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Leave the Past in the Past? An Insight Into Seattle’s Racist History

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Seattle U chapter.

Because of his kindness and warmth towards the newcomers, they decided to name their new village in honor of the respectable leader; Chief Seattle. 180 years later, the Chief’s village is known as one of the most liberal, environmentally friendly, open-minded, and largest cities of the United States. Would he be proud? Perhaps, but the intense change the place went through as it became a city holds no history to be proud of. Those same people he so warmly welcomed brought foreigners from another continent to be mistreated in a land that, to him and his people, had done nothing but nurture and mother them. Much like the light-skinned men pushed his people into reservations, they also pushed and kept their colored foreign counterparts into the undesirable lands.


From the very beginning, Seattle has been a very racially segregated area. Usually, the word “segregation” is associated with African Americans, but it’s vital to note that the extent of racism in Seattle encompassed any race that was not white. Native Americans, Japanese (or any originating from Asia), Latinos (of any Latin American region), and African Americans were excluded not only from living but also trespassing certain parts of town. Even those belonging to certain to certain religions, such as jews, were not accepted. For this reason, it’s important to note that when the term “minority” is addressed in this piece, it encompasses those belonging to non-white countries and non-white accepted religions. As the city has grown and changed, race and ethnicity within neighborhoods have also changed. Since this piece will not focus on the geography of racism in the city, here’s an interactive map so you can see for yourself how minorities have moved throughout.

Believe it or not, Seattle has always been considered a liberal hotspot. There was no transition from a conservative, racist city into a liberal haven of freedom. Racism happened under the party that today is associated with acceptance of all. People of color, regardless of their race and origin, were excluded from most jobs, stores, hotels, neighborhoods, hospitals, many commercial establishments, and even schools.


As mentioned above, though the geography of segregation won’t be explicitly discussed, the ways used to segregate will be. Before the wave of gentrification that has happened in the past two decades, Seattle was good at using redlining, racially restrictive covenants, or racial deeds to keep people of color and certain religious affiliations (Jews, for example), from living in certain neighborhoods. This happened even after the Supreme Court declared that racial restrictions were not allowed in 1948.


Redlining is when lenders draw a red line on a certain neighborhood that is usually concentrated with poor or people of color. As a consequence of living in a redlined area, borrowers are declined loans or credit. Additionally, real estate workers might decline to show a property that is in a redlined area, or decline to show another property to someone already living in a redlined area. It was primarily this that kept Seattle so segregated as it was openly practiced until the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Neighborhoods were organized on a scale called “Grade of Security”. It consisted of four colors: green (best), blue (still desirable), yellow (definitely declining), and red (hazardous). Those with the colors yellow and red–the most undesirable–are described as being populated with people of various nationalities or “negroes.”


Here is a link to another interactive map that gives you descriptions and stereotypes found within redlined neighborhoods.


Restrictive racial covenants and racial deeds were different tactics to segregate neighborhoods. The two are different names for the same thing but are referenced differently in several sources. These took a step beyond redlining because they were part of the legal process of buying a house as compared to redlining, which was controlled by racist people with power trying to keep the city segregated for their personal liking. A racial covenant is described as: “agreements entered into by a group of property owners, subdivision developers, or real estate operators in a given neighborhood, binding them not to sell, lease, rent or otherwise convoy their property to specified groups because of race, creed or color for a definite period unless all agree to the transaction.” These prohibited owners from selling or renting to people of races specified in each covenant. Richard Ornstein, a Jewish refugee from Austria, shared his experience. In 1952 when trying to buy a house in the Sand Point Country Club area, he was surprised to find out the home had a neighborhood-wide restrictive covenant banning the sale or rental of homes to people of color or Jewish descent. When he tried to fight against the covenant, an important leader in the area made it clear that there was no getting around the covenant, or deed, and if he managed too, he was given a list of ways the neighborhood could respond to make him leave. In the end, he decided against living in a place his presence would not be allowed. His story narrates a similar experience to many with colored skin or a non-christian or Catholic religion.


But what has that done to Seattle today? you might ask. Because even though the law changed and people became more open, neighborhoods were never desegregated. Considering that those who were separated into the poor neighborhoods were minorities, they were and still are at huge disadvantages, such as lack of education and lower wages, among dozens of others. More specifically in this city today, gentrification is taking a toll in the race dynamic within neighborhoods. As newcomers from around the country find it hard to find housing inexpensive, and consequently white neighborhoods, they turn to more affordable places that are consequently constituted of minorities. As the new wave of people raises the cost of living in the area, minorities are forced to move into even poorer sections. For youth, these poorer sections provide little opportunity in terms of a strong education because, according to an article by the US News,  historically poorer institutions receive less funding per student than more privileged ones. This inhibits youth from finding opportunities that will help break the cycle of poverty.


Additionally, it’s been proven that minorities in Seattle earn less than their white counterparts. While a white man will earn a minimum of $52,000 a year, an African American man will earn $24,000. Specifically in Seattle, minorities are simply expected to work in lower paying jobs due to various factors, such as a lack of a proper education.


The ways in which the city was kept segregated is only a small piece of the systematic racism that was prevalent back then, but it maps out why it is still prevalent today as well and how that has affected our minoritized communities. Its valuable to remember that the name of the city itself is a symbol of kindness. If it weren’t for the chiefs help towards the newcomers, none of us would be here today. It’s only our job to be as kind to each other despite our differences like the owners of this land did in the past.

Anna Petgrave

Seattle U '21

Anna Petgrave Major: English Creative Writing; Minor: Writing Studies Her Campus @ Seattle University Campus Correspondent and Senior Editor Anna Petgrave is passionate about learning and experiencing the world as much as she can. She has an insatiable itch to travel and connect with new and different people. She hopes one day to be a writer herself, but in the meantime she is chasing her dream of editing. Social justice, compassion, expression, and interpersonal understanding are merely a few of her passions--of which she is finding more and more every day.