The new story emerging and condensing about post-pandemic Seattle and Bellevue: The former is a failure, but the latter is a success.
The political purpose of this story: To normalize the criminalization of culturally induced poverty in a metropolis that has a larger gross domestic product than the second-richest country in Africa, South Africa. (Seattle's GDP is around $380 billion, and South Africa's is around $350 billion. In fact, the Seattle metropolitan area's GDP is not far from that of Nigeria. With 200 million black souls, that country counts as the biggest and most populous African economy.)
And what is South Africa's population? Sixty million. And what is the population of the Seattle metropolitan area? Three-and-a-half million. And how many people live on the streets of the densest county of this super-rich metropolis? Around 11,571 in 2020.
To be sure, the GDP is a flawed way to measure economic value in human terms, as it includes unproductive forms of wealth generation (such as shares, bonds, and other speculative assets) and it mostly excludes the value of domestic and reproductive work primarily provided by the labor power of women. But, in capitalist terms, the measure explains the globally synchronized order of national economies, and, in each of those economies, it also explains the class order structured by their distributive policies.
If we focus on the Seattle metropolitan area, we see a class order that includes a considerable number of people who own little to nothing. And if we examine those in this lowest class (the homeless), we find a telling disparity that's touched upon in a July 2020 Bellevue Reporter post:
2020 data shows that people of color are disproportionately affected by homelessness. Even though Native Americans and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders make up 1 percent of the King County population, they respectively constitute 15 percent and 4 percent of those experiencing homelessness in the area. Black residents comprise 7 percent of the King County population but represent 25 percent of those experiencing homelessness.
This is interesting. Can we ask why POCs are over-represented in the lowest rung of our ownership society? Could it be they have a natural predilection for life on the streets? After all, the 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault famously said in Madness and Civilization that in the early period of the modern moment (the 17th century) the consensus was mad people could endure the cold in a way that the sane could not. Maybe something like this consensus exists today: POCs can endure homelessness in a way most whites can't.
Is there a Native, African, or Islander gene for extreme and humiliating poverty that is less prevalent in whites? Or does this have anything to do with historical forces that might be old but that are far from exhausted, and that continue to project, through the class prism, a racialized past onto the present and the future?
And exactly what are these forces? When it comes to Natives and Islanders, the historical issue is the robbery of land. When it comes to Africans, it's the robbery of labor-power. And who were the robbers? Well, primarily those on the top of a class order within a racialized class system: the class order of white Americans.
You might think this is a bit of a stretch, but all it takes is a moment of simple, almost effortless reflection to see you have only two ways to explain this discrepancy: 8% of non-whites make up 45% of those living on the streets of a county whose clear majority (66%) is white. This result must have either a biological or a historical explanation.
The Seattle Times' Jon Talton, a man whose racial kind clearly benefited from the appropriation of Native land and black labor, apparently sides with the biological explanation in his recent article: "Across the lake, a city looks to profit from Seattle’s mistakes."
You have two ways to read this piece, which basically says Seattle is heading to economic catastrophe because it has shown some concern about the homeless crisis and the predominant modes of policing of poverty. One reading is: Yes, Seattle has lost its head (gone too far to the left) and, as a consequence, is losing its business edge; the other is, this is a racist article dressed up as common sense and pushed by one of the largest news institutions in the region.
If you remove the background of the GDP and the way its distributive systems structure a society with a foundation of racially determined exploitation, then all of Talton's key points about Seattle's undoing will have the ring of center-left common sense:
A majority of the City Council is focused on defunding the police and assorted social-justice initiatives. Seattle’s unsheltered population has ballooned, especially those camping in parks and on sidewalks, including in the heart of downtown. Tents make some sidewalks virtually impassable, including near at least one major bus stop.
Riots, looting, vandalism and arson rocked the city early in 2020, highlighted by a lethal abandonment of a segment of Capitol Hill. Mayor Jenny Durkan proclaimed the so-called CHOP could be “a summer of love” before its sinister consequences were revealed and she pratfell into being a powerless lame duck.
And he does not stop...
“Low-level crimes” are tolerated (low level unless you are a victim) in Seattle. Police response times are hurting and nearly 200 officers left the department in 2020.
Meanwhile, the city on the other side of Lake Washington is experiencing almost none of these problems.
In Bellevue, sidewalk camping isn’t tolerated, the homeless population is small and such crimes as shoplifting usually guarantee a trip to jail.
It must be pointed out that Bellevue, a minority-majority location that's experiencing a major and far-from-over transition that's transforming the suburban hub to what the Seattle Met recently described as "Seattle’s 'twin' city," is used by a "common sense" columnist as a foil for an implicit program to continue our region's racialized class structure.
And besides, Bellevue is not the bimbo that Talton makes it out to be. Its community and politicians are becoming more concerned about the homeless crisis, which certainly has the same racial features as Seattle's crisis. And, secondly, the idea of seeing Seattle's economy as distinct from Bellevue's is nothing but bizarre. Those much-talked about Amazon jobs are not moving to Long Island City. They are still here. And they will soon be filled by people moving around on a light rail system that will finally provide a fast and dependable form of public transportation between the cities and their suburbs.
With this in mind, we can see that what's left out of Talton's article is the outright command that Seattle learns to stop feeling sad and being all concerned about its culturally imposed poverty, and to start calling its population of homeless Indians and Negroes lazy.