Discussing race in cities

Photo by Ally Merritt | The Falcon
Associate Professor David Leong discusses the impact of gentrification on communities housing people of color.


David Leong, associate professor of missiology, was about eight or nine years old when his family attended a state fair. Near the entrance, he heard shouting.

“Go back to where you came from!” someone yelled.

At first, Leong didn’t understand that the demand was geared toward him and his family, or what the exclamation really meant.

“Go back where? Back to Michigan?” Leong thought. “Back to Detroit?”

As Leong grew up, he was complimented for his English, despite having grown up in America. People asked where his family came from, and when he answered, they asked, “No, where are you really from?”

From there, his interest and struggle with race only grew. He realized that the issue of race was an issue of location and place.

Yesterday in Demaray 150 at 3 p.m., Leong presented his book, “Race and Place,” to an intimate crowd of a handful of faculty and staff members at SPU.

Leong’s presentation was a part of a series that started back in October and will continue for the duration of the school year. The series is presented by The Division of Arts and Humanities in collaboration with The John Perkins Center and the School of Theology.

Following Leong will be Associate Professor of Theology Brian Bantum speaking in February. The lineup for spring, however, has yet to be decided.

“We wanted to have a focus on issues related to ethnic diversity and the whole issue of Black Lives Matter,” explained William Purcell, the chair of communications and journalism.

“There are probably two chapters [in the book] that are worthwhile,” Leong joked. “One is on gentrification. [It] is a very hot topic in urban geography and cultural geography, so says my one friend who is a cultural geographer.”

Leong recalled his college years, when he was involved in youth group, and visited both Mercer Island High School and Rainier Beach High School. While the students of Mercer Island asked him about SAT prep and scholarship applications, those at Rainier Beach invited him to night races — illegal street races.

“I knew something was wrong,” Leong said. “I knew that something was really wrong with these contrasts.”

Seattle has a very apparent north and south divide, Leong pointed out. He believes residents know about it, but don’t necessarily talk about it, and that’s the kind of issue he writes about in his book. It discusses the history of racial division and urban geography.

According to Leong, many people believe that race is a matter of personal morality. People don’t want to be seen as a bad person, but the issue of race, he says, goes so much deeper than that.

Leong explained race as systematic, constructional and something that has to do with neighborhoods, schools, communities and geography. People, Leong urges, should consider the question: How did cities get so divided?

One potential answer, he says, is gentrification. It is the process of renovating and improving a building or community so that it corresponds to middle-class standards, and is motivated by economic opportunities.

Rainier Avenue used to be home to Angie’s Tavern, a neighborhood bar primarily owned and ran by a black community. In 2011, the bar was replaced by Salted Sea, an upscale seafood place featuring Vietnamese flavors.

The usual Angie’s-bar goers felt a sense of loss with the change. “This is not our place any longer,” Leong quoted. “Not only can we not afford to eat there, it just doesn’t feel like this is ‘us’ anymore.”

“If you look at the neighborhoods in Seattle that would be considered ‘up-and-coming’ or as targets for redevelopment,” Leong said, “they are almost always communities that have been historically communities of people of color.”

Leong continued in a discussion on ways churches are involved in land trusts, gentrification and affordable housing. There aren’t nearly enough Christians thinking creatively enough about what affordable housing could look like, Leong says.

“Does Christianity help us break down barriers of division, which we would hope that it does, or does Christianity reinforce or perhaps even create new barriers of division?” he asked.

The Gospel tells the story of Jesus and Israel, of being broken and being healed, of new creation, yet “a lot of the research out there now is not really uplifting reading.”

“It’s disheartening for me, to say the least,” Leong said. “To look at the research and say, ‘no, frankly, a lot of Christian communities not only ignore some of these racial divisions but also even exacerbate or make worse some of those tensions.’”

Leong believes the church creates a fictive kinship. The downfall with this is the development of homogeneity, which is the tendency to flock together with others of similar backgrounds, he says.

It comes to a point, Leong said, that people realize their whole life “is surrounded with people who mostly agree with me around my music tastes, and the movies that I think are compelling, and the sources of journalism that I read, and I think it’s the understatement of the year to say we’re divided, we’re not talking to each other.”

Leong’s hope is that in reading his book, people will realize there is no simple step-by-step process in dealing with these issues. He wishes it were that simple.

Instead, his hope is that people will realize that they are at risk of contributing to the problem, whether they realize it or not.

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