I noticed something after one of my first commutes back from work. I had spent the day at a basketball camp in South Seattle, where all the players and coaches excluding myself were black. On my fifteen-minute walk back home from the University of Washington Link station, however, I passed by only white and Asian people. This simple visual comparison quickly identifed one of Seattle’s foremost problems: racial segregation.
2016 census data revealed that north Seattle is 69 percent white while south Seattle is only 28 percent white. The city’s long-standing residential divide is striking, but its school system is worse yet. In fact, 17 percent of Seattle public schools were “intensely segregated” as of 2018—meaning 90 percent or more of students are non-white—which is six times the percentage in 1990. This statistic is particularly concerning, as it indicates that Seattle schools have become more segregated even as neighborhoods have diversified. Further, standardized testing suggests that hypersegregated schools are severely under-performing. A recent Stanford study found that white students in Seattle’s public schools perform two grade levels above the United States average on standardized exams while black students test one-and-a-half grade levels below the national average—or three-and-a-half grade levels below their white peers. This is to say that white kids in Seattle’s public schools generally thrive while students of color tend to fall behind. In fact, the gap in achievement between black and white students in Seattle is the fifth-largest in America and the largest in Washington, while the two-and-a-half difference between white and Hispanic achievement is not far behind. For a city that prides itself on its progressive spirit, the facts paint a far bleaker picture of its reality.
I see the stark racial contrast between north and south Seattle every day. But while the disparity is disheartening, I am merely a third-party observer. Meanwhile, the kids I work with through the Austin Foundation are directly at the mercy of their city’s school system, one which continues to fail at providing them with equal opportunity. At Concord International Elementary School, there are just two total white students out of the two classes I help coach—to put this number into context, there are more than a dozen Spanish-speaking students in one of the classes alone. 40.8% of the South Park neighborhood, where Concord is located, is white. This contrast highlights a central problem in Seattle’s segregation situation: white parents are unwilling to send their children to their minority-heavy neighborhood schools. As Katharine Strange wrote in the Seattle Times last month, white parents generally view choosing neighborhood schools “in terms of sacrifice.” That is, white parents surrender some degree of privilege if they do not send their kids to private school or another alternative, so they are making a sacrifice by choosing their neighborhood school. Many of these parents are solid liberals—they vote Democrat, buy organic and fill their social media feeds with “woke” posts. But this progressiveness is a gilded one. Instead of cultivating the equity that some of them so loudly espouse, white parents deepen the racial privilege divide by keeping their children out of neighborhood schools. Indeed, outward wokeness is inconsequential without commensurate action.
The school segregation problem is not limited to Seattle. In fact, desegregation of schools has been a contentious topic of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary season. We have a long way to go—and as someone who attended a private high school, I feel like a hypocrite writing about this issue as I am. Nonetheless, I am convinced that the best Seattle—and America—will remain out of reach as long as school segregation persists.