I’m not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination but I do think and I do see inspiration in words like those in Matthew 25:40. I take this sort of thing seriously, and by the by a lot of what I write and right will end up being a fair mix of all philosophical traditions. It is part of where I’m from and it guides where I’m going.
So in that regard I feel it’s vital that I speak uncomfortable truths, even when people come bearing gifts and suggesting good will.
First, a little background: Seattle is currently contemplating a push that would set the minimum wage at $15. This, like most social justice struggles, is largely rooted in the need to provide not just equity but fair and just recompense for those wronged at an institutional level. What started as a grassroots movement–as Seattle does–moved into a popular wave–as Seattle does–and is now in the hands of committees and Councilmembers–again, and again, as Seattle does. So here we are.
As is typical with most of this type of activism there is some strong pushback from the business “community”. Essentially it is felt that pushing the city’s minimum wage would represent a hardship that is insurmountable by small businesses. The city’s character will change, it is argued, because those quirky shops we love will go away. In a city that is confronted with a supposed loss of its “flash” this is a powerful argument.
It is also wrong.
There seems to be a casual disregard for the underpinnings of what made those small businesses work, or even what made Seattle what it is. Underlying much of Seattle, both figuratively and literally, are untold thousands of people who have lived and died in poverty and rejection from society through institutional forces that directly benefit some and directly harm others. As a city we owe much to their lives, even if in life and death we don’t pay attention to them.
We can start this story from the beginning of the city we know, from its very founding. Seattle came after Seattle. Never was it the intention to name it thus, and in fact, it was initially called by the settlers “New York, Alki”, or “New York, Someday”. This wishful invocation itself was a product of the then-visible and now unseen. Alki is a word from the smooth and normalized Chinook Jargon that the original peoples and traders used.
Even then our city was built in spirit on the backs of the first peoples, even as the comity of the close confines of our little crossing over place swelled in pride and then shrank as ignorance took hold. As we all know, it was shortly thereafter that Seattle became Seattle, named after the person, whose Anglicized name was retooled and retooled in a game of rhetorical keep away that forced the distinction we now know of when we speak of Sealth or Si’ahl. Even to this day there’s still an awkward non-Native ownership of his name, but his descendants are grateful for the honor all the same.
More below the jump.
What did Native Americans get out of this? Well, the honor of a name, I suppose. A shrinking population by all accounts. Shot in the back. Harassed in stores. Ignored. More grimly, however, is the poverty left behind. This spirit that built Seattle is also the one that, based on stats from the Evans School, sees 70% of all Native Americans that work earning below that $15 wage that activists are pushing for. Indeed, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are the only ethnic and cultural group that has a majority of its workers earning under $15 an hour and it’s well over 50%.
And that’s only the Native American and Alaska Natives that can work in the first place. As many will tell you, even if they’re conventionally educated it’s sometimes not even possible to get over the initial problem that arises when you sign that EEO form or show up for an interview while Native. So as a community we are starting from a high unemployment rate and struggle to enter a system that sees 70% of us making under $15/hr in the city of Seattle. That’s two-thirds of Native men and a whopping three-fourths of Native women.
It’s a no-win system for Native Americans. This is what opponents of $15/hr are defending? And they defend the statistics that show other people of color are statistically more likely to be pushed into low wage jobs?
We can talk about good will, but it was professed good will that built this system. The paternalistic notion that says in one breath “you are lucky we are giving you a job” but in another will tell you that your consumption of what they produce is the lifeblood of the economy. It functions on the idea that it is not the person that is necessary to the system, it is the system itself that is necessary to the person. It orients blame for both low wages and any systemic failure toward the citizen, the voter and the overlooked alike.
So the system took from the poor and the discarded and claimed it as its own creation. The little Illahee, as Coll Thrush calls this city in his book Native Seattle, grew fat on the natives it welcomed and then rejected. It prospered on the backs of immigrants and black laborers. And in return they are told they have no right to change the system they were forced to build on the behalf of others.
This Seattle is an inhumane one. But it is not the real Seattle, the one that will live on in hearts.
What makes the real Seattle? Any discerning outsider or generations-deep resident can tell you, even if they don’t know how right they are. They’ll point to cultural markers and vital touchstones in the history of this quaint medium-sized city. Most know at least a little of Si’ahl, of the Suquamish, Duwamish and the tribes of the inside and the north, of the canoes and carved wood totems. They’ll let you know about Skid Row, Pike Place Market and the lake shores, located in places older than time immemorial with traditional names unknown to almost everyone, which, in the case of Pioneer Square and Downtown, have since been marked by always unseen Native faces. And they’ll tell you similar about the present.
They’ll tell you about Quincy, Jimi and transplant, via Aberdeen, Kurt.
It’s people, thrumming and pulsing, that make the city. The city is alive only if its residents are alive. Health and security are important to one and all and we are vivified by the warm glow of a people enriched and healthy. Our places and our people press forward through history, but it seems largely that only the people survive. Sure, there are landmarks, but these are mostly remnants of grand civic events or cherished spaces saved by the public because they are vital to our civic identity. Every decade sees some part removed and replaced, another part elevated to a new “classic” or “historic” status.
Businesses will say it is they that create the flash of the city. That cute coffee shop, that bookstore, that restaurant, that club. But for every one of those that claims to hold the spark there are many more who had done more to keep the city flickering like a beacon that was snuffed unceremoniously by newcomers or old foes like economic failure.
And yet the people remain. For better or worse, they remain.
For the better it is easy to remain. Premium pricing on new rental properties are no obstacle, the old fixer-uppers are all fixed up so they make due with a restored home. Their jobs are top tier, they have assistants, a good deal own their own business. Or businesses. The great privilege of Seattle is that it welcomes and fosters wealth, grooms affluence and makes Seattle cool into a hip new costume. If the system has arranged that you are the better.
For the worse though things are dire. Displacement and wholesale removal. Being afraid to sign an EEO form because it might lead to the unspoken reality that keeps you out of a job. Struggling to make ends meet. Unemployment. Poor health. Death.
Seattle has seen communities of color shrink and blow away in spite of every well-meaning effort to “reach out” and “embrace” social and racial justice. For example we can look at Native Americans, whose canoes and homes teemed along the shores of the Salish Sea, and who are increasingly rare in a city like Seattle. Not that anyone noticed, really. Such is the life for the supposed worse.
And yet the worse are often better prepared to take setbacks and problems in stride. Through community and the will to survive. Fighting and living and dying are seemingly the key goal for those who don’t make it out of the struggle. The poor, the unhealthy, those yearning for help, and yet so much of what we know to be Seattle is through these people.
The worse are the ones who gave Seattle its sound and soul. The cast-offs, the hippies, the punks, the rhythm and the blues, all cast off by the unaffected center of Seattle. Grunge was not the product of club owners whose tentacles dipped into various ventures, it was people who didn’t know what to do to deal with those club owners, making music to escape the artifice and barriers. In other times the same type of people took red lines and strummed them and made music that changed the world. And at other times they just thought people needed a good cup of coffee to survive the day.
To live on a healthy wage is to be granted the right to live long and healthy and, in your time, ultimately die in what you make your home. It is the right to make the best of what you have. It ensures stability and keeps you anchored to what matters to you. It spawns vitality and creativity. It gives new life again and again to a city that once called itself the “peerless city”. The city truly loses out when it cannot provide for the least of its citizens and it has to find ways to turn its eye to its own self-inflicted wounds anew. But when the city truly cares it finds a way to look at these problems head on and say “things must change”.
So our story comes back to the what and why.
We are told by some that the risks are too high for an increased wage, but we already know the risks of keeping wages low, keeping people down and shutting out people who only seek survival in Seattle. The city withers, vines creep in, they replace the original plant and eat down to the root and snuff that out too. The city that was once-and-altogether a mixed city of Native and White became one that disregarded and shunned the first peoples. And now their suffering is only a footnote or a commentary on police misconduct. The city that once prided itself on a robust Black community is now finding it hard to point to a core, a focus, except by pointing vaguely and meekly toward where those once were. And immigrants from the better and worse of Asia, Africa, Europe and the rest of the world, we pride ourselves on the fight to make their voices heard and yet as a city we have a ways to go to get it right.
It is fine to profess commitment to social and racial justice, but when you see the problem and do nothing then you are little more than a battery that powers the very injustice you decry. To say low wages are not a problem, that inequality is not that big a deal, is to take statistics that show so many groups treading water and say it’s a greater injustice that we should be bold in taking on these problems. It’s a horrifying injustice to say these problems aren’t that big a deal or that they’re overblown. We have groups of able-bodied individuals that are now guaranteed a less-than fair chance at a fair wage. It’s downright evil to say people are paid enough already through arbitrary tips and “please don’t leave” benefits that don’t cover the catastrophic after-effects of care and recovery. Not when we can see them, shaken and battered by this city, taking their families and leaving.
How can we say “it’s a hardship for me to consider paying you more” when we already see whole groups denied fairness and justice in this system?
We already know that the system is lined up against certain people and groups and we already know how the system facilitates certain people and groups to have access to fair loans, economic stability and honest equitable treatment that allow them to achieve what those others cannot. The system is clear.
And yet instead of wanting to confront the system we say “your hardship is a threat to my bottom line and the privilege that got me here”. We tell people their hardship in trying to keep food on the table is immaterial and offensive to the hardship they endure in taking the fruits of the system.
Perhaps the hardship for those with money enough to be political players and the capacity to own several businesses at once is in the fact that, deep down, to have to pay an equitable wage is to admit ownership and agency in the very system we see as being fatally unfair to some and luckily advantageous to others. It’s admitting the minor defeat of a system that has put communities and peoples into the very dirt we churn to shore up our shining new towers and cafes.
Seattle is a city that hollowed out the lives of many people. It lives and breathes in their dusty ribcages and among the wheezing and struggling.
It is time that as a city we step out of our dishonest system and work toward repatriating the dead we built our city on, honoring those still with us and finally (fairly) ensuring that those who struggle will need to struggle less, even if it stings us at first.
There is no humanity in a city that would do any less.
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25(NIV)