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Welcome To Richland: Where White Leaders Say There Is No Racism

Since the presidential election, many Pacific Northwest cities and towns have adopted resolutions reaffirming that all people are welcome regardless of race, religion or sexual identity. Boise, Eugene, Seattle, Spokane and Spokane Valley have, and the Wenatchee City Council is scheduled to consider one this Thursday.

But advocates in Richland, Washington, have run into a wall.

Students and teachers in the Richland school district have noticed an uptick of incidents such as racial name-calling, laughing about the Holocaust and even white boys telling an African American girl, “we don’t like black people.”

MK Anand is a nuclear mechanical engineer in Richland. Just recently, an East Indian couple he knows got a disturbing note wrapped in a diaper deposited in front of their Richland house. Anand said the note included phrases like “watch your back" and "kill them."

"Everybody is really concerned that, 'Is something happening' and 'Are we really safe?'” Anand said.

Incidents like these prompted a few residents to start talking to the Richland City Council. They want the city to adopt an inclusivity statement that commits Richland to protecting and serving its residents without discrimination.

Ann Fraser, a middle school teacher in the Richland schools, has been at all but one city council meeting since February. She’s white and feels the need to stand up.

“It’s hard to see people of color stand up week after week and get talked down to," Fraser said. "And women get talked down to.” 

Six of the seven members of the city council are white and five are male.

Richland Police Chief Chris Skinner said his department prides itself on being data-driven. He presented his numbers at council. Skinner said in the last several years, around 19 reported cases of racial bias, intimidation, malicious mischief or hate-crimes -- including graffiti -- have been documented by the city.

Mayor Robert Thompson used those numbers to bolster his view that racism and intimidation aren’t happening much in the city.

“Communities, law enforcement, perceive problems that really exist, as opposed to sometimes perceived problems," Thompson said. "So I really implore people that if you have been transcended against, you need to go to the proper authorities to address that.”

Fraser and Anand say police can’t track all the racism or intimidation in Richland because many minorities are afraid to go to the police or afraid of losing their government jobs.

After one recent council meeting, Jessica Monterey and Richland Councilmember Phillip Lemley ended up facing each other in the darkened parking lot. Monterey is young and Latina. Lemley is white, retired and grew up in Little Rock.

“I just cannot believe this community of Richland discriminates openly against any of those people,” Lemley said.

“I really think you are being willfully blind to an issue that is important to a lot of people who live in your community,” Monterey replied.

“I have to do what is good for the majority of 54,000 residents. Not 20, not the vocal minority of 20, you know," Lemley shot back. "I am not saying you don’t count.”

A new promotional video for the City of Richland presents a fetching portrait of residents wakeboarding on the Columbia River, hiking scenic trails on Badger Mountain overlooking the city and drinking wine at one of the region's many tasting rooms.


Nearly every smiling face in the video is white. Not pictured and not smiling so much lately are brown, LGBTQ or non-Christian faces.

Fraser and others say they know with Hanford and a national lab, this is a federal company town. They are deliberately not seeking "sanctuary city" status, which could draw fire from the U.S. Justice Department.

But the advocates in Richland plan to keep showing up to council meetings until an inclusiveness statement makes the official agenda.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.