Spokane hides its ‘subtle’ housing racism, Black Lens editor tells conference

April 12, 2019 GMT

Sandra Williams wanted the crowd of more than 500 people to take a guess.

Williams, editor and publisher of the Black Lens newspaper, had just said that the average life expectancy for people living on Spokane’s South Hill near Manito Park is 82 years.

“Which is pretty good,” Williams told the crowd, attendees of this year’s Inland Northwest Fair Housing Conference at the Spokane Convention Center on Thursday morning. “The national average for the United States is 78.6 years.”

That’s when she turned to the crowd listening to her keynote speech. Williams, who started publishing her newspaper in 2015 for Spokane’s African-American community, wanted them to guess the average life expectancy in the historically black East Central neighborhood.

The audience – housing advocates and providers at the daylong conference to learn about fair housing, tenant and landlord rights, and more – was quiet at first, but soon numbers started flying out. Williams cupped her ear. Sixty-five, someone yelled. Seventy-five.

“Did anybody think it’s 80?” she said. “If it was, I wouldn’t be showing it to you, right? It’s 71.5. Less than the national average, less than the Washington average, less than Spokane County. Just that difference. Just come down that hill. That’s one of the lasting impacts of discrimination in housing. I don’t think there’s anything I can say that says it better than that. It impacts your life expectancy. That’s a 10-year difference.”

The theme of Williams’ talk was wrapped up in those two numbers – the decade of life someone living in a predominantly white neighborhood can expect to have over someone living in a community of color and poverty. Through stories of her own experience with housing discrimination, as well as the nation’s struggles with fair housing, Williams left the crowd with a decidedly direct message: There’s a lot of work to be done.

Growing up in a military family, Williams moved around a lot, living “comfortably” in base housing.

“I never thought much about housing. I had a decent upbringing. My dad was military,” she said.

The family settled in Spokane when she was 12, and it wasn’t until Williams was an adult in the 1980s that she saw firsthand how discrimination in housing works.

Someone from the local fair housing organization called her. They’d received reports of discrimination at a rental property in the Valley, and they were looking for a “tester,” an African-American person who could pose as a potential renter to see if discrimination was occurring.

“They’ll send in a black person. They’ll send in a white person and they observe how differently they’re treated,” she said. “I was a little nervous because the complaints were this person was overtly racist, the manager of the apartment complex.”

She worried the person would be “belligerent, angry and if I walked up to the door, certainly not wanting me to be there. So I gingerly knocked on the door, ready to run.”

A woman in her late 30s answered.

“She looked like a soccer mom,” Williams said. “She began to chat me up. For about 10 minutes, we stood at the door. She asked me questions about myself. We just talked back and forth and she was kind and nice. I thought, they’ve got it wrong. No way this woman is a racist. No way this woman is not letting black people live here. Someone made a mistake.”

The woman told Williams she’d “love to rent an apartment to you but we don’t have any vacancies.”

Williams left, and called the fair housing organization a few days later to check on what happened, ready to hear that the woman was cleared. That didn’t happen. The white “tester” who came after Williams, who shared a similar back story to Williams, was offered an apartment on the spot.

“That did something to me,” Williams said. “From an emotional place, it laid me out. I was so convinced that that was not the case.”

It was this “subtle” discrimination that Williams said she’s become familiar with in the Pacific Northwest.

“In Spokane, we don’t do that nasty, ugly racism. But we do a lot of the subtle stuff,” she said, calling it “more insidious” and “much more covert” than anything she’s experienced in the South, where she spent part of her childhood and where she has family.

She pointed to Martin Luther King Jr.’s experience in Chicago in 1966, when he first brought his nonviolent civil rights movement north to fight segregation in education, housing and employment.

“I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago,” King said then, after being violently attacked by a crowd of 700 white protesters on the city’s Southwest Side.

Williams didn’t echo King’s words, but she said the racism of Spokane is almost more dangerous than in the South, “where it’s just sort of in your face and in some ways, that’s a little bit safer for me because I know you don’t like me. No one pretends about it.

“I call it Spokane nice. People in Spokane really want to be viewed as nice. That’s paramount. We don’t want to be perceived as doing bad things or not liking people,” she said. “So we like to believe that all this stuff happened somewhere else. It happened in the South, or it happened in the East. It even happens in Seattle, but not here. Not in Spokane. But it did.”

Williams, however, reserved her harshest criticism for the policies and laws that allowed housing discrimination to persist for so long in the nation, through practices such as racially restrictive covenants, redlining, blockbusting and steering, all tactics outlawed with the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

“It wasn’t just a couple of racist people. It was codified into the way business was done, in every city, in every state in this country,” she said, noting that Realtors were “some of the biggest opposition in the country to getting fair housing laws passed.”

That law, the last of the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s, was passed in the wake of King’s death, and stripped prejudiced people of “laws in place that buttressed them up and kept them going,” Williams said.

Fifty years later, the law isn’t working as promised, Williams said, noting that home ownership among African Americans is about 42% – more than 20 points behind the average overall rate of 64%.

“Something is not working if the goal is to help people with homeownership,” she said, before tying homeownership to other indicators of American life. Education, transportation, healthy food, health care, access to credit, living wage jobs and wealth are all adversely affected if housing is insecure.

“Wealth is the big one,” she said. “Housing generates wealth. … We didn’t have that to pass down to our kids to generate wealth. My dad died in 2015, and one of the last things he said to me was, ‘Do not get rid of the house.’ ”

Though the law is flawed, Williams ended her speech by advocating for a new federal policy to end ongoing discrimination in housing.

“Despite the best intentions of the Fair Housing Act, there’s still discrimination. Some of it is explicit. Some of it’s implicit,” she said. “It was policies that got us here. It wasn’t just bad people doing bad things. It was governmental policy, and it’s going to take policy to get us out.”