Tag Archives: Black Power

Reckoning with Seattle: Race, Class, and Community in the Emerald City

The historiography of Seattle evades simple classification. Urban historians might ask, why Seattle? What does the city’s history contribute to our understanding of urban planning, housing policy, and the urgent questions surrounding race and policing? Where to locate Seattle within regional and cartographic taxonomies, and their attendant historiographies, is similarly fraught. Indeed Seattle features prominently in scholarship coming out of the fields of Western History, Pacific Northwest History, and Urban History. Similarly, the transnational turn in U.S. history and American Studies has led to new insights that situate Seattle within the larger Asia-Pacific world. Finally, the city offers scholars in the fields of Ethnic Studies, Asian American Studies, Indigenous Studies, African American Studies, and Latina/o and Chicana/o Studies a rich text to examine multiracial an multiethnic solidarities as well as comparative and relational processes of racial formation.

It would be wrong to say my work is firmly grounded in, and ultimately about, Seattle. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to describe my scholarly relationship to the city as Seattle-adjacent. I began graduate school intending to write about the relationship between the city’s Black and Asian residents in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of that research will appear in a forthcoming article for the Pacific Historical Review entitled “Politics in Other Ways: Negotiating Black Power, Radical Politics, and Multiracial Solidarities in Seattle’s Asian American Community.” The article examines the terrain of Black, Asian, and Latino community activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I excavate the ways in which a cadre of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans joined with radical activists from the city’s Black and Latino communities, claiming solidarity across difference to articulate an inclusive, anti-racist politics in a city that had long heralded its exceptional commitment to racial harmony.

The article opens with Japanese American resident Mike Tagawa’s decision to join the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. Tagawa was not the only Asian American to join the Panthers; he was soon joined by Japanese American teenager Guy Kurose and Filipino musician Mike Gillespie.[1] To be sure, Seattle was not the only city in which Asian Americans were either official members of, or close collaborators with, the Black Panther Party.[2] But thanks to the incredible digital repository of documents, oral history interviews, and historical newspapers created by the University of Washington historian James Gregory and his students, robust, granular research of these multiracial and multiethnic encounters is possible. The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project is a model for digital humanities projects on its own. It is a collaboration between faculty, archivists and librarians, students, and members of the local community, allowing for first-person narratives from the city’s activist grassroots.

 

Black Panther tagawa5 400w
Mike Tagawa, Garfield High School, 1969. Photo credit Eugene Tagawa,
http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/tagawa.htm

 

yellow-peril-Black-Power-sign
Richard Aoki via http://www.eugenelim.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/yellow-peril-Black-Power-sign.jpg

At the center of this story is the area in and around the Central District, a four square mile section of the city sitting between downtown Seattle to the west and Lake Washington at its eastern border. In addition to being the center of the Black community, it also sat directly adjacent to the Asian American International District. As was the case with Black neighborhoods and “ethnic enclaves” in cities across the nation, the composition of the region was the result of decades of legal and informal forms of racial housing segregation.[3] But the shared experiences caused by this spatial proximity created the very possibilities for a grassroots multiracial activism poised to challenge both the structures of racial inequality and the limits of racial liberalism. Seattle was not the only city in which residents built multiracial solidarities, of course. But the fact that Black and Asian residents were largely integrated in segregated Central District created opportunities not so easily realized in other cities. Tagawa said of growing up in in the Central District: “It was all good. We all got along. I guess I kind of thought that it was kind of like that every place” and “it was almost like paradise because all the races got along.”[4]

Seattle-as-place is fundamental to this research in another way. In the second half of the 1960s—marked by urban rebellion, the rising influence of Black Power direct-action tactics, and municipal debates about the War on Poverty—cities were at the epicenter of many of the nation’s most urgent debates. Within the national discourse about the so-called “urban crisis,” Seattle leaders made a case for its unique regional identity, couched in a celebratory historical narrative of multiracial and multicultural harmony.[5] In many ways—at least in the public pronouncements of officials and community leaders—it exemplified the post-World War II ideology of racial liberalism, which held that the problems of racial inequality and subjugation were not systemic and could be solved through the palliative effects of political inclusion.[6]

Seattle, Washington Roosevelt Hotel sign
Roosevelt Hotel sign, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, September 22, 2009, Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

In a 1967 address to the city council, Mayor J.D. Braman stated that the “social and related problems we have are far, far less critical than those in many other cities.”[7] Edwin Pratt, the Executive Director of the Seattle Urban League (SUL) and a celebrated leader of the city’s Black community also weighed in, telling a Seattle Times reporter in 1966, “Seattle, like San Francisco, has been given a reputation of a cosmopolitan, color-blind racially progressive city.”[8] Such pronouncements from city officials were especially meaningful at a moment of such turbulence in urban centers throughout the nation. In an era of widespread urban rebellion, conflict between municipal officials and residents over the appropriation of War on Poverty funds and programmatic leadership, the rise of Black Power and other radical grassroots formations, and growing national discontent with the Vietnam War, city leaders counted themselves lucky.[9] Indeed in 1967 alone, just one year after Braman and Pratt praised Seattle’s “progressive” racial politics, of the 164 collective disorders between police and urban residents reported by the National Advisory Council on Civil Disorders, Seattle was conspicuously absent.[10]

My analysis seeks to explicate the possibilities and limits of radical politics under hegemonic conditions of racial liberalism. And here again the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project as well as the records housed at University of Washington Special Collections provide a rich repository of documents, audio recordings, and images that illuminate a multiplicity of voices and disrupt establishment narratives.

In the wake of increasing tension and violence between Central District residents and the police following a number of police shootings of African American men and the arrest of Black Panther chapter head Aaron Dixon and member Curtis Harris ostensibly over stolen office supplies, the response from the established leadership of conservative organizations like the Japanese American Citizens League was often tepid at best. Nevertheless, a growing cadre of younger Black and Asian residents similarly committed to radical anti-racist, anti-capitalist exploitation politics continued to work—purposeful, intentioned dialogue based on an ethic of listening and hearing before speaking—to find common ground. As such, my analysis privileges complexity and contradiction, attending to the process of grassroots activism and politics.

One example in particular shows how these multiracial configurations of community and identity were put into practice. Between 1965 and 1969, local residents organized a monthly community meeting series. The Grass Roots Forum, as it was called, brought together a panel of “experts” and residents to discuss the chosen topic for the month. Crucially however, the largest portion of time was allotted for audience participation. Unlike community meetings initiated by city officials to introduce and discuss municipal programs, the purpose of the Grass Roots series was not immediate policy-making and implementation. Rather, it was meant to be an inclusionary, multiracial, and autonomous space in which the community decided for itself the issues it found most pressing. Topics, which included “The World Revolution of Color” and “Seattle’s Scheduled Race Riot,” offered a snapshot of the most urgent concerns and interests in the Central District area. By creating a space for creative and spontaneous engagement, Grass Roots offered alternatives to the often-stifling political process, and represented what the historian Anthony Macias calls “multicultural urban civility.”[11]

Unlike the frenzied bureaucratic efficiency of City Hall, characterized by cutthroat competition, deadlines, and funding constraints, and in which success and failure was measured strictly by legislation passed and government funds awarded, Grass Roots created space for alternative temporal rhythms and means of participation. At the same time, however, panelists and invited speakers often came from the leadership ranks of established civil rights and civic organizations. Rather than evaluate it according to moderate/radical or establishment/outsider binaries, I consider the Grass Roots Forum series as a contested terrain, one upon which panelists and audience members made competing claims to ownership over the space and its messaging. Inasmuch as the panelists’ words provide insight into the multiple identities and ideologies of Central District residents, the spontaneous disruptions of audience members and the debate they elicited revealed the tangled, nuanced relationship between established leadership and the alternative imaginaries of residents at the grassroots level. At different moments, and in unexpected ways, panelists either quarreled with audience members or departed from the organizational frameworks they represented, claiming solidarity with the radical demands of audience members.

On December 14th 1965 residents convened for a Grass Roots panel entitled, “Should Orientals Become Involved in the Civil Rights Movement?” The urgency of questions surrounding Black and Asian civil rights collaborations was evinced by the large turnout, with the Seattle Times noting over 100 people in attendance,[12] The six-person panel made up a cross-section of prominent members of the Chinese and Japanese community establishment: it included attorneys, architects, business owners, and leaders in Asian civic organizations.[13] While the panel certainly tended towards a middle-class orientation, the discussion that followed evinced the presence of genuine grassroots critique and alternative configurations based on more explicitly anti-racist and working-class orientations.

The panelists all acknowledged a collective hesitancy in the Asian American community to fully embrace and participate in movements for racial justice. They argued however, that their inaction did not reflect a lack of concerns; rather, they blamed the “particular cultural background of Orientals,” which discouraged “demonstrative acts like walking on picket lines or carrying signs.”[14] But Benjamin Woo, a prominent architect and member of a number of local civic organizations stated that this was no longer an acceptable justification for political inaction, and the time had come for leadership and active participation in the civil rights struggle in order to “arouse the citizenry, including the White population, to the same degree of indignation over racial discrimination as would ensue if the city decided to put a garbage dump next door.”[15] Chinese American attorney and active member of the Chinese American civic organization, the Cathay Post, Warren Chan echoed many of the same sentiments when he said in response to the forum’s central question: “Is it possible for a member of a minority group to not be involved?” when they were already involved each time they “walke[d] out into the street, climb[ed] on a bus, or sat down in a restaurant.”[16]

In the discussion that followed, audience members challenged the panelists in spirited and contentious debate. Walter Hundley, the director of the Seattle CORE chapter and who would later become director of the city’s Model Cities Program, argued that complaints from Asian American leaders about the challenges in political organizing were nothing more than a “red herring” meant to “divide and disrupt popular action.”[17] This was met with audible agreement from African Americans in the audience, with one noting the same tensions existed within the Black community between working-class residents of the Central District and middle-class Blacks who they believed to be “too well satisfied with the status quo.”[18] A Seattle Times article about the forum reported that the general sentiments among African American audience members was that the spirit of “defeatism” in the struggle to organize the Asian American community was the real obstacle to multiracial harmony.

Just when it seemed as though the debate had reached an impasse, the respected Japanese American community leader, Reverend Mineo Katagiri, rose to speak. As one of the elder statesmen in the Japanese American community, Katagiri elicited respect from middle-class members of the JACL to the younger generation of activists, many of whom aligned themselves with the working-class orientation of Black Power activists in spite of their own middle-class upbringing. Drawing perhaps the loudest applause of the night, Katagiri addressed Asian Americans in attendance, asking “Are we willing to recognize the leadership of the Negro in the civil rights movement and join with him?”[19] Local Japanese American architect Calvin Takagi followed with his own address to the Nisei. “Recognizing that tomorrow it may be our turn—again,” they had two options: either “play it cool or get in the fight.” The only possible decision, he said, was to get in the fight and build solidarity based not on direct equivalence of experience and circumstance, but on a shared commitment to racial and economic justice.

Public Market Center, Seattle, Washington
Public Market Center, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, August 4, 2009, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

The Grass Roots Forum series revealed two often-conflicting political trajectories in the Central District, both of which are central to my broader analysis. On the one hand, their very existence was a testament to the commitment among the established leaders of the area’s Black and Asian communities to build bridges and lines of communication across racial and ethnic lines. Conversely the largely middle-class and integrationist orientation of the panelists exposed the increasing ideological chasm between proponents of liberal integration and those who imagined radical alternatives and resisted co-option by the state.

The extant scholarship on Seattle has made crucial interventions in topics ranging from immigration, working class life and labor, race, gender and sexuality, environmental studies, urban studies, globalization, and popular culture (please see accompanying bibliography here). And yet important and interesting questions and problems remain. The changes to the landscape and the city’s demographic wrought by gentrification and expansion of the tech-economy are certainly worthy of study. The study of sport should also look to Seattle. As American professional sporting leagues increasingly become global commodities explicitly targeting Asian markets, the Seattle Mariners franchise has been a leader in actively scouting and signing Japanese and Korean players, notably the Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. There were also a number of ethnic and racial community sports leagues throughout the twentieth century that may be useful for scholars of sport, Asian American history, and African American history.

Inasmuch as Seattle’s national profile is often based on pithy images of rain-soaked, outdoorsy coffee addicts listening to 1990s alt-rock, scholars have long made a compelling case for the significance and uniqueness of the city and its history. Indeed, Seattle may be uniquely positioned for relevance in the age of globalization, transnational mobilities and identities, and multiracial configurations of urban communities.

Maki Smith is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Global and Intercultural Studies (Asian/Asian American Studies) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Smith received his PhD in US History from the University of California, San Diego in 2015, and is currently preparing the manuscript for his first book, Unruly Democracy: Global Movements and the Crisis of Cold War Governance

[1] Aaron Dixon, My People are Rising: Memoirs of a Black Panther Party Captain (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 104.

[2] Diane C. Fujino, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[3] Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Steven Gregory, Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Craig Wilder, A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[4] Mike Tagawa, interview by Janet Jones, 6 June 2005, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/tagawa.htm.

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[5] See Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011) and Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District From 1870 Through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994).

[6] Racism, according to this framework was not structural and deeply embedded in the nation’s institutions and society, but was rather a problem of individual prejudice. As such, racial liberalism brought with it a kind of optimism about the capacity of individuals to overcome their own prejudices through increased understanding and familiarity. Since racism was simply the “bad ideology” of individuals and was contradictory to the fundamental tenets of equality and justice at the heart of national exceptionalist mythology, eradicating it would not require massive structural and institutional readjustments. See Daniel Martinez HoSang, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives in the Making of Postwar California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 13-14; Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Peggy Pasco, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 313.

[7] Marshall Kaplan, Gans, and Kahn, The Model Cities Program: The Planning Process in Atlanta, Seattle, and Dayton (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 44-47.

[8] Lane Smith, “Potential Here, Say Rights Leaders: Seattle Not Immune From Race Disturbances,” Seattle Times, 12 October 1966, Box 13, Folder 31, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[9] Indeed, disputes over the degree to which the War on Poverty’s requirement of “maximum feasible participation” granted individual communities autonomy and programmatic authority was one of the principle sources of conflict between government officials and city residents throughout the country. In cities from Oakland, to Detroit, to New York, residents and officials clashed—at times to the point of violence and collective rebellion—over the boundaries between the government’s conception of permissible levels of participation and local demands for community control. See for example Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action During the American Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

[10] See National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 113.

[11] Anthony Macias, “Bringing Music to the People: Race, Urban Culture, and Municipal Politics in Postwar Los Angeles,” American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (September 2004), 694.

[12] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[13] They included: Midori Thiel of the JACL; prominent attorney and active member of the Cathay Post, Warren Chan; University of Washington professor of Social Work, Calvin Takagi; architect and active member of the JSCC the Seattle China Club, Benjamin Woo; attorney and member of the Seattle Housing Advisory and JACL, Toru Sakahara; and moderator and JACL chapter vice-president, Fran Wada.

[14] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[15] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[16] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[17] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[18] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[19] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.