What Rachel Dolezal Left Behind

Spokane already had a troubled racial history. Will this controversy hurt, or heal?

It's been three weeks since Rachel Dolezal's parents outed her as a white woman heading the Spokane NAACP. In that time, the national media has focused on the woman who, for reasons that remain unclear, hid her racial identity and the extent of her deception.

This is not a story about Dolezal. It's about Spokane, my hometown. A medium-sized, tight-knit city in eastern Washington that, frankly, had enough problems without the Dolezal controversy, a city that has long struggled with race, seeing little bursts of progress and then watching it all burn up in the lights of national TV cameras.

What is left behind is a lot of anger—and not just at Dolezal.

"As much as Rachel might need to atone for her actions, I feel like the community—not Spokane, the national community—needs to atone for theirs," said Inga Laurent, a professor at Gonzaga University's law school, who is biracial. "Nobody wanted to ask the hard questions. Nobody wanted to hear about the complexities of [Dolezal's] life that brought this on. They just wanted to laugh about it. I feel like you know in essence that's race in America. "¦ Nobody wanted to deal with the tough, the messy, the difficult-to-get-through issues."

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The truth is, Spokane needs Rachel Dolezal.

Yes, she lied to the entire community and when given the opportunity (several of them, in fact) to be honest and to try to mend fences, she flew off New York to talk to Matt Lauer about it, canceling a public meeting with her own constituents at the Spokane NAACP, a constituency she still hasn't addressed.

But Spokane has an underlying race problem that Dolezal, consciously or not, was able to exploit for her own gain. It is not a new problem, but it's one that locals have mostly preferred not to discuss. Maybe that's about to change.

DURING THE DAYS I spent in my hometown after the Dolezal story became national news, I heard a lot of jokes, the kind that go on so long and fill so many lulls in nearly every conversation I had that make it clear that the teller isn't really laughing.

This story seemed to hit a nerve beyond conversations that the nation now is having about racial identity. The Dolezal story hit home in Spokane because for us, it was almost unsurprising that it had happened.

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I don't know why Dolezal came to Spokane (she didn't respond to a request for comment), but it's not hard to see how she was able to become the city's foremost voice on issues of race and identity. Unlike Howard University (which she claims punished her for her being white), Spokane offered Dolezal the chance to be a big fish in a small, largely white pond.

Growing up in Spokane, I've become used to jokes about its homogeneity—and I've made plenty myself. In the wake of the Dolezal story, Jon Stewart summed it up well: "Whaaat? That's crazy! There's an NAACP chapter in Spokane?"

It's true that Spokane is overwhelmingly white. Though it's the second-largest city in a state most associated with liberal Seattle, Spokane is a much more conservative town. It is about 87 percent white, according to 2010 Census data, and blacks make up just 2.3 percent of the city's population. Compare that to 77 percent and 13 percent, respectively, nationwide.

Spokane has a conflicting racial history. Although that 2.3 percent figure hasn't changed much in decades, the city elected the first black mayor of any major northwestern city in 1981—two years before Harold Washington became the first African-American mayor of Chicago. But the city is also just a 45 minute drive from what was once the heart of the Aryan Nations.

It's been more than a decade since the skinheads abandoned their compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho. Like many in Spokane, I still remember them; the unnerving feeling that so much hate was brewing just a few miles away.

Although their compound was sold off and converted into what the city termed a "peace park" in 2001, their presence isn't completely gone. In 2011, a white supremacist planted a bomb along the route for Spokane's Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. Thankfully the backpack bomb, containing shrapnel coated in rat poison to prevent wounds from clotting, was found before it went off.

Particularly in the wake of the Dolezal disaster, it's more clear than ever that this is a part of Spokane's history that can't be ignored. We can't—as Michael Reid, who works at Eastern Washington University and taught a few joint classes with Dolezal over the last decade, suggested to me—question why more black people don't move to Spokane without also questioning why the Aryan Nations felt so comfortable moving in next door.

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This is why the Dolezal story is so damaging. Law enforcement has suspended investigations into hate crimes that she alleged, after discovering that at least one threatening letter she claimed to have received wasn't postmarked. The local NAACP has asked that those cases be reopened. What has many in the community most concerned is that even the hint that those hate crimes were faked will be damaging.

"I do worry because there are serious incidents of violence and discrimination against people of color in Spokane," Laurent said. "So I do have fear that when one of those occurs that people are going to question [them]."

As in the rest of the nation, racism in Spokane has changed over the years. Reid describes racism in Spokane now, with a laugh, as "genteel." As a biracial man who has lived in the city for nearly three decades, Reid says that things have gotten better since he moved to Spokane in 1986 and was nearly jumped by three college-aged kids at the fairgrounds who surrounded him at a urinal shouting "N*****!"

Now, Reid said, "the kind of racism that we have in Spokane is very rarely the flaming cross on the lawn type of racism. This isn't Mississippi burning. That doesn't mean it's not racism, it's just of a different stripe and it expresses itself differently."

IT IS CLEAR—if a bit ironic, given the subsequent damage her story has caused—that Dolezal did some good for the city during her tenure. In just a year and a half as the Spokane NAACP president, she reinvigorated the chapter, making the group a presence at events across the city and injecting the group into local issues in a way that it hadn't been in years. Advocates noted Dolezal's willingness to ask hard questions of city leaders and to get the public's attention.

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Less than 30 people showed up to elect a president (Dolezal won a little over half of them) in December. By the time she stepped down, the group's overall membership had increased about threefold, new chapter president Naima Quarles-Burnley said in an email.

Rev. Happy Watkins, a former Spokane NAACP president, said that during her tenure, Dolezal reformed long-stagnant committees and brought in a youth presence. "Rachel did a masterful job, very passionate about what she was doing," Watkins said.

Ginger Ewing, who runs several nonprofits in Spokane, is active in the city's arts community and is biracial, said that while she occasionally questioned Dolezal's "leadership style," which could be brusque, "I never questioned her sincerity. I never questioned her passion. I never questioned her ability to be present in the moment. ... It was pretty tireless work that she was doing."

As the only black voice—or so the city thought—on the city's police review commission (from which she has since been removed, amid allegations of misconduct), Dolezal was the leading voice pushing back on the city's narrative in the death of Lorenzo Hayes, a case that echoes the Freddie Grey story. Hayes, an African-American father of seven, died in custody on May 13 after an altercation with police. Officers said that Hayes was in violation of a protective order filed by his former girlfriend, in possession of a firearm, appeared to be high, and had to be restrained as they took him into custody. His family said that Hayes was at his own home, that his former girlfriend had shown up at his residence (violating his own protective order), and questioned why officers hadn't taken him to a hospital.

The city has largely moved on from the Hayes case (and did so before Dolezal made national news). But without her, Hayes' friends and activists fear it will be forgotten entirely.

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Still, Dolezal was not Spokane's only advocate. In Dolezal's absence, Laurent said she's really proud of the way black leaders have responded, not by capitalizing on the scandal, but by just doing their jobs. "Spokane, we've been the butt of many a joke, and I just feel like that's what we do: We pick up and dust ourselves off and we continue to roll on and do the work. "¦ The strength and resiliency of black people in Spokane is really a thing of beauty," she said.

WHEN ASKED by local CBS affiliate KREM to explain herself to the people of Spokane, Dolezal told a reporter: "It's more important to clarify that with the black community and with my executive board, than it really is to explain it to a community that, quite frankly, I don't think really understands the definitions of race and ethnicity."

Spokane is having that conversation without her.

More than 100 people showed up to a meeting of the Spokane NAACP last Monday night—the first since Dolezal resigned—a far cry from the little more than two dozen who showed up to elect Dolezal as president. Spokanites of all races and ages gathered together in the basement of the Holy Temple Church of God in Christ on the city's north side for what the group called a conversation "moving towards healing."

What Dolezal did in lying to the community she represented will make that job harder, but Quarles-Burnley and dozens of residents, for now at least, appear willing to try. "Many relationships have been fractured as a result of the recent events," Quarles-Burnley admitted in an email. "As an organization we need to regroup so we can move forward."

Advocates are skeptical that the conversation will continue. Particularly as the national media moves on, many are worried that Spokane will move on from the issue as well, much as it did after the attempted MLK parade bombing.

"For me, it's like race is like so many other hot-button issues where I feel like when we have a Rachel Dolezal-type case ... everyone has an opinion about it for the three or four days that it makes national media and then it goes away," Ewing said. "I don't think that we can have real change on really any issues until we as citizens decide to engage with each in a deeper, more meaningful way."

But there is still hope.

"Maybe it goes back to what Rachel was doing," Ewing added. "Maybe it goes back to asking questions in rooms of six people or rooms of 600 people, maybe it goes back to that. Maybe it goes back to being constant and being that person who is passionate in order that if only one person listens than that's one person who wasn't listening before."