September 21, 2008 in City

Our racial roots

Understanding region’s population requires going beyond statistics
Story By Shawn Vestal I The Spokesman-Review
 
Kathy Plonka photo

Estela Gonzalez leads the Kootenai County Hispanic Ministry. “There’s a lot of people still thinking, what are we doing here?” she said.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

The country’s becoming less white  with each passing year. Demographers predict a nonwhite majority in the United States by 2042.   ■   Meanwhile, the population of the Inland Northwest is changing, too – by a sliver. Over the past eight years, Spokane County’s population has become 0.89 percent less white, according to Census estimates released this summer. In Kootenai County, the population’s become 0.76 percent less white.   ■   Inside those tiny percentages is a complicated picture about race and race relations in the Inland Northwest, where 92 percent of Spokane County residents and 96 percent of Kootenai County residents are white.   ■   While minority populations are doubtlessly growing – and growing faster in some respects than the region as a whole – they remain quite small, and they make up a smaller proportion of all population growth here than is the case nationally.   ■   Francell Daubert, a 30-year-old black woman whose grandfather came to Spokane in 1934, put it this way: “The growth (of the black population) is faster now than it used to be.

“Now it’s not a trickle. It’s more of a really small stream.”

Underlying the statistical portrait of the region’s population are deeper, more difficult questions: Just how tolerant a place is it?

The region’s history paints a complicated picture, dating back to the colonization of the area and subsequent relations with Native American tribes.

It’s a place where two major college presidents are members of minority groups who’ve risen from humble backgrounds. It’s also a place where university enrollments and graduation rates for people of color have remained stubbornly low.

It’s a place that has a recent history with overt white supremacy – and one that some say still struggles with covert, insidious kinds of bigotry. It’s a place that attracted and then repelled the Aryan Nations – and a region still bedeviled by the occasional crime of stupidity and hatred, such as the recent incident in Post Falls in which a black teenager was harassed and punched at her home.

It’s a place that imprisons and arrests proportionally more nonwhites than whites. And it’s a place that elected a black mayor, Jim Chase, in 1981, and a mayor of Native American heritage, Mary Verner, last year.

Estela Gonzalez has lived in North Idaho for 26 years and seen some of the contradictions firsthand. She said that while a lot of the cultural friction of being a minority in an overwhelmingly white area has eased over the years, it hasn’t vanished.

“We came in 1982 and there were hardly any Latinos in this area,” said Gonzalez, who helps run Kootenai County Hispanic Ministry. “It was difficult then, but we expected it, because there was no awareness. But now it seems like it hasn’t gone away, because there’s a lot of people still thinking, what are we doing here?”

On a national level, discussions about race and race relations have moved to the forefront this year, in part due to the historic candidacy of Barack Obama for president.

Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, believes Obama’s campaign may signal a new era. A large photo of Allan with Obama hangs on the wall of Allan’s office; Allan says Obama’s election would show the world that America has moved beyond the slavery and genocide in its past.

“I think it’s going to go a long way toward healing this country,” he said.

A partial picture

In the Inland Northwest, the lack of diversity often comes as a shock to newcomers. For Camilo Madero, who moved to Spokane a year ago after living most of his life in Bogota, Colombia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, it certainly did.

“In my daughter’s school there’s only one African-American family,” he said. “One! My God! That’s incredible.”

The region’s whiteness is, in and of itself, nothing new. But an analysis of the population growth since the last Census reveals more details about the way the region is changing.

Spokane County’s population grew by more than 38,000 people over the last eight years, and 18 percent of those were members of minority communities. In Kootenai County, 7 percent of the population growth of more than 27,500 was nonwhite.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the nation, a third of all population growth since 2000 is nonwhite. Hispanics – who can be of any race – make up half the growth. The change is occurring so rapidly that forecasters recently moved forward by several years the projected date when whites will become the minority population.

In many ways, Census figures tell an incomplete story. They obscure a changing minority population that, while small in terms of percentages, is still made up of thousands and thousands of people, notes Jenny Holsinger, a Whitworth University associate professor of sociology. The county’s nonwhite population in 2007 was estimated at more than 37,725 people.

“It’s still tens of thousands of people,” she said.

Racial breakdowns used by the Census also don’t reveal one of the more significant elements of cultural diversity in Spokane – Russian immigrants. An estimated 25,000 Russian-speaking people live in the Spokane area, which is a larger population than any minority racial group counted by the Census.

A growing part of the racial picture is mixed-race families. In Spokane County, the number of people who claimed two or more races accounted for a larger proportion of population growth than any other minority group, at 6 percent.

Members of some minority communities argue that the Census underestimates their size. Gonzalez recently attended a workshop on Census methods in Boise, where she and others encouraged officials to work harder to make sure Hispanics, Native Americans and other groups were more accurately reflected in the next full Census, in 2010.

“I think (the Hispanic population) is more than what they’re reporting,” she said. “A lot of people don’t participate in the Census.”

Patrick Jones, executive director of Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis, said Spokane County’s minority populations – while small – are growing at a faster rate than in the rest of the state. That’s partly because those groups are so small to begin with, so the change is proportionally greater.

Still, he said the fact that 18 percent of Spokane County’s population growth in the last eight years is nonwhite is significant.

“It’s more than meets the eye,” Jones said. “For every group we’re talking about, Spokane County’s ethnic and minority populations grew faster than its respective state population. I think that’s pretty significant.”

A place of contradiction

For Daubert, Spokane embodies a contradiction. For the generation of black residents of her grandfather, Elmo Dalbert, the city offered a place of some opportunity. And yet for many in subsequent generations of the city’s African-American population, it became difficult to find opportunities here.

Daubert said that even in her grandfather’s era – a subject she’s researched as a college student and hopes to turn into a documentary – racism in Spokane has been more of an underground phenomenon, showing up unexpectedly and erratically. In the post-Aryan Nations years, she said, it’s become even more so – while attitudes may be changing, it’s also true that it’s simply less accepted for people to wear their bigotry on their sleeves, she said.

“I’m more fearful of those who hide their beliefs as opposed to … people letting me know they hate me,” she said. “I think that people police themselves a lot better now. And it’s not that blacks will get mad, it’s that other white people will look down on them in shame.”

Just as the Aryan Nations defined the region’s racial image for a long time, the story of how the group was brought down provides a defining community narrative for many others.

Albert Wilkerson, 69, an African-American who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., Chicago and Detroit, said he never felt as accepted anywhere as he did after moving to Kootenai County in 2002 – not long after the multimillion dollar judgment in a lawsuit that broke the Aryan Nations. He said the community’s efforts to send the group packing were a large part of the reason he thinks he found acceptance there.

“I really felt what it was like to be an American, from the core of your beliefs, in this period, and this was the first time I had felt this way in my entire life, being a Marine, police officer, school teacher, Scoutmaster – this place really brought it out,” he said. “And the people here.”

Daubert said a close friend once told her that living in Spokane was like being part of a family – you take the good with the bad.

“There are parts of the family you get along with,” she said, “and parts you don’t.”

Staff writer Kevin Graman contributed to this report. Coming next Sunday: North Idaho vanquished the Aryan Nations, but one prominent activist believes the community still struggles with a different sort of bigotry. Meanwhile, schools and the criminal justice system confront issues of race daily.


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