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Originally published April 30, 2011 at 8:34 PM | Page modified April 30, 2011 at 8:56 PM

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Danny Westneat

Census report on Seattle's whiteness really hit a nerve

Behind news that the U.S. Census rates Seattle as one of the whitest, least diverse big cities in the nation lie more complex truths: that Seattle is predominantly white but ever less so, with pockets of extraordinary variety, all somehow still muddled around without concentrated ethnic neighborhoods.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The news that the U.S. census rates Seattle as one of the whitest, least diverse big cities in the nation does not translate into the world of Randy Beaulieu.

I met him the other day in an office that has a welcome sign written in 19 languages. He's a drug-use-prevention organizer in the schools. Recently he tried to send a survey home to parents at a local elementary school, but the principal told him there was no point if the survey was written only in English.

"He said I'd need to have it translated into multiple languages, otherwise nobody would respond," Beaulieu said.

Beaulieu's office sits in Seattle's Central Area, near Washington Middle School — in what happens to be one of the more racially diverse census blocks in the country. That's based on a fascinating measure the census number crunchers have come up with called the "diversity index."

It calculates the probability that two people in a given area would have different racial or ethnic backgrounds. A score of 0 indicates complete homogeneity. A score of 100 means complete diversity — that the population is mixed among the census' racial and ethnic categories, which include white, black, Asian, Hispanic, mixed race and "other."

The area of Beaulieu's office, from Judkins Park on the south past Pratt Park on the north, has an extremely high diversity index rating of 91. Living there are 451 blacks, 362 whites, 107 Asians, 171 who identify as mixed race, 45 Native Americans, 279 "other" race and 612 Hispanics (who can be of any race).

If diversity means "variety," here's where it is. Right smack in the middle of one of the least diverse cities around.

What drew me there is that a lot of people were hacked off by the story last weekend that said Seattle is so white. Some objected that the image didn't match their own experiences. Others seemed defensive, saying: So what if we're a white city? Nobody's redlining, like back in the old days.

One radio host suggested the news may have made liberal whites feel guilty. As in: Aren't we supposed to be more metropolitan than this? Instead we're, what ... Idaho?

The thing about the census, though, is that in the end it's a batch of statistics. And you know what they say about those.

Everything in the story was true. Seattle really is the fifth whitest big city in America, and, judged by the diversity index, the eighth-least diverse.

But it's also true that Seattle is the least white, as well as the most racially diverse, that it has ever been. Today it's 66 percent white. In 1960, by contrast, Seattle was 92 percent white. In 1980, 80 percent white.

There's also widespread misunderstanding, it seems to me, about the word "diversity." It doesn't always mean "more minorities." Seattle's Central Area has been flooded with whites moving into the inner city. But this gentrification isn't simple to categorize, because it has made many of those neighborhoods more racially diverse, not less.

The story of Seattle is likewise complex. The city houses the most racially jumbled neighborhood in the state — South Park, with a diversity index of 93, as near to total variety as any neighborhood is likely to get. By comparison, the city's least diverse spot is centered on the Madison Park gated community of Broadmoor (the census says Broadmoor, with a diversity rating of 10, has 710 whites, 19 Asians, no blacks and no Native Americans).

Despite extremes like that, Seattle is — again according to the census — one of the least racially divided big cities in America.

That's based on another measure, called dissimilarity, that looks at how different races are distributed across census tracts. Seattle doesn't rank in the top 50 among big cities for segregation (Milwaukee, New York, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland are the top five most racially segregated).

How can we be white and not very diverse, have some of the most diverse neighborhoods and be among the most integrated — all at the same time?

"That's the census for you!" laughed Dick Morrill, a demographer and emeritus professor at the UW.

The census is the story of us, so it spins many tales at once. Sometimes looking at a slice obscures the big picture, Morrill said.

To me the mixed messages add up to a pretty fair portrayal of our city: predominantly white but ever less so, with pockets of extraordinary variety, all somehow still muddled around without concentrated ethnic neighborhoods.

So why did the Seattle-is-so-white story rankle?

Maybe because if it's hip to be diverse, we just aren't the capital of that in this state anymore.

That, says the census, would be Tukwila.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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