Seattle's race problem

SEATTLE IS A PLACE where white people like to pretend that race doesn't matter. Despite the fact that race is in the news almost every day—the day I write this, the local headlines include news about a student editor at the University of Washington resigning for publishing a racist satire, and controversial comments by Paul Schell about the shooting of a black man, David Walker—we live as if real racism happens somewhere else, as if enlightened, progressive Seattle is above race. As Seattle author David Shields says, our local take on racism is: "Racism doesn't happen here; I'm incapable of such feelings; racism happens in Mobile, Alabama."

I quote Shields because he wrote Black Planet, an amazing book that documents a year in the life of the Seattle Supersonics. Published last fall, excerpted and reviewed in Seattle Weekly, the book received relatively little local press (a couple of reviews, some non-prime-time radio). But it should have been a bombshell. Black Planet is not only one of the best sports books in recent memory, it is one of the best books about Seattle. And its topic is not simply a year in the life of our local NBA franchise. It is an unflinching look at how racial politics are played out in America's basketball arenas.

"The NBA is a place where—without ever acknowledging it . . . white fans and black players enact and quietly explode virtually every racial issue and tension in the culture at large," he writes. On the court, Shields sees America inverted: a place where black athletes dominate the culture, have the power, sex, money, and cool that most whites can only envy. By following a season on the sidelines and recording in diary fashion the interplay between fans and heroes, reporters and commentators, not to mention his own inner responses, Shields exposes the subtexts of sports and culture in a shockingly effective way. The book is an often painful exploration, as author Charles Johnson puts it, "of . . . the subterranean regions of the souls of white folk."

When I read the galleys for Black Planet last year, I was convinced it was a brilliant work. I was also sure it would be greeted in Seattle with utter silence—like a loud fart at Martha Stewart's Thanksgiving. "Silence unto death," is how Shields describes the book's local reception. This is a book that jabs at the city's smugness, dares the city to look at its dark side as Shields looks at his own, and challenges us to discuss and debate race with honesty. But there's been barely a peep, despite the timeliness of its subject: despite public outcry over racial killings; despite racist incidents at local high schools; despite The Seattle Times nobly declaring that race was single most important topic in this presidential year; despite an amazing, controversial Sonics season featuring the ups and downs of the mercurial Gary Payton, the central figure in Shields' book. Despite a thousand news hooks, the media hasn't bit.

ANOTHER RECENT local book on race that ought to be making more of a splash: Seattle Weekly Senior Editor Roger Downey's book on Kennewick Man, Riddle of the Bones, published this spring. I feel proprietary about this book because I pushed Roger to write about K-Man, in part because I was half-convinced that K-Man would turn out to be a long-lost Norwegian ancestor. But Roger kindly ignored my own racism in this regard and delved into a story that goes to the very core of what race is—culturally and scientifically. He has documented a battle that is more than an archeological dust-up, one that's a war over origins, property, religion, and mythology. It is a flash point for the conflict white America has been fighting with Native Americans for over 500 years: Who belongs here? Who has the right to call this land their own? Who owns history?

Those issues are very present today. A few years ago, I was waiting for a ferry on Bainbridge and chatting with a US Coast Guard officer. I asked him what his various ribbons were for, and he was telling me. He pointed to one and said it was for active service—the kind of ribbon you get in wartime. I asked him where he'd served. Right here on Puget Sound, he said. He was one of those called in to help the federal government enforce Indian treaty rights after the Boldt decision gave local tribes a right to half the fish harvest. White fishermen, who had succeeded in snatching virtually all of the fishing away over the decades, were enraged. Shots were fired, the feds intervened. One could argue that this was our Little Rock High.

But it continues. Right now, the Coast Guard is in Neah Bay defending the Makah's legal right to hunt whales. What does it say about us that local Indians still need protection from us? Don't tell me that skirmishes between environmentalists and Indians in Neah Bay aren't about race. Don't tell me that Slade Gorton's anti-Indian politics don't get votes.

Riddle of the Bones and Black Planet are two very intelligent, highly provocative books by Seattle writers who ask us to face, and reconsider, our own attitudes about race. We may not be flying the Confederate flag in Olympia, but we have our issues.

 
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