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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Racism Rising In Seattle

James Bible, head of the Seattle-King County chapter of the NAACP, 
complains of racial profiling by Seattle Police in an interview with KING5 News.

My mother was an immigrant from a small Greek island who blessed me with bronze-colored skin and a rare blood disorder similar to sickle-cell that is only found in Mediterranean people. Yet, my father's grandfather immigrated from Finland and this combination appears to confound many, or at least those who are comfortable enough to ask me, bluntly, "So, what are you anyway?"... which ultimately leads to discussions of presumption and confessions that I was thought to be mixed, Hispanic, Native American, or something else...

Honestly, this has caused some problems for me, not just from when I was beaten by a gang of racists here in Seattle or when I've been yelled at by white people here about how "my people" are taking their jobs, but also as I was growing up in some more intolerant rural areas of Ohio. It was there where the only friends I had were black because the white kids didn't find me similar enough to their liking. So it was a learning experience for me that when I would stay with my best friend at his house and go to his family events or to his church that I was usually accepted and treated kindly even though I was lighter in color than everyone else there... even though he wasn't really welcomed at my house by my family.

It's not that he was outwardly told he wasn't welcomed. But there was obvious, at least what should have been to me, discomfort for everyone whenever I would bring him over... It wasn't that my family was outwardly racist, but they were inwardly tolerant of intolerance and it showed to others, but I suppose I chose not to see it.

But, after I grew older I found out that that inward tolerance of intolerance can easily change into outward bigotry when I had my father over for my son's birthday and he started making racist comments about a football game we were watching... I was stunned, and ultimately I told him he had to leave because I didn't want my children to be exposed to that from their own grandfather... and because It personally hurt me because I myself had to deal with intolerance as a child as well.

Now, lately, I've been hearing a lot of stories on the street about racist and neo-nazi groups that have been coming into Seattle more and more frequently. People would tell me about a group of middle-aged guys with SS pins and other racist paraphernalia walking around the downtown area trying to recruit kids and I've heard stories of the groups of kids with swastika patches hanging around the malls harassing people as well.

Then there were the stories in the news about racist and bigoted graffiti being spray-painted on cars, fences, and buildings closer to Seattle than the usual strongholds for racist groups, like Renton. There were news stories of hateful pamphlets and fliers being left in mailboxes and lawns as well... then came the attacks.

Stories were coming through about people being attacked due to their racial background and their sexual orientation more and more frequently in Seattle, but nobody is sure about how frequently because the police department didn't want to track those as "hate-motivated crimes". In fact, many in the GLBT community were starting to accuse the Seattle police of refusing to investigate hate crimes and cases of assaults that were motivated by homophobia and the NAACP was accusing the SPD of doing the same about race-based attacks. The SPD promised to do something about it but due to a lack of unified pressure from the community, that failed to materialize and hate crimes have increased.

Now, as things often do, the problem has gone to the next stage where the police themselves are now being accused of showing racial bias in their policing. Citizens interviewed by the news media are telling stories of police stopping minorities just because they have new clothes on the assumption that they had to have stolen them instead of buying them. Police also stand accused of picking out any minorities who might be among a group of whites and telling them they are garbage and not welcomed.

Bigotry, of course, is a weed that grows best in the soil of apathy and seeks to, as it's simple goal, to divide people from one another. It seeks to separate black from white, homosexual from straight, and anything that is different from that which is homogeneous. What I've seen in Seattle is that, while each group decries discrimination against it's own, they don't work together to decry the same when it happens to the other group.

In fact, oddly enough, my own experience is that when I've tried to reach out and offer my support to these groups of people I get rebuffed, as if my support isn't welcomed... not that this should be considered discriminatory, but it does divide us and, ultimately, it means that we are divided in our responses to bigotry in all it's forms... it means that bigotry has succeeded in it's goal of division.

The result is that events meant to draw attention to racial profiling by police, police brutality that targets minorities, and the refusal of the police department to consider homophobic assaults as hate crimes draw very small crowds and are ultimately ridiculed or ignored by the press and the city itself. So... ultimately... we only have ourselves to blame for allowing bigotry to divide us, even if that bigotry remains silently outside of ourselves or comes unspoken from within.

Sure, Seattle is becoming more friendly to racism and bigotry because of the influx of right-wing suburbanites drawn here by aggressive gentrification, but that is only part of the problem. There remains divides between us, spoken or not, that ultimately makes Seattle a more welcoming place for hate than most of us are ready to admit... and it really shouldn't surprise us now that racism and hate have found fertile ground in a city where we chose stand divided against it or to ignore it... just like I ignored it and speak out against it happening in my own family when I was younger... and that ultimately divided us too.

It's a shame, really, because you don't have to be only black, or white, or gay, or straight to be a victim of police misconduct or bigotry... but we still keep approaching it as if it is not everyone's problem when it really is.

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