For Black Seattleites, recession is nothing new

Originally published in the Capitol Hill Times.

Inequality is a hot topic right now. The distribution of wealth and income is heavily skewed in favor of a rich minority, from the local level to the global. As I and many others have argued elsewhere, this gap is not caused by merit. Today’s rich, as a class, are not rich because they earned their money, but because their money earns for them. We are all caught in a system that polarizes wealth.

But for some groups, this unjust distribution of power and resources is compounded by other forms of oppression. Inequality is itself unequally distributed.

This was the upshot of a recent presentation to Mayor Murray and others at Seattle Central Community College by a group of local Black professors. Using statistical measurements and historical comparisons, the group presented a report on how Blacks in Seattle have been hit hardest by the Great Recession. In that report, “The Crisis: The Need for Immediate Response to the Economic, Educational and Housing Crises in Greater Black Seattle,” they emphasize that while the Recession intensified racial disparities in economic access, these larger problems have existed for decades and have roots in the origins of this country. It follows, they argue, that Blacks deserve the same kind of assistance that local and national governments have offered to rich (and primarily White-owned) companies in the wake of the Recession. Specifically, they urged Seattle leaders to concentrate on mitigating the city’s race-gap in the areas of “business development, college and vocational preparation, and and housing provision.”

According the report, the “good news” of Seattle’s robust economic recovery “vastly overshadows an often unrecognized pattern of [racial] economic inequality that deserves more attention than it gets.” The numbers back up this claim: 2010 Census data shows that the median household income for Black Seattleites is less than half that of their White counterparts and lower than that of any other racial group, and incomes for Blacks in Seattle lag behind those at the state and national level. This is partly caused by unemployment: in King County, a little over a quarter of Blacks are unemployed (nearly double the rate of the general population), and roughly one in five Black households in Seattle “experienced some form of food hardship during the year” (i.e. went without food). For all our vaunted liberal sensibility, Seattle’s economy isn’t just racially unequal; it’s peculiarly so.

Of course, income is distinct from wealth, where the picture gets even starker. According to the report, Black wealth in Seattle is anywhere from six to twenty percent of White wealth, depending on how you measure it. And nationally, Black unemployment is roughly double White unemployment, a ratio that’s been roughly constant for the past half-century. “So for over five decades,” the report says, “our Black communities have been in a constant state of surviving somewhere between recession and depression level unemployment rates.” (Unemployment measures are based on people who are actively looking for work, not the total number of people without jobs.)

The report emphasizes that in addition to being unjust, the racial wealth gap carries hidden social costs including squandered human capital and costlier basic services like healthcare. Higher rates of poverty and economic disenfranchisement also mean that Blacks in the greater Seattle area are more likely than Whites to be priced out of the city by skyrocketing rental costs or underwater mortgages. They also face lower levels of educational attainment (which strongly correlates with economic success) and, in Seattle School District, higher rates of discipline: while they make up only a quarter of the student population, Black students constitute more than half the District’s suspensions and expulsions. (Researchers from the Kirwan Institute have found that teacher bias is at least partly to blame for this kind of differential treatment.)

The racial divide in our economy is just as shameful as the larger, non-racial polarization of wealth of which it is a part. And just as the problems of racial inequality and general inequality overlap, so too do their solutions: public investment in basic services such as housing, education, health and infrastructure (such as the Mayor and Tim Burgess’ plan to implement universal preschool); the political will to demand real equal treatment within schools and the penal system; and tax and election reform to lessen the influence of wealthy, mostly-White interests on public policy. Our city’s Black citizens are facing an exaggerated version of the problems plaguing all of us. In the end, we’re all in this together.

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