Seattle is among the unlikelier American cities to be settling its accounts of racial strife. After all, the home of grunge, Starbucks, and the Space Needle prides itself on a certain shaggy, do-it-yourself civic sensibility. It's the town of Frasier, Bill Gates, and Jimi Hendrix, not Bull Connor, Orval Faubus, or Martin Luther King Jr. Still, as journalist Doug Merlino makes clear in The Hustle, the overcast capital has plenty of its own unresolved racial legacies—and like virtually all major American cities, these come refracted through patterns of class segregation, Chamber of Commerce–sanctioned gentrification, and "equal opportunity" that is equal only for some.
In 1986, Merlino joined an ad hoc team of seventh graders drawn from several schools in the Seattle area, although most came from two distinctly opposite ones—the affluent, and private, Lakeside, on the north end of town, and Garfield, a public school located in the heart of the heavily black downtown quadrant known as the Central Area. The team was the brainchild of two fathers, Willie McClain and Randy Finley, who sought to combine the teamwork and self-discipline of sports with the concept of individual social mobility. Finley and McClain's roster of three white and seven African-American players would compete on the court and learn about one another's disparate backgrounds. More practically, McClain's group of kids, from the predominantly black neighborhoods of Central Area and South End, would get the opportunity to be seen and scouted by the more elite Seattle schools. Or at least, that was the idea.
"It might have been a chance to talk on a level deeper than political sound bites," Merlino admits. "But we simply didn't have the language or the structure to discuss such things." Writing from the vantage point of more than two decades on, he is ready to accept that the team was operating under the patronizing assumption that lower-income black students have much to gain from exposure to the dominant white culture. His teammate Damian Joseph refers to it as "surface integration"—the one-way idea that while blacks cannot afford to disregard white culture, the white middle and upper classes can get along just fine without any knowledge of black culture. It's "more of a superior-type, 'We're here to help you, you can't help us,' that kind of thing."
The team went on to win the 1986 Western Washington Championship, but by the end of the following summer, the short-lived camaraderie would yield to complaints about playing time on the court and the pressures of grade-point averages and shifting priorities off. Although Finley would go on to successfully place seventeen other African-American kids—athletes and non-athletes—into private schools, the book shifts in tone as Merlino begins zeroing in on the shifting fortunes of his former teammates.
After their moment of cross-racial communion in the mid-'80s high school basketball scene, Merlino and his other white teammates find themselves settled into upper-middle-class positions as prosecutors or stock traders in Seattle or working for wineries farther north. Meanwhile, the black members of the team haven't fared as well. Coming out of high school into the crack-cocaine boom of the late '80s, John "JT" Thompson spent several years working the drug trade to his advantage, although by the time Merlino catches up with him, he is done with the game, now supporting two children and looking for work as a longshoreman. Myran Barnes, who worked the same streets as JT, is facing ten years in jail for a forty-dollar drug bust. Tyrell Johnson, who also had connections to the drug world, was murdered in August 1991, his body found in a ditch just outside the city.
Since so much of the drama in The Hustle revolves around the grueling effort to remedy the unequal dispersal of opportunity during the high school years, it's no surprise that Merlino returns to the plush Lakeside campus to detail the struggles of recent diversity initiatives there. In 2005, Microsoft founder and Lakeside alum Bill Gates pledged forty million dollars toward a financial-aid program to increase diversity at the suburban school. New teachers, including African and Latin Americans, had already been hired to help the process along, but it only took a year for a white parent to write a complaint to the Seattle Weekly. "As for the lofty goals of Lakeside," the letter moaned, "it's getting downright creepy. . . . The lecturing about privilege, materialism, poverty, diversity and class is starting to feel like a religious crusade." Entitlement—even the sort that strains to reach economically and racially isolated communities—never quite appears as such, either to the patrons of social diversity or to disgruntled parents.
It's easy enough to conclude that we don't need the saga of a misbegotten teen basketball team to drive these themes home again. But by reminding readers that questions of race and social mobility are at bottom really questions about what kind of people are granted what sort of life opportunities, The Hustle allows us to see our often recursive and overheated debates over such questions play out on a personal, frequently tragic scale.
George Ducker is a writer living in Los Angeles.