Data Points: Allied, not sleepless, in Seattle - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Data Points: Allied, not sleepless, in Seattle

Chicago is known for its ethnic and racial voting blocks. But could our city’s politics look differently if we grouped differently? Seattle demonstrates an alternative path.  

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The legacy of multiracial activism is deeply rooted in Seattle—from the early 1930s, where African-American and Filipino activists fought to end bans on interracial marriage, to the Gang of Four—founders of Seattle’s Minority Executive Directors’ Coalition which connected radical minority rights activism across different minority communities in the late 1960s. But Chicago is more “diverse” than Seattle by many measures, so why does multiracial solidarity occur less often here?

In Chicago, Asians, blacks and Latinos, have more often settled in enclaves of distinct racial and ethnic character. And that could explain why civic activism for racial equality often occurs in silos within those distinct communities.

MPC used mySidewalk, an online data analysis tool, to analyze demographic information for both Chicago and Seattle at the census tract level to illustrate the differences in how racial minorities in the two cities share the same spaces or not. Using the most recent Census data at the census tract level, covering the years 2012 through 2016, MPC analyzed nearly 800 census tracts for Chicago and about 130 for Seattle, defining racial majorities for each tract. Most nonwhite spaces in Chicago bore a distinct racial or ethnic identity, while the opposite was true in Seattle. Of nearly 560 tracts in Chicago where nonwhites were the majority, 83 percent of those majorities were held by one particular racial minority group. In Seattle, just 14 percent of the 27 tracts with a nonwhite majority were majorities of one particular racial minority.

African Americans and Latinos in Chicago were far more likely to live in tracts where their particular group served as the majority than in Seattle. In Chicago, 82 percent of blacks and 64 percent of Latinos lived in census tracts where their respective group was in the majority.

Seattle has no majority black or majority Latino tracts. Chicago has more than 450 tracts that are either majority black or majority Latino.

Conversely, racial minorities in Seattle were far more likely to live in mostly white spaces. The differences were extremely pronounced for blacks and Latinos. In Seattle, 47 percent of African Americans lived in mostly white tracts compared with just 5 percent of blacks in Chicago. For Latinos, in Seattle, 65 percent lived in mostly white tracts compared with nearly 17 percent in Chicago.

The maps below from the University of Virginia’s Population Research Group show a dot for each person and their race according to the 2010 Census.

Considering each color represents a different race, one can clearly see distinct parts of Chicago that correspond to distinct racial groups. There are visually defined black, white, and Latino segments of the city. This visual segmentation is not as apparent looking at the map of Seattle. That city is mostly white. However, focusing on heavily nonwhite areas shows some spaces that skew Asian but many other nonwhite areas that lack any single dominant racial or ethnic presence. Especially of interest are the areas near downtown Seattle that feature mixtures of black, Asian and Latino populations.

This geographic reality might have big consequences for activism. Entrenched racial and ethnic enclaves may serve as barriers to such solidarity among racial minorities in Chicago. Separation could breed mistrust, even competition, between racial minorities of different groups even if they face similar challenges. By comparison, Seattle’s long history of multiracial activism may be connected to that city’s nonwhite racial groups often living in close proximity to one another in segregated communities. Alliances grew out of racial minorities of different groups sharing the same spaces and, as a result, sharing similar concerns about affordable housing, schools, public safety, jobs, transportation and other social issues. Groups often looked to one another for support to address those challenges.

Historian Trevor Griffey notes, “The only places that people of color could live in Seattle before the 1970s were the International District, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, and the Central District. And so that produces a way in which there’s an overlap in different communities, because the whites-only racism applied to Asians, and to African Americans and to a small Latino community to some degree.”

The level of multiracial interaction in Seattle provides some evidence for the flavor of racial activism that has developed in Seattle. In an inteverview with KUOW, Larry Gosset, a member of the Gang of Four, notes, “that there are still many challenges facing minority communities today—affordable housing, income inequality and mass incarceration, to name a few.” And he believes coalition building can be as effective now as it was back then.

As a part of its Cost of Segregation project, the Metropolitan Planning Council is examining efforts in Seattle to address segregation and racial inequality. In 2005, Seattle became the first city in the nation to formally launch an effort to address institutional racism. Since then, Minneapolis, Madison, WI.; Portland, OR.; and King County, WA, Seattle's home county; have adopted similar efforts.

In November, MPC led a delegation of government and civic leaders to Seattle to learn more about those efforts and to help inform attempts here to address the Chicago region’s historic struggles with those issues. Later this spring, MPC will release a set of recommendations aimed at diminishing racial and economic segregation and the inequalities often associated with them.

The learning expeditions to Seattle and Atlanta were made possible through the generous support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Enterprise Community Partners and the Ford Foundation.

Learn more about MPC's Cost of Segregation-related research trips to Seattle and Atlanta:

"An Education in Equity: What unique interventions in Seattle taught MPC and partners about addressing disparities" by Kendra Freeman 

"What I learned in Atlanta about equity and inclusion" by Lynnette McRae


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For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

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