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Why is Seattle so racially segregated?

When you drive to north Seattle from south Seattle, you may notice that the city becomes a lot more white. That’s because north Seattle is 69 percent white, according to Census data. South Seattle is just 28 percent white. Of non-whites in the south end, Asians make up the majority at 36 percent.

Listener David Newman asked the Local Wonder team to look into why Seattle seems so segregated. Our first stop was the Ship Canal, that skinny waterway near Husky Stadium that connects Lake Washington with Puget Sound.

Professor Jim Gregory of the University of Washington met Local Wonder at the edge of East Montlake Park, where boaters motored by on their yachts.

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It’s one of the most beautiful spots in Seattle, but Gregory says it represents the city’s ugly history of racial segregation.

“The Ship Canal is a profound barrier between north Seattle and the rest of Seattle, but also between white Seattle and multi-racial Seattle,” he says.

Gregory has been researching racial divisions in Seattle for decades, and he says the Ship Canal’s physical barrier has served as a moat.

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“A literal moat that has defended in a symbolic sense white Seattle from desegregation,” he says.

In the early 20th century, white people could legally ban blacks and Asians from buying houses in most neighborhoods north of the Ship Canal – and a few just south, including Capitol Hill, Madison Park, Queen Anne and Magnolia.

White neighborhood groups and real estate agents did this by inserting racial restrictive covenants into property deeds.

A racial restriction would include language like this one, which showed up on deeds in Queen Anne:

"No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property."

“Other neighbors could sue a homeowner who decided to sell to a person of color,” Gregory says. “In many cases, Jews were also prohibited in neighborhoods.”

(In Broadmoor, a gated community in Madison Park, deeds referred to Jews as “Hebrews.”)

In the early 1950s, an Austrian refugee, a Holocaust survivor, bought a house in the Sand Point Country Club, a tony little area near Magnuson Beach. According to Catherine Silva, a UW history student, the refugee was so bullied by the head of the neighborhood association that he ultimately bowed out of his home purchase.

Seattle got its first racist deed in 1924; owners who refused to enforce them risked losing their property, according to Gregory. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court said racist restrictions could no longer be enforced.

Did your neighborhood have racist covenants? Check Prof. Gregory’s site

Adrienne Bailey, 62, remembers what that time was like for people of color. She has been an activist and worked for Seattle Central College.

As a child she had access to parts of Seattle her friends couldn’t see.

“My mom was a domestic,” Bailey says. “That meant we had to go where white folks were. And me being the youngest, a lot of times I had to go with her. So I always saw what the other world was.”

They shopped at the University Village and Northgate.

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But later in life, Bailey learned about barriers between white neighborhoods and her own. She knew which real estate agents would and would not rent to people of color.

“Black people always had to use shields to buy a house,” she says.

The shields were white people.

“If you were going to buy a house, it would have to be the white person to be the one to sign off on it first. And then that person would turn around and sell it to you. It was common practice.”

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People of color were also deprived of access to loans and mortgages – a practice known as redlining. In 1936, there was a literal red line drawn on a map of Seattle noting which parts of the city were desirable for lenders.

The Central District, where Seattle blacks were pushed, was noted as “hazardous.” They would either be denied loans, or have to pay higher interest rates.

By the 1960s and 70s, the highest concentration of blacks was in the Central District.

But Civil Rights activists stood up and fought against discrimination, and they pushed for changes in policies and laws.

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The city got a fair housing law on the books in 1968, at the same time as the federal fair housing law.

And yet Seattle still struggled with redlining until the late '70s. That’s when banks refused to give out loans to houses that fell beneath a certain price.

Today things are different.

For two decades, as housing prices have increased, African-Americans have been pushed out of the very neighborhoods they were originally forced into.

Many have moved further south into areas like Rainier Valley, Renton and Kent.

In the '70s at its peak, the Central District was home to about 70 percent of the city’s black population. Today, that neighborhood is just 14 percent black.

There are those with deep family roots in the Central District, doing their best to hang on to their homes.

Photographer Inye Wokoma, a long-time resident of the Central Area, is one of these people.

“My grandfather purchased his first house, right here in the Central District in 1947,” he says.

Eventually his grandfather and other family members bought more houses in the area and lived in them for decades – including the house Wokoma lives in now.

“My aunt died here. My great-aunt died here. My great-aunt died next door. My great-uncle died in the house across the street,” he says. “Having property meant that family always had a place to stay. It meant that you always had people around you who were a part of who you are.”

Over the years, financial problems hit Wokoma’s family members. Many had to sell their homes and move.

His family once owned and lived in about 10 houses in the neighborhood; today they own three.

For Wokoma, living in his grandfather’s house gives him a sense of continuity of his family – from the past to the present and the future

“Fifty, 75, 100 years in the future, will there be a place where my grandchildren and great-grandchildren can stand in and know that generations of their families lived their lives in that space?” he asks.

What we see today as racial segregation in Seattle is the legacy of discrimination from the city’s past. Seattle’s neighborhoods today are moderately more integrated than in years past.

Today the persistence of racial separation can involve, among other things, a complicated mix of individual preferences, housing discrimination and economic opportunities. A recent study from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that of equally qualified white and non-white home-seekers, whites were given preference in learning about more available houses than people of color.

And a housing study by a University of Washington graduate student found that whites prefer to live in mostly white areas.

Says Prof. Gregory: “Segregation tends to reinforce itself, tends to perpetuate itself. There are a lot of processes involved. Some involve overt discrimination. And subtle forms of discrimination. And then there are also just aversions and attractions that go on.”

In other words, there are still people who feel more comfortable living near other people who look like them.

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