Migration stories

While Communities Count presents a lot of data about disparities, we often miss opportunities to look at the historical and cultural underpinnings of those disparities. Fortunately, exhibitions at three Seattle museums create artistic contexts within which we can explore – without charts and numbers – how we got to where we are. Understanding our history may help us make informed decisions about the future.

What is it like to leave home, family, friends – everything you’ve ever known – and start over in a new place? And what if the people in that new place don’t really welcome you? These questions come to mind as people around the globe are searching for places to start over – places where they will feel safe and secure, and perhaps build a better future for themselves and their children. The questions also resonate with the history of our country. Through April 23rd, a Seattle Art Museum (SAM) exhibit, Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, offers an opportunity for us to learn about that history by chronicling, through pictures and words, the 20th century relocation of millions of African Americans from the American South to industrial cities in the North.

The Migration Series, Panel 18: The migration gained in momentum., 1940–41, Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917–2000, casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in., Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy, The Museum of Modern Art, © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Lawrence told his story in 60 bold images – painted on hardboard panels in 1940 and 1941 – each with a brief, eloquent caption. For example,
• Panel 3: “From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north.”
• Panel 49: “They found discrimination in the North. It was a different kind.”
• Panel 58: “In the North the African American had more educational opportunities.”

To complement the exhibit, the museum lined up more than 20 special programs and community events. Two distinguished guests, who spoke at full-house performances, deepened the context for understanding this massive migration:
• Pulitzer-Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson discussed her landmark book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a 15-year project for which she interviewed 1,200 people.
• United States Representative John Lewis shared personal stories about nonviolent activism during the Civil Rights era. He was accompanied by writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, who collaborated with him on the graphic novel trilogy, MARCH, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

In their lives and work, Lawrence, Wilkerson, and Lewis have reached new audiences with well-documented but untold stories that hadn’t made it into the textbooks. Explaining his motivation for a 31-painting series about Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman, Lawrence said in a 1968 oral history, “We hear about Molly Pitcher. We hear about Betsy Ross…. [but] the Negro woman has never been included in American history.” Thanks in part to Lawrence, some of the gaps have been filled. But we’re still catching up. From the Seattle Art Museum, “To this day we have barely understood the full impact of this movement that was driven not by one single leader, but by six million Americans seeking political asylum in their own country. This migration reshaped culture and politics, North and South, and set in motion the current racial challenges and disparities we now face as a country.”

What about our region?

During SAM’s Migration Series exhibit, exhibitions at two other Seattle museums offer local perspectives on themes of migration and displacement:
• At the Northwest African American Museum, An Elegant Utility (through May 28th) features photographs, household belongings, and other artifacts of artist Inye Wokoma’s family to explore the broader story of African-Americans in Seattle.
• In Year of Remembrance: Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner (through Feb 11th, 2018), the Wing-Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience brings together poems by Lawrence Matsuda and artwork by Roger Shimomura to recognize the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII, and to relate this to current events.

Upcoming events at Seattle Art Museum (all free and open to the public) include:
• Thu Apr 6, 6:30–7 pm, Migration Stories: community members share personal stories of migration, immigration, place, and home.
• Thu Apr 6, 6:30-8:30 pm, The Migration Series: free drop-in art-making session led by artist Eve Sanford.
• Wed Apr 12, 7-9 pm, Complex Exchange (Part 2 of 2) 7–9 pm, Seattle Art Museum and Northwest African American Museum’s recurring series Complex Exchange pairs Seattle community members from a variety of disciplines in conversations to tackle themes inspired by an exhibition. The April 12 event will focus on Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series.

How do YOU search for data?

Calling all data users! Communities Count is seeking input from anyone interested in accessing data about King County communities. We want to improve the way we organize data on our two favorite websites – Communities Count and Public Health’s Community Health Indicators.

Right now, finding some of our data is like going on a treasure hunt with misleading clues – indicators can be hidden in categories that are too technical, too obscure, and maybe even obsolete. We want you to be able to find the data you need as quickly and easily as possible, using strategies that are natural to YOU. We can only achieve that goal with your help.

We hope you will take 10-15 minutes to provide feedback via an online activity called a CARD SORT (link here). The CARD SORT is fun, and its helpfulness will increase as more people participate. Please feel free to share the link with your friends and colleagues. This is a limited-time opportunity: the CARD SORT will only be available from March 1st through 15th.

Race in America from the Obama White House

As America’s First Family departs from the White House, we are reminded of comments by President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on the topic of race – something they didn’t often discuss.

On America’s history of slavery: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves—and I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention, July 25, 2016. Talking about slavery is painful, but acknowledging that part of our nation’s history is essential to understanding its enduring impacts.

Racial income disparities in King County continue to increase.

On income inequality: “Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.” Barak Obama’s farewell address, Chicago, January 10, 2017. Yes, but…. In King County, 2014 income for Blacks was still below its 2008 high (of $38,847). More significantly, the difference between income for Blacks and those in the highest income group (whites and Asians vied for first place) grew from $20,970 in 1999 to $53,258 in 2015.

On the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Barak Obama, White House Rose Garden, March 23, 2012.

On compassion: Quoting from To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it…. For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change. For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.” Barak Obama’s farewell address, Chicago, January 10, 2017.

For perspectives on economic inequality, see Communities Count data on racial wealth and income disparities, blogs on growing wealth disparities and the unfairness of Washington state and local taxes, and the Home Page Spotlight on the rising fortunes of the top 1%. To learn about the lasting effects of housing discrimination on King County communities, see Communities Count and Public Health blogs.

Nonprofits hailed as new leaders

When we seek deep knowledge about low-income communities in our region, where do we turn? If King County is anything like Boston, new research by sociologist Jeremy Levine suggests that nonprofit community-based organizations may have “superseded elected officials as legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods.”

Poster for meeting called by King County community-based organization

Poster for meeting called by King County community-based organization

Levine proposes that as public funding has declined, policy makers and public- and private-sector funders rely on community-based organizations – not only as providers of services (food assistance, affordable housing, job training, etc.) – but increasingly as “invested and deeply knowledgeable representatives of the neighborhoods.”

In part this trust comes from the consistency of organizations that are not subject to political turnover. In its discussion of Levine’s findings, The Atlantic’s CITY LAB noted that low-income neighborhoods benefit from this consistency as “empowered community organizations present a stronger front against displacement, environmental racism, and transit inequity.” At the same time, Levine acknowledges the flip side – organizations that do not adequately represent all the communities they serve cannot be voted out.

Local nonprofit leader Vu Le may welcome Levine’s findings. Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit that works to bring more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector, Le blogged last year about why the leaders of nonprofits serving marginalized communities should be respected as leaders and as experts about their communities: “We, above any other field, must act on the belief that people most affected by inequities must be leaders in the movement. It is the right thing to do. Imagine a group of men leading an effort and making important decisions on women’s issues like reproductive health, and then asking women to come give feedback at a meeting.”

More recently, Le wrote about his frustration with funders’ and policy makers’ lack of trust “that people and communities who have endured decades or millennia of injustice actually understand their own problems and know how to fix them.”

Levine has observed nonprofits taking on leadership roles in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. As requests for proposals (RFPs) for King County initiatives go out to community-based organizations in the coming months, we may see if funders trust (in Vu Le’s words) “that communities have the solutions, that they are the solutions.”

Wealth Gap Widens

Federal wealth-building policies work well – for the wealthy

A new report by the Institute for Policy Studies grabbed headlines with a bold assertion:  “Without change, African-American and Latino families won’t match white wealth for centuries.”  Centuries!  Less heralded in the media but more relevant to speeding the journey to greater equity was the report’s exploration of federal and federally sanctioned policies that have protected the economic interests of predominantly white Americans and restricted access to wealth for people of color.  [For in-depth comparisons of the top 1% and the bottom 99% in King County, Washington state, and the U.S., see Communities Count’s latest home page Spotlight.]

wealth disparities blog   Communities Count   Tableau Public 2

Why wealth?

Income pays the bills, but wealth is a better indicator of economic security and opportunity.  Wealth provides an economic buffer that, according to the report, “helps families get through lean times and empowers them to climb the economic ladder.  Wealth is money in the bank, a first home, a college degree and retirement security – it’s the countless opportunities afforded by having savings and investments.”

In 2013, mean wealth for white households was 7 times greater than for Black households and 6 times greater than for Latino households.  If current trends continue, wealth disparities in 2043 will be even more extreme – an 11-fold difference between Blacks and whites and a 7-fold difference between Latinos and whites.

wealth disparities blog   Communities Count   Tableau Public

 

The report documents disparities in home ownership, employment, income (and differential returns on income), economic resilience, educational attainment (and returns on education), business ownership (and value of businesses owned), retirement savings (and access to employer-sponsored retirement plans), and exposure to “wealth-stripping products and services.”

Many of these disparities can be traced to past and/or ongoing discrimination.  But the heart of the report is its hard-nosed focus on policy.

Federal wealth-building investments after the Great Depression

The report details the huge investments made by the federal government to help American households recover from the Great Depression and World War II.  And it describes how these investments, by design or accident, could not be accessed equitably by people of color.  For example,

  • Real-estate “redlining” – a widespread discriminatory practice sanctioned by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) – restricted access to mortgages by racial and ethnic-group minorities, differentially excluding them from “the opportunity to invest in the largest driver of wealth in this country: a home.”  From 1934 until redlining was banned by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, households of color received just 2% of FHA loans. [See Public Health Insider for possible associations between redlining and health outcomes in King County.]
  • The Social Security Act of 1935 excluded farmworkers and domestic workers (primarily people of color) from coverage.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excluded several tip-based professions (such as shoe shiners, domestic workers, servers, and Pullman porters – all with predominantly Black workers) from the U.S.’s first minimum-wage protections.
  • The benefits of 1944 G.I. Bill – which has provided millions of veterans with access to low-cost home mortgages, low-interest business loans, tuition assistance, unemployment compensation, and support for living expenses while in school – were not distributed fairly.  Biased local administration prevented many veterans of color from getting home loans, business loans, and placement in skilled and semiskilled jobs.

Current wealth-building policies: Is history repeating itself?

Through the federal tax code, the U.S. spends “more than a half trillion dollars annually to help households build wealth,” according to the report.  But many current wealth-building policies “continue to heavily favor households that do not need help building wealth while doing little or nothing for low-wealth households of color.”

Annual taxation-related expenditures to build wealth include programs to support home ownership, increase accessible savings through investments and inheritances, give preferential treatment to retirement plans, and support higher education.  Using educational support as an example, the authors point out that 90% of higher education tax spending is in the form of after-purchase subsidies that can only be used by those who have the resources to front the costs of tuition, books, and other qualified expenses – something that may not be possible for many working families.

Suggestions for the future

After demonstrating the power of past federal policies, the report’s authors propose specific actions to align wealth-building policies with the needs of those who are not already wealthy:

  • Audit federal policies “to understand the role current federal policies play in perpetuating or closing the racial wealth divide.”
  • “Replace the mortgage interest and real estate tax deductions with tax benefits that encourage and support home ownership among low-wealth families and communities of color.”
  • Expand eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to low-wealth workers and those without dependents; allow families to save a portion of their EITC as emergency savings.
  • Provide a simple, safe, and affordable retirement savings product to low-wealth families and households of color.
  • At birth, provide every child with a Children’s Savings Account (CSA).
  • Expand existing progressive taxes.
  • Explore a dedicated wealth tax.

The report was jointly produced by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Corporation for Enterprise Development (cfed), and the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative, a cfed program.

See recent Communities Count updates of national median wealth trends, mean wealth trends, race/ethnicity wealth trends, and mean and median race/ethnicity wealth trends by age.  COMING SOON:  Communities Count blog about the impact of state and local tax policies on inequality.