Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Racing to the Bottom?

Recently, I caught an article in the Seattle Times about the lack of racial diversity in many leading cities in the country. What got this report attention is that other than three, the rest of the top 10 large cities for high percentage of non-hispanic whites are cities in northern states. More surprisingly, as you drill into the list, 4 of these northern cities are known for their so-called progressive ideals: Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, and Colorado Springs.
This article is a great example of the dangers of poorly defined indicators that have no reference; it offers little understanding of the phenomenon - geo spatially, over time and across cultures. It mentions only in passing that Portland has remained at the top for decades, but has the total number of minorities been falling or is it the same as it was in 1970? For Seattle, there is some discussion that it has risen in the ranks (by percentage) of less diverse places over the past decade – but since the city’s population has been increasing at the same time, could it be that the actual numbers have been increasing, but perhaps at a slower rate than the growth of total population? Or, that thanks to the economic boom in the Seattle region, many minorities in the city proper have sold their inner city properties and have moved to higher-quality and lower priced housing in suburban communities? In fact, this trend is reflected across most metropolitan areas in the country.
Selected appropriately, data can be compiled and measured against each other to tell compelling stories; and in fact become indicators that reflect our values. There are dangers in presenting data alone as indicators, since they fail to spur meaningful and fruitful discussion, policy or action.
It appears that this article was intending to refer to social intolerance (and I was surprised to find that Seattle was right behind Louisville, Kentucky) but social trends need as much qualitative data as quantitative reasoning to establish trends in arenas that are a reflection of personal experiences. In fact according to Dan Westneat of the Seattle Times for another indicator compiled by the Census, called dissimilarity that measures geographical integration, Seattle ranks very high.
What struck me was that so many of the top 10 cities cited in the article have a reputation as leading Green cities in the country. This bolsters the argument and growing resentment towards environmentalism that it is indeed a white middle class value. It provides greater reason for socially more progressive cities to continue to focus on their social infrastructure than the environment. Thankfully cities like Oakland, among the top 10 most diverse communities are showing how this need not be the path. Oakland is leveraging its diversity to emphasize the environmentalism-jobs connection in a positive way, thanks to the work of activists such as Van Jones.
This article also rubs salt into the wound that is often brought up by the Seattle Times. There has been much discussion about how institutions struggle to maintain their high integration numbers with the passage of a poorly defined law in 1998. I-200 prohibited for the first time the past practice of “preferential treatment” based on race or gender in public contracting, public hiring and public education. The law provides that, "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.
New to the City at that time, this law seemed arbitrary to me since there were no references to studies that showed that having integrated contractor-teams, schools or workplaces were in any way damaging the economy. What were the indications that showed that integrating small or minority businesses in commerce was resulting in lower quality outcomes? Perhaps, there could have been improvements to how they were being implemented; but there were few facts that backed the perception that minorities in any way under performed when compared to their white counterparts in similar circumstances that include social integration, encouragement, trust and fairness. In fact, this past integration did not show a “preference” for lower standards in any way, but recognized the latent perceptions simmering across the country that links quality to race. I will contend that for a progressive city such as Seattle this integration reflected the desire to institutionalize equity, knowing that to create a tolerant society would demand nothing less.
A decade later, the damages that such a poorly thought out law can bring about are evident and much written about in our local newspapers. It is clear that left to our devices, there is a general preference for intolerance and segregation over compassion and integration. Whether it is at advanced learning schools, colleges, work place, government, the tolerant rich social infrastructure that was in place in 1990s has vanished. The leaders of the 60s movement are retiring, and along with them their values. Notable discrimination lawsuits have been filed and won against large companies, government agencies and others.
The later generations have shown little interest in integration, seeming to favor instead advancement based on race and appearances. Remote concepts such as World Trade and the Environment catch their imaginations rather than the well being of their fellow Washingtonians; immigrant or otherwise.
Seattle has become a place where the practice of social tolerance and fairness flourishes as a personal choice, without any institutionalized backing. At the same time, over the past decade discrimination has undoubtedly taken hold of this city’s historically tolerant institutions. This is more of an anecdotal observation. I wish there was research confirming this. Non-diverse Boards, companies and leadership groups make decisions that further institutionalize disparities. This is a climate in which nepotism and other ills flourish. In fact, both whites and non-whites will contend that preference based on race has become the norm in contracting, hiring, benefits among others, and forced equity is but an artifact from the past.
Dan Westneat commented that several people remarked, "So what if we are largely white?" This comment to me is an indicator of several undesirable attitudes coloring current civil society. History has shown over and over that as this intolerance takes hold a City's reputation and ability to compete in the world market is heavily compromised. While there are no numbers to indicate the amount, anecdotally I can attest that Seattle continues to draw the idealists; social, environmental and political. There is a great desire particularly among the youth to find environments that resonate with their need to create a just and fair society. In today's business climate, innovation, wealth, and progress comes in all shades and from every corner of the world. I have always wondered why Portland fared worse than Seattle in its economy. I have found few studies that have analyzed this. Could deeply seated intolerance be causing it to miss out on world class opportunities?
A decade after I-200, it is now time for Washington to see how it is faring in terms of social equity and financial justice. Has I-200 created the future that it intended to? If not, what are the unintended consequences? Are public goodies such as access to good teachers, facilities, contracts being shared equally across geographies and race or are we seeing a gradual tendency towards xenophobia or any other cultural phobia? We need our leaders to gather important data (qualitative as well) that will populate relevant indicators of social equity. The indicators must reflect our values, only then can we be assured that as a society, we can be proud of the direction we are headed.

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