Politics & Policy

The Incredible Whiteness of Washington State’s ‘Progressive’ Policies

Skyline of Seattle, Wash., in 2017. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)
Democrats in the state government are harming blacks and helping whites.

Washington State progressives who like to position themselves as allies of blacks are failing to live up to their promises. In the state’s most recent legislative session alone, Democrats passed several measures that will do considerable harm to minorities, while whites will be the chief beneficiaries.

For example, Democrats broke 2017’s bipartisan agreement on school funding, which will almost certainly result in greater racial inequity in our school system. In order to satisfy a state-supreme-court decision, two years ago our legislators agreed to raise the state property tax by an average of 17 percent, on the condition that local school taxes would not be raised. The court had found the use of local taxes inequitable because schools in wealthy neighborhoods with higher property values received more funding. As progressives at the time pointed out, these same neighborhoods are predominantly white. During this session, they kept the increase in state taxes and allowed $2.8 billion in additional taxes at the local level. By breaking 2017’s agreement, we’re returning to the status quo ante and local levies are all but certain to be raised across the state, resulting in the same inequities the court previously identified.

Democrats also dropped a provision that would have ensured that charter schools would receive any increases in local school funding along with traditional public schools. Minorities are overrepresented in most Washington charter schools — the percentage of blacks in these schools is often two or three times the percentage of blacks in the communities in which they operate. Minority parents know all too well how traditional public schools have failed their children, and they are lining up to get their kids in: Almost all have waiting lists.

Further, ever-increasing property taxes in Washington have hit low-income minorities the hardest. My family used to live in Seattle’s Central District, where many of our neighbors were retired black homeowners on fixed incomes. As property-tax demands inexorably rose, these families were forced out of the neighborhood. Simultaneously, rising property values have shut out younger minorities from purchasing their own first homes in Seattle. As Gene Balk reported, in 1970 King County had a 49 percent black-homeownership rate, well above the national average, but now it has the fifth-lowest black-homeownership rate in the country among the 100 U.S. counties with the largest black populations.

Balk also notes that “while a racial-affordability gap exists in housing markets across the country, it is more extreme here than in most places.” Strong demand due to population growth is one factor. But another key driver has been a dramatic increase in land-use regulations since progressive Democrats passed 1990’s Growth Management Act. As a University of Washington study found, over the 17 years through 2006, the median inflation-adjusted price of a Seattle home rose from $221,000 to $447,800, and fully $200,000 of that increase can be attributed to land-use regulations. While they might be well-intentioned, these rules add significant costs that hurt the poor the most and close off their opportunities.

Nina Martinez has lobbied against another favorite progressive policy, bike lanes, arguing that they “displace the underprivileged and reapportion to the privileged, public monies.” And she has a point. “Residents who have access to a working bicycle are more likely to be white, male, and under 45 years of age,” the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) found. “Older residents and non-white residents are the least likely to have access to a working bicycle.” Moreover, as the most recent U.S. census found, only 2.8 percent of Seattle residents commute to work by bike. In a city that spent $12 million for a one-mile bike lane and has a 1.4-mile, almost $25 million project underway, both of which will mostly be used by white males, it’s hard not to conclude that progressive policies are disproportionately benefiting one race.

As minorities and lower-income residents have been priced out of Seattle and into the suburbs, they’ve also been forced to pay more in the form of longer commutes. And as congestion has gotten worse, these residents have become cut off from job opportunities they once could have traveled to. While the Seattle area has been a job-making machine over the past decade, the average number of jobs within a typical commute distance fell between 2000 and 2013 by up to 8 percent for some residents of South King County. For those living in Seattle or on the Eastside, both predominantly white areas, the number of nearby jobs rose between 6 and 9 percent. Although a stated goal of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is congestion relief, blacks in South King County shouldn’t expect help any time soon, because WSDOT’s secretary, Roger Millar, has made it clear it has other priorities and he’s largely given up on it.

Supporters of the state’s progressive legislators might point to this session’s overturning of the state’s longstanding ban on affirmative action as a boon for blacks and other minorities. But the reality is far more complicated. When California banned affirmative action, for instance, black and Hispanic enrollment at UCLA and Berkeley did fall, but the decline was mostly offset by increased enrollment at other schools. In addition, black and Hispanic graduation rates rose, especially in difficult STEM fields, where it’s more important for students not to be mismatched with their peers. Prior to the ban, talented minorities were being pulled into institutions by administrators more interested in diversity than graduation rates. Students ended up dropping out because they weren’t being matched with the right academic institutions.

“Black Lives Matter” signs litter front yards in Seattle’s wealthy and predominantly white suburbs, but their owners are doing nothing more than posturing. The candidates and policies they support all too often impair the opportunities available to minorities and favor wealthy and middle-class white residents. In other words, by supporting progressive candidates and their policies, these residents are harming blacks.

Nicholas Kerr works in marketing in the tech industry and lives in Seattle. He is a plaintiff in the case against the Seattle income tax and writes a blog, The Kerrant, on policy and being a dad at nkerr.com.

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