Why is Jefferson County so dang white?

Justine Gonzalez-Berg
Posted 6/26/20

People across the country are talking about race, and we should be. Individuals, organizations, and governments are being called on to better understand and overcome the forces that make racism a …

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Why is Jefferson County so dang white?


People across the country are talking about race, and we should be. Individuals, organizations, and governments are being called on to better understand and overcome the forces that make racism a daily and deadly reality for so many people. White people in Jefferson County, this is a time to listen, learn, reflect, and act to end white supremacy and advance racial equity in our personal lives, our work, and our activism. 

Housing is deeply intertwined with racial justice. Who has access to housing shapes local culture, institutions, and belonging. So, let’s ask ourselves, why is this area so white? Many of us choose to believe that it just happens to be this way, but even a brief look at history reveals how that whiteness was cultivated as Black, Indigenous, and people of color were excluded from accessing land and housing locally. 

It is nearly the 150th anniversary of when the City of Port Townsend Board of Trustees passed an ordinance prohibiting Native people from living in Port Townsend. The S’Klallam qatáy village was burned around the same time, forcibly removing the S’Klallam people from their own lands. While the first Alien Land Law in the newly-occupied territory of Washington allowed for “non-citizens” to obtain land (to attract European settlers) the Washington state constitution was later crafted to prohibit non-citizens from acquiring land, which effectively excluded Asian immigrants from land ownership. Washington was one of the last states to repeal its Alien Land Law in 1966. Redlining and racially restrictive neighborhood covenants in the region weren’t outlawed until the Fair Housing Act of 1968. While these laws have been changed, their racist legacies have crafted the community and region we live in today. 

This history is part of the story behind why it is predominantly white here, but other forces continue to keep it that way. Most local renters know that word-of-mouth is the most common way to find a rental, but advertising units in this way evades the Fair Housing Act. Some landlords prefer to advertise like this because of how many calls they’ll receive if they advertise publicly (because of how few rentals there are). However, the reality — intentionally or not — is that this tendency can result in a form of modern housing discrimination, both through the implicit and explicit biases of landlords, and through the way that such information is accessed or not. 

Black, Indigenous, and people of color who do access housing locally live in a predominantly white community, which can be emotionally taxing and feel/be physically unsafe. I know of at least one mixed-race family who decided to move away specifically to raise their child in a more racially inclusive community. It’s on us, white folks, to make this place actively anti-racist so that race does not continue to be a barrier to living in Jefferson County. Listen to the experiences and demands of the people who have worked for racial justice over generations, learn how to be an anti-racist, reflect on how racial justice relates to your life and work, and continue to take action.


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David Thielk

While I am dismayed at the lack of diversity her in Port Townsend/Jefferson County, I find your analysis somewhat . . . simplistic. I think there are some key foundational explanations that are far more significant to the lack of diversity in Port Townsend than the ones you mention. First let me address two that you mention.

For example, I advertise my rental using craigslist. I have never had a person of color (that I was aware of) apply to live there. While how we advertise may make a difference in some communities, I just can't think that that is a significant factor here. I do agree that as a landlord, or even simply as a homeowner, I, along with everyone in the community have to shoulder the task of making affordable housing available. It is not something that "city hall" can tackle without each of us doing our part, also. But I would say a much bigger factor in limiting diversity here is the number of homes that are second homes, and sit idle most of the year. And, that would include the number of legally permitted ADU's that also sit idle. And, it would include the number of Air bnB's that have been grandfathered in. That makes a significant amount of housing that would be available to working families and would serve to enhance diversity here. If we really used our housing space well, we would have more diversity. I also believe that significant aspects of zoning laws also limits housing to economically limited people of all colors and backgrounds.

You also make a point about redlining and historic restrictions. I grew up in a neighborhood that believe now was in a racially restrictive (redlined) area. Within just a few years of the passage of the Fair Housing Act, my neighborhood had families of color getting established. So, while historic treatment of native people was horrid, I am not convinced that those 120 year old restrictions are still at work. What is a bigger factor is the lack of family wage jobs here. The lack of family wage jobs discourages families from moving here. And, diversity suffers. Just in the last year, there has been a feeble acknowledgement that our housing is out of control. Much harder to fix it now than to have been intentional 20 years ago. The fact is, when housing is available, families are more likely to "risk" a move to a new area. If there is accessible work, again, younger folks are more likely to take the leap. And, once some families are established, more will come.

There are more significant reasons that you don't mention. The primary reason why we are not a diverse community is because we did not intentionally plan promote diversity. We, meaning community leadership, elected officials, etc. have never articulated a plan to promote diversity. We have talked about diversity, just like you have in your letter, but we have not made a plan. We put the buzzwords in our Comprehensive Plan. "Promote diversity." We "love the diversity . . " But the entire plan, if implemented fully, would do just the opposite. And in fact, it has played out that we are becoming less diverse since the Growth Management Act the creation of the Comprehensive Plan. We intentionally decided that tourism was going to be our primary economic driver. And, we would follow that up with making this an enticing target destination for economically established seniors. We intentionally avoided creating a community of working families.

We could have, and still can, offer teachers of color a significant bonus to come here, work in our classrooms, and teach our children.

We could have, and still can, offer an abundance of conferences, and music and arts festivals that focus solely on black and native culture - and invite indigenous people from around the world to engage. But we have focused mostly on the art and music of white people. There are some exceptions, of course. But the key part is creating an atmosphere that gets people of color to sign up as participants in those events. And, that goes hand in hand with discouraging whites from dominating the experience.

We could have, and still can, provide incentives to first responders to apply for jobs here. We could provide incentives to small businesses owned by people of color to move their business here. And on and on. In the end, you get what you planned for. The path to the top of the mountain is not made in one leap. It is made by the long, step by step trudge up the mountain. The path to a diverse population is made by the every day, step by step decisions, made by all of us, but most importantly, those who shape policy. Simply wanting diversity does not make it happen.

Monday, June 29
Kimberly K King

While I don't think the word "simplistic" to describe Ms. Gonzalez-Berg's well written and well researched outline of the systemic racial barriers put in place early in our history and continued in various forms through the present day is accurate or helpful, I do think Mr. Thielk's comments add specific local examples of racial discrimination. Perhaps Ms. Gonzalas-Berg's article lays the historic foundation of why no people of color reply to his craigslist ads.

It is also true that in Port Townsend the proliferation of airbnb units, the great number of second homes, and a well-off retirement community create an affordable housing shortage, along with a tourist economy that does not offer permanent wage & benefit jobs to sustain a family.

Racial prejudice is endemic to our country's DNA and takes many insidious forms. It is important to stand still and listen to the voices raised around the country, and as both writers point out - do the long, hard work of informing and reforming the structures of inequality on the local, state and national levels. We're compelled to seize this moment in history and together codify these reforms in to law and continue to shape and educate the national debate.

Wednesday, July 1