Why is Seattle such a white city?

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By Charla Bear

Seattleites don’t like to admit it, but this is a pretty white city.

In fact, the latest census figures show it’s the fifth whitest of the 50 biggest cities in the country. That means there’s a higher proportion of Caucasian people here than in Denver, Oklahoma City, or even Minneapolis.

So why are there so few people of color in Seattle? 

 

A sea of white faces

Melinda, Clinton and their baby Lyndon in their home. Photo by Charla BearWhen Melinda Mainland moved to Seattle 14 years ago, she says she was surprised how “uniform” it was.

“Everybody seemed to look a lot alike,” she says.

She doesn’t just mean everyone was wearing fleece jackets and hiking shoes.  What struck her was that everyone was white.

“I’d always lived in places that if you went to the grocery store, the movie theater or just left your house you saw people that weren’t like you,” she says. “Then I moved here and lived in Queen Anne, Ballard, Fremont, Magnolia. I could go for days and days and not see anyone that looked significantly different from myself.”

That might be a little exaggeration, but according to the 2010 census, Seattle is nearly two-thirds white.

At first, it didn’t bother Melinda. Then she and her husband decided to adopt an African American baby.

“That brought a whole different aspect to the desire to live in an area that was diverse,” she says. “Because an African American child with two white parents, they need to be able to see people like them.”

No easy feat given the city’s demographics

 

Native Americans pushed out

To understand why people of color are so scarce in Seattle, you have to go back to the very beginning.

“Speaking from a Native perspective, it certainly doesn’t surprise me given the history of Seattle,” says Fern Renville, a member of the Siston Whapeton Oyate tribe who moved to Seattle six years ago.

She says most of the city’s original people of color were dispossessed.

“The reason we don’t see a lot of Coast Salish people in this town is because at the start of this century all their longhouses were burned down and it became illegal to actually live within city limits,” she says.

That’s right, it was actually against the law for Native Americans to live in a city named after a Duwamish chief.  Then, there were environmental factors.

“When the locks were built, the Black River that was the outlet for Lake Washington dried up and all of the Native longhouses that were there no longer sustained Native people,” Renville says.

Add to that diseases brought by Europeans and whites quickly became the majority.

 

Location, laws change demographics

After the first white settlers arrived, they just kept coming, explains Richard Morrill, a retired demographer from the University of Washington.       

“Seattle had a huge boom from the Alaska gold rush and the logging industry and the origin of all those folks was straight from Michigan and Minnesota across the Northern Tier,” he says. “They were two-thirds Scandinavian.”

The Northern Pacific Railway made it easy for them to zip over to Seattle, but there was no simple way for African Americans to get here from the south during the Great Migration

Morrill says the sheer distance also meant few transplants from Mexico.

The only immigrants of color Seattle’s been sort of convenient for are Asians and they haven’t always been welcome.

“In the very early period we had Chinese migrants,” says Morrill. “Then we had backlash and the Chinese were put on trains and sent up to Vancouver or Portland. Then during the war, we had the Alien Land Law to prevent Japanese from owning land.”

That’s ancient history now but Seattle is still white. Why? 

 

A metropolitan city

Qadir Muhammad. Photo by Charla BearThe high cost of living plays a role, says Morrill. Seattle has become a very trendy place for young, white professionals.

“But it, in effect discourages the entry of blacks or Hispanics because of the lack of jobs,” says Morrill. 

And yet, Seattleites have a vision of the city as a tolerant, multicultural place. Some people even get defensive when they hear it’s one of the whitest cities, even in really white neighborhoods. 

“Our 14-year-old daughter is absolutely bemused that anyone even talks about race anymore,” says a couple outside of a Magnolia coffee shop. “She’s totally post race.”

Across town in the historically black Central Area, people say the reason it upsets them to think of Seattle as a white city is precisely because they do see race.

Jordan and Grace Uomoto. Photo by Charla Bear“This area here, 23rd and Jackson, I see as one of the most diverse areas in Seattle,” says Qadir Muhammad. “You’re not going to see just one nationality or race of people.”

“Population-wise it might be a lot of white people, but there’s people from all over the world who live here,” says Jordan Uomoto. 

“I’m Mexican American with a Japanese last name,” says his wife, Grace Uomoto.

That’s the paradox. Despite Seattle’s overall whiteness, it does have some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country.

So despite the numbers, maybe Seattle is only as white as you make it.