.
KWC: So what’s that saying? Black men and boys are weak? I think that’s the question that should get asked. Unfortunately, we have accepted this idea that there’s something uniquely vulnerable about the boy child, rather than saying, ‘okay, this is the way the entire system impacts boys and here’s the way it impacts girls.’ Sometimes they’re impacted the same, particularly relative to their White counterparts, but sometimes there are differences, too. There are a whole range of ways that girls are impacted by some of these environments that people aren’t even talking about because the point of departure is always the boy.
“It’s almost like, ‘This is a race thing, so we’re not going to apply the typical anti-patriarchy, anti-heterosexism, anti-transphobia frames to it. It’s a Black boy thing.’ And I’m wondering, okay, how can some of the same administrations have policies that are really progressive on gender and also embrace this?”
ECB: For example?
KWC: Harassment that happens in school. The way that Black girls are often framed as unruly because of a stereotype about both Black people and girls, and that comes together and it makes it more likely that Black girls will be seen as acting out, having attitude. Obviously, the consequences of single parenting are greater for girls than they are for boys. Sexual abuse is more common for girls than it is for boys. So all this stuff gets sort of swept under the rug by saying, ‘Okay, you, girl, can wait so we can create Prince Charming for you.’ We need boys and girls who actualize their best capacity. We need to create opportunities for both of them and not create this fantasy where the girls can wait until the knight in shining armor comes along. Some of them don’t want a knight.
And then you add to that: How can we even be thinking about his when we’re starting to understand that gender is fluid? It’s not just two! So how’s that work? And where are the folks who are advocating for gender diversity when it comes to these issues? Where is the gay community? It’s almost like, ‘This is a race thing, so we’re not going to apply the typical anti-patriarchy, anti-heterosexism, anti-transphobia frames to it. It’s a Black boy thing.’ And I’m wondering, okay, how can some of the same administrations have policies that are really progressive on gender and also embrace this?
Seattle is about to choose a new mayor from among two White women. Although neither of the two candidates, Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan, have expressed an opinion about Our Best specifically, both have had what Crenshaw would call “non-normative” family experiences—Moon as a single mom and Durkan as the mother of two boys with her partner, who is a woman. For now, the city’s focus will remain on young Black men, whose mass incarceration, according to Office of Economic Director Brian Surrat, has “been very destabilizing to the African American family.” Surrat acknowledges that this “sounds like a very conservative argument,” and says the city does “need to have a different set of initiatives and investments targeting young Black women and Latinas, as well as the Southeast Asian community.”
However, the city has no specific plans for such an initiative, nor any details about what it might look like. For now, the city has decided that Our Best is good enough.
In 2012, only 57 percent of African-American boys graduated from high school in Washington state, compared to 73 percent of their white counterparts.
The achievement gap for young black men goes far beyond their graduation rates. Nationally, African-American boys are twice as likely to drop out of high school as white boys, and are three times as likely to be suspended. In Seattle, African-American boys are nearly three times as likely as white boys to be referred to special education, and these students in general fall far behind their white counterparts on nearly every standard measure of success—from third-grade reading scores to seventh-grade math proficiency to graduation rates. In 2015, 56 percent of white Seattle Public Schools graduates ended up going to a four-year college; just 30 percent of black students did the same. This achievement gap has lifelong ramifications; nearly 70 percent of young black men who drop out of school will end up in prison, and one in three black boys will be incarcerated in their lifetime.
“If you look at discipline data or graduation data or just regular third-grade test data, you’ll see just a huge discrepancy in the gaps between black males and their counterparts,” says Dwane Chappelle, director of Seattle’s Department of Education and Early Learning.
The achievement gap between black and white boys has been documented for decades, but the emphasis on programs targeted at improving the outcomes for black boys is a more recent phenomenon. Last year, after the City of Seattle’s first Education Summit, Mayor Ed Murray convened a 32-member advisory committee to come up with recommendations to close the gap. This year, to help accomplish this audacious goal, Murray organized a Youth Opportunity Cabinet, which includes African-American city department heads, such as Chappelle and Brian Surratt, director of the Office of Economic Development, and announced a new initiative focused on improving young black male achievement, called Our Best. (“If they are given resources that others take for granted, our young black men are our best,” Surratt says.)
The city has allocated $300,000 for the first year of the program (with few details on exactly how the money will be spent), which is modeled after former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, but aimed at boys and youth between the ages of 14 and 24. A good portion of that money will support a one-year pilot project, which began in July, to double the number of black male mentors, by providing a clearinghouse and technical support for existing programs; the money will also fund a new special adviser to the mayor on young black male achievement.
Mentors, Surratt says, can give black boys the kind of positive role models they may be lacking in home or at school, and from experience can provide lessons on how to cope with challenges. “It’s not a cultural deficiency model,” says Surratt, referring to a model that says young black men are broken and need to be fixed. “It’s an asset richness model”—one that takes the assets that already exist in the African-American community and puts them to work guiding young men who may be struggling into responsible adulthood.
Our Best also includes a new mayor’s council on black male achievement, with the goal of increasing the number of black boys who graduate high school; providing young black men between the ages of 14 and 24 more pathways to “meaningful,” well-paid employment; and reducing the percentage of young black men entering the criminal justice system.
While the city’s renewed focus on young black male achievement is both admirable and necessary, some worry that male-focused programs like Our Best leave black girls behind.
Black girls are six times as likely as white girls to get kicked out of school—a racial gap in suspension rates that dwarfs the gap between black and white boys.
Like those of their male counterparts, black girls’ reading and math scores are at or near the bottom level, and four in 10 black girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy or parenthood as the reason. Black girls who drop out may suffer greater economic consequences than black boys, largely because the jobs that are available for female high school dropouts pay significantly less than those available to male dropouts. Black girls are also far more likely to be single parents without other sources of support, which compounds the impact of lower wages. Little wonder, then, that the median net worth of single black women is $100, compared with almost $7,900 for black men and $41,500 for single white women.
Moreover, black girls experience harm at school that the standard “achievement gap” yardstick simply fails to measure, such as sexual violence, suicide, harassment and the consequences of single parenting, says Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the founder and director of the African American Policy Forum and a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University.
“There is a whole range of ways that girls are impacted by these environments that people aren’t even talking about because the point of departure is always the boy,” says Crenshaw. Much like health research that for many years only used male subjects, the data available on African-American student achievement is largely centered on outcomes that primarily impact boys, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, creating a feedback loop that leaves girls out. “It’s not just one gender that’s struggling, [but] the conversation up ’til now has assumed that the only students in crisis were boys,” says Crenshaw.
Proponents of Our Best say they’re aware that girls face specific challenges that boys don’t. “We all know that our young ladies need support as well,” Chappelle says. But, he says, “We have to get that infrastructure in place first, and then we will be able to provide the young ladies with support, too.” Supporters of Our Best also insist that by helping young men, the program will benefit young black women as well, by fixing systems that hurt everybody when they’re broken.
“The intent is that if you fix a demographic that is clearly doing statistically the poorest, you are in fact fixing the institutional problems for the other demographics as well,” says City Council member Bruce Harrell, an Our Best proponent. “In fixing a lot of the institutional practices that work to the detriment of young black males, I think young black females and even others will reap the benefits.”
Surratt adds, “Unfortunately, across almost every metric that you can imagine, every social, economic and health indicator, young black men are suffering the most, and so we wanted to tackle this part of the community first.”
Crenshaw, who criticized Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program for excluding girls in a New York Times op-ed piece, is less convinced, calling that theory “trickle-down social justice” that “doesn’t work any better than Reaganomics did.”
Chappelle points to the fact that at least one school in Seattle that implemented the My Brother’s Keeper program, Aki Kurose Middle School, has since added an analogous Our Sister’s Keeper program for girls as evidence that the program will probably expand—eventually.
“Once we get Our Best down as far as young black men are concerned, then I would anticipate we would figure out a way to make sure that we are weaving in the support we need for our young black women, and also other young women of color who have historically been marginalized,” Chappelle says. The question is, how long will it take? And will it be soon enough to help the latest generation of young black girls who are at risk of falling through the cracks?
Our current zoning system, which restricts low-income people to a tiny percentage of the city and preserves two-thirds of the city as exclusive enclaves for mostly wealthy homeowners, has its roots in racism and classism.
That may not be the motivation of current Seattle homeowners who want to preserve these enclaves today, and certainly there are no explicit racial rules or covenants anymore, but any honest single-family neighborhood resident should admit that he or she is the beneficiary of a system built on racist, classist housing policies.
That, in fewer words, is what the development plan thatspawned a thousandthinkpieces (and at least one sputtering editorial), the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda report, says on Page 24, where its authors note that Seattle’s existing zoning map, which preserves two-thirds of the city as exclusive enclaves for mostly wealthy homeowners, “has roots in racial and class exclusion.” Those seven words have shocked and offended many of the plan’s opponents, who argue that racism and classism are in the past, that those policies were built by individual racist bankers, not a racist system, that history has no lasting ramifications.
They’ve also served as conversation stoppers for many in the odd coalition of politicians and activists opposing the plan, a coalition that includes everyone from homeowners who say, “I support density, but…” to low-income housing advocates who claim that any upzones will just benefit developers who want to replace modest single-family homes with “$900,000 townhouses.” The most common diversion tactic (used by no-growth conservatives and anti-development liberals alike) goes something like this: “It’s just ridiculous to suggest that our zoning is racist. How dare they? This calls all of the HALA conclusions into question.”
The liberal anti-developer crowd was represented the other night by council members (and homeowners) Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant, who faced off against developer lobbyist Roger Valdez and Ellensberg Republican Matt Manweller before a Sawant-friendly audience at Town Hall. Although the topic of the “debate” was rent control, the discussion returned repeatedly to the HALA recommendations, which fundamentally shakesup the old assumption that single-family zoning is sacred.
Licata argued that development inevitably leads to displacement of people who live in buildings that are older and have fewer amenities, which function as de facto affordable housing, and Sawant accused her pro-density foes of believing in “trickle-down housing,” the idea that a greater supply of expensive condos and townhouses at the top of the affordability scale will lead, all by itself, to more affordable housing options at the bottom. Both council members accused their opponents of advocating free-market anarchy, unrestrained development without any government rules to help lower-income people survive in the city.
In truth, no one in Seattle is arguing that the government should do nothing to preserve and create affordable housing, or that “the market” will solve all our problems. Manweller may be saying stuff like that out in Ellensberg, but HALA certainly isn’t: Among the 28-member committee’s 65 recommendations is a comprehensive suite of affordable-housing interventions, from doubling the housing levy to expanding the housing trust fund to mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to build affordable housing on site in exchange for denser zoning.
In reality, all those straw-man claims that HALA opponents make about their opponents are camouflage for their real target: Provisions in HALA that would allow slightly more density in single-family areas (a duplex or row house where an expansive lawn once sprawled across the urban landscape) and multifamily zones (an extra story or two on a low-rise apartment building). Increased density and growth, they believe, is the root of all gentrification and displacement, and the only way to stop it is to preserve Seattle’s single-family zones.
The problem is that gentrification and displacement are already happening, and will only be made worse by policies designed to exclude new residents from two-thirds of the city. The HALA report acknowledges that in the short term, giving developers more freedom to develop may not “immediately decrease rents.” But, they continue, it will ensure “a growing supply of larger multifamily housing across the city [that will] help to stem rent increases over the long-term.”
The idea, espoused by liberals like Licata and Sawant, that we should restrict new development to avoid gentrification, intersects conveniently and precisely with the conservative argument against allowing new people inside Seattle’s exclusive single-family communities, which says that we need to keep things as they are because that’s the way they’ve always been. (They would say they want to “preserve neighborhood character,” but it amounts to the same thing.) What this camp fails to mention is that single-family homeowners are the main beneficiaries of Seattle’s housing crisis; as renters are forced to compete for a limited supply of housing on a tiny amount of land, their property values increase by hundreds of thousands.
This curmudgeonly faction of no-growth advocates are represented not by the council members on stage at Town Hall this week but by pundits like Knute Berger and Danny Westneat, who can give you every reason from here to Spokane about why single-family zones are just sacred, they just are, and why rules that crack open the gates of those “exclusive” (HALA’s word) communities to people of color and the lower-middle class will destroy everything charming and wonderful and unique about Seattle.(It might also disrupt the upward trajectory of their home values, which increase in direct proportion to the affordable-housing crisis for everyone else.)
In a recent column, headlined “Save the bungalows and create affordable housing,” Westneat pined for the Seattle of days gone by, when households were larger (back when moms stayed at home and had four or five kids, and a man could pay the mortgage on a little bungalow on a Boeing salary) and the city had no need for 21st Century ideas like townhouses and duplexes and nontraditional families. “In the 1960s, Seattle had nearly 3 people per housing unit. Now it’s down to two and slated to go below 1.8 by 2035,” Westneat laments. “So part of the reason we need to keep developing like crazed Ayn Rand characters is because we aren’t utilizing the houses we already have.”
Actually, the reason we need to keep developing isn’t because developers are “crazed” Howard Roark clones but because people want to live here, and they need somewhere to live. Turn all the rec rooms you want into basement apartments (Westneat’s suggestion to avoid visible new density in single-family neighborhoods), but you still won’t make more than a tiny dent in housing demand. Westneat suggests that one in every 20 homeowners can be convinced to retrofit and rent out part of the family home, producing 6,000 affordable units. That’s optimistic, and it assumes affordability based on the premise that homeowners are inherently kind-hearted and won’t seek to profit from their tenants. Westneat should ask the owner of a small apartment building if that’s how it works.
Oh, and third: The new tax break Westneat would create to pay for all these basement and attic apartments would cost city taxpayers $60 million. That’s nearly half the current housing levy. For a tax break that would only benefit homeowners, that’s a pretty big ask. I know I’m not voting for it. But then, I don’t believe in trickle-down housing.
Berger, whom I debated before a live audience last Friday on KUOW’s Week in Review, took a typically mossbackian approach in his own recent column denouncing the mayor’s plan, which he said would ravage Seattle’s “bedrock single-family neighborhoods to accommodate” renters and other non-property owning life forms. (I like and respect Berger, but if a housing form that dates from 80 years ago is our “bedrock,” we need to rethink the entire premise of our city.) Seattle, Berger continued, is “a special place to live” and “a cool place to be” because it isn’t “elite” like Shanghai or San Francisco. Growth, Berger concludes, might be “simply a serpent devouring its own tail.” The more of them we let in, the more they destroy our quality of life, the very thing that makes them want to live here.
Obviously development must be shaped and directed, not allowed to run rampant. The problem is that no-growthers like Berger (“don’t destroy our bedrock!”) and single-family preservations like Westneat (“I guess we could handle a few more poor people, as long as we hide them in existing houses”) don’t have a comprehensive solution. All they have is delaying tactics.
Which brings us back to classism and racism. When the HALA committee bravely pointed out that Seattle’s current zoning “has roots in racial and class exclusion,” they were referring to redlining, restrictive covenants, and other practices that kept non-white and non-wealthy people out of white, wealthy areas. It’s no coincidence that the areas “protected” by redlining by mortgage brokers and other private entities correspond to the single-family areas that exist, and remain largely the province of the white and wealthy, today.
Single-family protectionists of all stripes–from standard-issue NIMBYs to well-meaning low-income activists–have responded that there may have been racism once, but that was all a long time ago, and the problems we have today are because of new residents, not past policies.
The defenders are dug in. They include apologists like University of Washington architecture professor Jeffrey Ochsner, who recently wrote a mass email (subject line: “Seattle’s zoning is not racist”) to neighborhood activists claiming that redlining is completely different from zoning because redlining was done by private individuals like mortgage lenders, not the government. “People who conflate zoning with racially restrictive covenants or red-lining are confusing legally quite different methods of land use control,” Ochsner writes. “They are also misinterpreting the available historical research.”
This dismissal-by-semantics is an insult to both history and people’s lived experience. To say that Seattle land-use policies became progressive the moment redlining was outlawed (by federal fiat, in 1968, after Seattle voters overwhelmingly voted to uphold it) is as laughable as saying that the Confederate flag became a neutral symbol of “heritage” the second the North and South were reunited. To say that laws preserving white enclaves today have no historical antecedent because their roots are in practice, not law, is to say that structural racism does not exist. And to suggest that Seattle’s current color and economic boundaries are mere accident, not legacy, is to whitewash redlining.
And this, ultimately, is the truth that few who talk about preserving “our single-family heritage” want to admit: That the “heritage” and “character” they are clutching is a direct result of excluding those who remain excluded today; that fancy enclaves would not have been creative and preserved without low-income ghettos; and that policies that continue to keep that heritage intact now are the legacy, if not the inevitable result, of our classist and racist history.