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.
(RELATED: A Eulogy, a Provocative Call to Action, and Too Many Deaf Ears)
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.