Seattle bans the box

June 19, 2013

Steve Leigh reports on an inspiring victory against New Jim Crow discrimination.

AFTER YEARS of organizing, activists in Seattle are celebrating a victory against bigotry. On June 10, the Seattle City Council unanimously adopted a law that will "ban the box"--referring to the box that job seekers must check on their initial application if they have been arrested or convicted of crimes.

The Job Assistance Legislation will also make it illegal for employers to refuse to hire job applicants if the only reason is their criminal history--unless the employer can show a legitimate business reason. Employers are only allowed to do criminal background checks after they have initially screened applicants and excluded the unqualified.

The Seattle Civil Rights Commission will monitor the implementation of the law, which goes into effect November 1.

The passage of the law was the result of a strong campaign by a number of community groups--Columbia Legal Services, the Seattle Tenants Union, the Seattle homeless newspaper Real Change, the No New Jim Crow Seattle Campaign, Got Green, the NAACP, the Seattle Human Rights Commission and several others.

A Black male born today has a one in three (32.2 percent) chance of spending time behind bars during his lifetime

K.C. Young and the women from Sojourner Place Transitional Housing started organizing to get rid of the box three years ago. Every time the City Council has held hearings, more than 100 people have turned out, overwhelmingly in support of the legislation. These groups organized people to come out to hearings, sign petitions and put up signs in shop windows.

At the hearings and the final vote, people spoke about their personal experiences. "I paid my debt to society, but I found that all doors were closed to me," said Nick Maxwell, a Real Change vendor.

AS MICHELLE Alexander explains in her book The New Jim Crow, imprisonment is only the beginning of punishment imposed on people convicted of violating a law. After getting out or prison, former prisoners find it difficult to find jobs, housing and schooling and are often denied the right to vote. Felons become what Alexander calls a caste, which it is legal to discriminate against.

Just as importantly, this new caste is largely defined by race. For example, in King County, which includes Seattle and the surrounding area, Black men are eight times more likely to be imprisoned as white men. In the U.S. as a whole, the incarceration rate for Black men is more than 2,200 per 100,000. For white men, it's "only" around 400.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country--seven times that of China. Mass incarceration is the most important basis of institutional racism in the U.S. today, according to Alexander. This means that the new law in Seattle is not only a step toward fairness for all people, but also a blow against institutional racism.

The main opposition to the law came from Seattle's business community. From the beginning, the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups tried to weaken the law. The first proposal that activists tried to pass included a provision against housing discrimination as well. The original proposal would also have made it illegal to do a criminal background check until after employers made a conditional job offer. Then, the employer could only have withdrawn the offer if the crime was directly related to the job.

Although businesses didn't speak up in large numbers in public hearings, they did engage in extensive lobbying behind the scenes, which resulted in a significant weakening of the law.

In spite of business attempts at sabotage, however, the new law is a victory in the fight against racism and unemployment. It also shows the success of mass organizing. Without a public campaign, the City Council would probably not have passed the law--certainly not unanimously.

Activists in Seattle are pleased with the passage. "The City Council, in passing JAL Legislation, gave new hope to No New Jim Crow's vision of a non-racist, humanistic community in Seattle," said Lynne Levine of the No New Jim Crow Seattle Campaign.

Martina Kartman of Columbia Legal Services said:

After three long years of incredible time and effort, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed the Jobs Assistance Legislation today! With the passage of this ordinance, employers can no longer ask about criminal history on a job application or reference criminal history in advertising. This law will give thousands of people with a criminal record a second chance at building a new life.

Seattle joins about 20 other cities across the U.S. with this type of legislation. Hopefully, this victory will spur further organizing around issues of racism and injustice in the criminal system in Seattle.

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