Saturday, April 19, 2014

Forward into the past

The private “rideshare” commuting companies in Seattle, which have generated a fair amount of controversy (at least among city officials), seems simple enough in conception. They contract ordinary citizens willing to use their personal vehicles for carpool and vanpool functions, as an alternative to public transportation services and city taxies. Supposedly this set-up is a less expensive and more convenient option for users. That may be so, but naturally there are complaints that rideshare companies are in fact skirting the law, operating outside of established business regulations, and that they are taking the livelihood away from taxi drivers who must abide by safety, inspection and licensing rules. 

The Seattle City Council passed a measure requiring that since rideshare companies are, after all, businesses, they should be regulated as are all others. Otherwise, they are operating at an unfair advantage over their competitors. It seems, however, that at least 36,000 mostly (one suspects) white yuppie types got together in their downtown offices and put together a petition drive for a referendum opposed to having their privileges being imposed upon, so that now the regulations are currently on hold. As usual, some people are above the same rules and regulations as the rest of us less endowed with good fortune.

But I see something else behind all of this (big surprise there), and a Seattle Weekly article some months ago put its finger on it with its cover, asking who would you rather have a ride with: A “hot” blonde in hot pants, or some swarthy, ethnic, taciturn guy wearing a turban? People doing the rideshare thing are not looking for a “ride” with some big fat unemployed mama, despite what the Seattle Times might suggest (only young, attractive drivers appear on the Rideshare website). Now, I’m sure that the people who would rather do rideshare rather than taxis, or publics buses, will say it has nothing to do with being uncomfortable riding around “inferior” people they don’t like to be around. That is their prerogative. On the other hand, I don’t believe them.

The fact of the matter is that throughout most of its history, Seattle did not have a reputation of “progressiveness.” Racial segregation and discrimination was as entrenched as it was in the Deep South; even King County was originally named in honor of a Southern slave holder. Blacks were almost entirely ghettoized in the so-called “Central District.” North Seattle, still today a bastion of white dominion, was once home of the shamefully racist “Coon Chicken Inn,” with its grinning black minstrel caricature greeting whites-only patrons. 

Today, unprogressive racial attitudes are not just the preserve of right-wing bigots, and often manifests itself in the field of education, such as white complaints in regard to school choice and university enrollment. Western Washington University president Bruce Shepard recently “challenged” people to accept more diversity in the state’s universities, and that “diversity” was more than just gender equality within the white demographic. But one wonders just how much racial diversity the majority can stand. Past experience suggests very little when “privilege” is at issue; people are all for racial diversity--as long as it is the other person who has to be "discomfited" by it.

Perhaps surprising to some, the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area is among the most racially segregated in the country, although there has been some slight improvement, at least among the Asian presence in white neighborhoods. The 2010 Census also reveals that although Seattle has a black population of only 7.9 percent, 35 percent live below the poverty line. Latinos constitute only 6.6 percent of the city’s population, yet their poverty rate is 25.8 percent. Whites, who constitute 69.5 percent of the population, have “only” 10.9 percent living below the poverty rate.

Personally, I’ve never thought of Seattle as a “liberal” or “progressive” city, but one populated by people who are narcissistic, consumed with their own edification. The “progressive” part only enters into the equation when one looks at politics through the prism of freedom to do whatever one wishes without the strictures of “traditional mores.” It goes no further than that. It has nothing to do with racial tolerance, although the pretense is great. Every time I am in downtown Seattle, all I see is white folks (and some Asians) who enjoy good jobs and a privileged life. When I am at a bus stop, what I see is white and a few Asians on routes going to the well-off north, and mostly minority and less well-off going south. Seattle’s image is to a large extent a Potemkin village.

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