But like all columnists, he’s struggled with a world changing around him. He hasn’t lived in the District since moving from 8th Street NE to Prince George’s County in 2005, and at times, it shows. Standing outside Children of Mine in Anacostia, Milloy marvels at seeing two white people walk by. “Do you know how many homicides I covered just down the street?” Sometimes, even an oracle is confounded.
Writing about race in racist America was hard enough. Writing about race in “post-racial” America is even tougher. As racism has weakened as an institution, it’s gained strength as a psychological tick. As pernicious and adaptive as any antibiotic resistant germ, this particular social ill is a constant. What keeps changing is the way we talk about it.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s gave way to the black nationalist movement of the 1970s. That led to the affirmative action culture of the 1980s, and then political correctness in the 1990s. But it became apparent that what all of those different strategies were trying to fight was still capable of surviving in various forms. Maybe W.E.B. Du Bois, who allotted an entire century to solving the predicament (“The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line”), was low-balling it.
Yes, the country has seen the election of its ﬁrst black president. But far from proving that the problem of the 21st century is some other demarcation of power, it’s merely turned the page to another chapter in our tortured history of race and language. And if there’s plenty of not-so-covert racial hostility—witness all the rhetoric about Barack Obama’s citizenship and religion—it’s also meant that urban columnists like Milloy find themselves in an unusual position: His major foils, these days, aren’t race-baiting brutes but privileged, usually liberal, whites, members of the new creative class who are distinctly unaccustomed to being cast as anything other than the revitalizers of their adopted neighborhoods.
It’s easy to cast Milloy as a guy stuck in the past. (With a 42-year-old son, from his first marriage, and a 32-year-old stepdaughter and 21-year-old son with his second wife, Milloy certainly starts any conversation with his myopic little twits across a generation gap.) His columns describe D.C. using a racial binary that the District began to shake off long ago as other people of color poured into the city. His monolithic view of the city’s white population ignores the different understandings of space—and the different economic realities—of the younger, just as professional, but not as rich, newcomers who’ve gentrified neighborhoods like Petworth. His rants against Twitter add some comic relief and show that being a technophobic crank knows no race.
But maybe it’s worth holding off on the ironic teasing for a second. In Milloy’s telling, his barbs at D.C.’s creative-class newbies aren’t about lashing out at them because they’re new. He’s lashing out at them because they’re not. As gentriﬁcation takes hold of Washington and issues of inequality emerge, it’s not enough to take solace in Obama’s post-racial ideal while neighborhoods acquire a new mono-cultured cast. People who move into changing neighborhoods have a responsibility for what’s going on. Or so Milloy, in his role as the crotchety grandfather they never wanted, wants to tell them.
Milloy sees new Washingtonians as the flip-side of a process that, in his view, involves older ones being pushed out. And if the actual truth behind African-American departures is more complicated—plenty of folks, starting with Milloy, decamped voluntarily—he argues that it’s pretty damned egocentric to imagine that everything is sweetness and light.
“Well, I don’t know why people think I have a problem with the influx itself,” he says. “Not to be deliberately provocative, but that is the white view, it’s white-centered. ‘Why are you opposed to us moving in?’ But nothing about, ‘Why are you concerned about the way black people are being kicked out?’ People are being displaced, and sometimes run over roughshod. To me, that’s the issue. But depending on who gets to frame the issue—who gets to pose the question, set the framework—it becomes, you know, what’s wrong with white people moving in?” (Milloy, of course, is also the one setting the framework, at least once a week in the daily paper.) “Bridging those sorts of perceptual divides becomes very challenging,” he continues. “People become pretty, pretty self-centered when it comes to things like that.”
“I don’t make a racial distinction between people of privilege,” Milloy will later hedge in an e-mail. “All of the haves need to take a look at America’s widening economic divide, and start doing more to help those who have not.”