When Reginald Lee senses that a white person is clueless about the perspective of African Americans in Spokane, this is what he says:
“Imagine if this city was 98 percent black.”
Lee is an executive at Cox Cable who moved to the Inland Northwest from the San Francisco area three years ago. He knew all about Spokane’s white-dominated demographics before he came. And he’s not sorry he made the move.
But like more than a few Spokane blacks, he sometimes feels a spotlight shining on him because he is a member of such a small minority. And the glare of that attention isn’t an altogether welcome feeling.
Moreover, he and others have found that maintaining a connection with African American culture here is, at best, a challenge.
“It’s a major issue,” said Lee. “And I don’t think it’s something most white people can fathom.”
There is, of course, no such thing as the black experience in Spokane. People’s real lives are immeasurably varied and don’t come from cookie cutters.
But African Americans in the Inland Northwest have more than race in common. They share the pros and cons of living in one of the nation’s whitest regions.
What does that imply for a person’s day-to-day life? It depends on who you ask.
Stanley Perdue, a lawyer who has lived in Spokane for 15 years, said the white majority’s relative lack of exposure to African Americans reveals itself in several ways. He cited careless language - he still hears people use the term “colored” - and unthinking assumptions such as that reflected in a note his child brought home from school not long ago. The note expressed the school administration’s hope that all the kids had a fun summer and got nice tans.
“My impression is that it’s not usually malice,” he said. “I just think that, in Spokane, a lot of people are under the impression that everybody thinks the same way they do.”
Ella Huffman, an administrator in the federal court system, sees a lot of what she termed “subtle racism.”
And she is not inclined to condone offending parties on the grounds that they seldom encounter blacks. “There is no excuse for being ignorant,” she said.
Twyla Carter, a community resource coordinator for the Inland Northwest Blood Center, often initially establishes work-related relationships on the phone. And then, when she first meets her contacts in person, she sees a lot of surprised looks. “It’s right there on their faces - You’re black?”
Edna Tyson, an office assistant at Spokane Falls Community College, said Spokane store clerks routinely treat her differently than white customers. Their voice and their attitudes give them away. “It’s subtle, but you know it’s there,” she said. “And maybe they are not even aware that they are doing it.”
Pauline Lewis, a cosmetics specialist, said she has felt racially tinged disrespect in contexts such as applying for a loan.
Things used to be worse. Though some people mistakenly imagine that the Northwest has always been a bastion of tolerance, institutional discrimination thrived here.
Businessman Clarence Freeman, now a senior citizen, can recall when the most common brand of Spokane-style racism was unmistakably overt. Some of his accounts of personal affronts and rejections astonish young listeners.
“But things are much better, there’s no question about it,” he said. “And it doesn’t help to stand there and talk about yesterday.”
Christopher Oyolokor, a computer consultant who said he once left a large Spokane business over racism, said it is self-defeating for blacks to focus too much on the awareness shortcomings of this area’s white majority. “You can’t dwell on it,” he said.
Denise Osei, a multicultural specialist for the Community Colleges of Spokane, has lived all over the country. And she said the insensitivity blacks sometimes encounter here exists just about everywhere.
Of course, nobody is suggesting that that is an excuse. Bigotry is still bigotry.
And, of course, it’s not all subtle. Outrageous acts of racism still happen. But for at least some African Americans in Spokane, the day-today reality has more to do with overcoming insidious forms of prejudice.
Denise McKinnon, who teaches parenting classes, said she sometimes feels as if she is under a microscope.
“It’s like you’re such an oddity that people have to make sure that you are up to snuff,” she said. “So then you can start to feel paranoid and think that you have to be perfect all the time. It’s really frustrating and you have to work at not becoming bitter.”
John Wade, basketball coach at Eastern Washington University, understands that, in a sense, he is an oddity.
“I find myself being a role model and not just for my players,” he said. “In Spokane, a kid will feel good just to see me because they don’t see a lot of faces that look like theirs.”
So what’s the upside to being dramatically outnumbered? Perdue, the lawyer, said many civic boards and committees seem especially eager to attract black participation. Others say it’s a simple matter of having the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond.
And while some blacks who have lived elsewhere say they enjoy Spokane’s arguably relaxed racial climate - the presence of high-profile hate groups in North Idaho notwithstanding, the problems associated with a lack of a black population critical mass is an issue that is not going away.
“My son couldn’t wait to graduate from high school and go to a college in a different state so he could be among blacks,” said Diane Jennings, director of Spokane’s East Central Community Center.
Businessman H.W. Tony Anthony put it this way: “The opportunities for African Americans are just not prevalent.”
Ruby LaFleur isn’t sure she would agree. “I’ve always been able to find the positive in a situation,” she said.
LaFleur, a Spokane native, is a former railroad engineer. She recently was asked to be a stand-in for a black actress on Patty Duke’s inproduction TV series.
Voncille Molett, head of the board at the Martin Luther King. Jr. Family Outreach Center, sees two seemingly divergent trends. “Racism is becoming more blatant in this area, and at the same time more and more people are opening up and showing that they are willing to talk about the issues,” she said.
Her focus for 1995 is trying to prepare black children to overcome the high hurdle of negative stereotypes. “And we need to give them a path to follow that is positive,” she said.
But battling bias never has been nor will it ever be easy. Bryan Jackson, a teacher at Lewis and Clark High School, put it this way: “It’s hard work to try to make sure that people see you as a person.”
And as far as trying to feel at home and connected in a community with relatively few black faces, well, that can be hard, too.
Said Jackson: “Spokane is Spokane.”
MEMO: See also sidebar which appeared with this story under headline “Unity march”