We're the fifth whitest major city in America, but we have been diversifying. We were 92 percent white in 1960 and by 2010 we were down to 65 percent. As Seattle urbanizes and the U.S. population becomes more racially diverse, we should see steady change in this area.
Or, maybe we won’t.
The Seattle Times recently broke down the latest population numbers and discovered that Seattle's white population is actually increasing. We're up from 65 to 67 percent white since 2010. No one is quite sure why. It makes some sense when you think about it. The minority population of the King County suburbs is surging as folks move to places like Kent, Burien or Federal Way due to affordability. The Central Area, once virtually all black, is being rapidly gentrified. Big employers are tech companies that skew white and male (Amazon).
It's an interesting trend at odds with our self-image. We're a liberal city that embraces diversity, right? We’re supposed to be a big city. Interestingly, some of the most “progressive” areas of Seattle are the least diverse.
The new Seattle city council districts offer a contrast. There are now seven districts of the city of equal population (about 90,000 each) that will elect representatives to the city council starting in 2015. They mostly follow traditional neighborhood boundaries. Ben Anderstone, a local political consultant with whom I've worked in profiling the new districts, has sifted through their defining characteristics.
Let's compare two: the Sixth District, which encompasses Green Lake, Ballard, Fremont and Wallingford, and the Second District, which takes in most of southeast Seattle including the Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill, Seward Park, and Columbia City.
The Sixth is, in terms of voting patterns, the most reliably liberal district in the city: they love taxes and progressive candidates. Council lefties Nick Licata and Mike O'Brien live there. Anderstone calls it "Lattetopia" because it so much reflects Seattle stereotypes: tech, quirk, and the transformation of working-class neighborhoods to denser, hipper condo communities (see Ballard). It is also the wealthiest district in the city, with a median household income of $74K. It is also the whitest. Its minority population is only 17 percent--half of the city's norm.
The Second is the polar opposite. It's liberal, but a tad more conservative on values (skeptical on pot, same-sex marriage) and more anti-tax in its voting patterns. It reflects some major Seattle trends too: gentrification, public school struggles, the embrace of immigrants. It is also the poorest district in the city with 20 percent living in poverty and has the lowest median household income ($47K). It is by far the most racially diverse at 77 percent non-white. That's more than double the city average. It is the only majority minority council district.
One point of Seattle pride has been the claim that the city is home to the “most diverse zip code in the United States”: 98118. Turns out, that isn't true--it's not even the most diverse in Washington state. Beyond that, rather than such a zip code being an example of our enlightened racial progressiveness, the history of South Seattle that makes up much of the Second District suggests something else. In a story called "The Rainier Valley’s Diversity Myth" written for the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, writer John Hoole makes this point about our patterns of diversity:
"More than a racial utopia, the preponderance of people of color in a little slice of the city’s southern extreme can be seen as a testament to the lack of diversity in the rest of the Seattle…. Viewed from a certain angle, the title southeast Seattle has conferred on itself is the consolation prize for an area widely thought of as the city’s ghetto, whose future is uniquely uncertain."
Combined with the latest population statistics, this should be a wake-up call for Seattle's majority white enclaves to find ways of walking the talk on diversity.