After the Majority Will white identity politics come to post-post-racial D.C.?

Marion Barry wants to save Chocolate City.

“We’re going to stop this trend—gentrification,” Barry said in remarks reported by The Washington Post. “The key to keeping this city black is jobs, jobs, jobs for black people so they can have a better quality of life in neighborhoods in the city.”

Barry has long been a symbol of everything white people—and not just white Washingtonians—see as wrong with D.C. When he was re-elected to a third mayoral term in 1994, the road to the Wilson Building made the Los Angeles Times. But rhetoric like Barry’s reaction to last week’s Census data had, actually, mostly disappeared from D.C. politics in the last few years. Until racial tensions roiled the city’s Democratic primary race for mayor last summer, the District was having its own post-racial moment.

While he was 2010’s candidate of bike lanes, white newcomers, and mass teacher firings, when Adrian Fenty was first elected, he was both the candidate of bourgie Upper Northwest and the folks living in what Barry calls “apartheid” in Ward 8. Barry actually endorsed him. A precipitous drop in employment, the city’s long-developing demographic changes, and Fenty’s own political tone deafness led to a racial dynamic in the city that resembles the inverse of the one Barack Obama is facing nationally: A whole lot of angry folks who want their country—sorry, city—back.

I don’t want to overstate the parallels between the wealthier-than-average, right-wing populist Tea Party movement demanding Obama keep his government hands off their Medicare, and D.C.’s exasperated working-class black residents. The former, after all, has always had a voice in politics, while the latter is rightfully concerned that its dwindling influence means they may never get to share in the prosperity west of the Anacostia River. But just as the browning of America has awoken a novel white identity politics nationally, the demographic forces that framed D.C.’s last mayoral election may prove to be the prologue to a new era of polarizing racial politics in the District, one in which explicitly catering to its most affluent white residents is a path to victory rather than a route to an ignominious defeat.

The Census numbers released last week showed that D.C.’s black residents have been fleeing the city in even larger numbers than expected, leaving blacks with a bare 50 percent majority of the population. The raw racial and cultural divide exposed by the contest between Gray and Fenty is also exacerbated by which residents are leaving. In 2009, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute noted that “while incomes have risen for white households and those with the most advanced educations, incomes have been stagnant or falling for others.” The exodus of the city’s black middle class only exacerbates the trend. Playing to a base of black voters, now more than ever, also means playing to a base of poor voters.

The city’s been racially polarized before, of course. In 1994, when Barry ran against then-Councilmember Carol Schwartz, eight out of 10 blacks supported Barry, while whites opposed him in similar numbers. Before Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy cast D.C.’s whitish creative class, with their Mac laptops and brunch spots, as “myopic little twits” last year, he was mocking former Mayor Anthony Williams for launching a write-in campaign when many of the city’s poorer residents were illiterate. But now, D.C.’s white residents, who have always had more influence than their numbers might imply, make up a big enough share of the population to play their own game of identity politics. During a D.C. Council meeting earlier this week, At-Large Councilmember David Catania argued that Mayor Vince Gray’s personnel troubles were evidence of “a political caste system in the District,” a loaded phrase that augurs the possibility that a lack of whites among mayoral appointments could someday be just as controversial as Fenty’s selection of Michelle Rhee as schools chancellor or Cathy Lanier as police chief. As the city gets whiter, whites are going to start demanding more of the spoils.

Things can get a lot uglier than they were last year. A severe economic downturn that punished D.C.’s overwhelmingly black poor and working class, the influx of whites, and the outward exodus of more affluent blacks were factors largely beyond Fenty’s control as mayor that nonetheless gave the insurmountable impression that, like George W. Bush, he just didn’t care about black people. That’s not to understate Fenty’s political weaknesses—his abrasiveness, arrogance, or uncanny ability to project indifference to those suffering from violence or the city’s economic downturn—in his loss, or in Gray’s late decision to run in the first place. But despite the level of support he received from the city’s white residents, Fenty never ran as “the white people’s candidate,” and Gray never indulged in the kind of explicit racial politics Barry once mastered. The idea of Gray as the second coming of Barry is absurd—15 years ago the city’s white and middle class black residents might have been aligning with the Dunbar-educated Gray against whatever candidate Barry endorsed, much the way they did when Rev. Willie F. Wilson ran against Williams in 2002. It was remarkable that both candidates studiously avoided explicit racial politics, even as their supporters and detractors spent months tossing labels at each other.

Yet the city polarized along racial lines in numbers not seen since the last time Barry was on the ballot, with 80 percent of the black vote going to Gray while Fenty drew the same numbers among white voters. The post-Barry truce between the black middle class and the city’s white residents dissolved, increasing the probability that the city’s class divide will morph into a racial one. White voters’ initial impression of Gray has stuck despite his efforts to alleviate anxieties west of Rock Creek Park through a series of pre-general election town halls. A survey released by the Clarus Research Group last week showed Gray with a 17 percent approval rating among white residents. Yes, the mayor managed to short-circuit his honeymoon with a series of disastrous appointments that have driven down his approval ratings even among the black residents who voted for him. But it’s hard to say his low approval among whites is so easily explained. After all, that 17 percent resembles his share of the white vote in the primary anyway. If anything, he’s just confirmed what they already thought about him in the first place. What makes this baffling is that Gray ran largely as an alternative to Fenty in style rather than substance, and the policy differences between them were virtually nonexistent. Gray went as far as appointing Kaya Henderson as Rhee’s replacement, signaling continuity with Fenty on education—the one issue in this city over which there’s something approaching genuine ideological conflict, and the one most white voters flagged as the most important.

In a one-party city like D.C., where there are few genuine ideological divisions, issues of identity become ever more salient. So if you think the recent national emergence of a flagrant, unabashed white identity politics on the right has been bad, just wait until you see what D.C. is like post-Chocolate City. And no, Marion Barry is not going to save us.

Our Readers Say

There are District African Americans who dislike Marion Barry also; you slight them here in an article as biased and polarizing as Barry.

Barry wants jobs, but doesn't want the tax-paying base that would help provide economic vitality to create those jobs. Complete buffoonery.

The new "gentrifiers", and long time non-black residents, apparently weren't flexing their political muscle enough last fall to keep Fenty&Rhee.

Gray successfully won (or fooled) the hearts and minds of plenty of white supporters which helped ensure his victory.

"Barry has long been a symbol of everything white people—and not just white Washingtonians ..."
"Barry wants jobs, but doesn't want the tax-paying base that would help provide economic vitality to create those jobs."

So true. Perhaps more than anything else, that has been the biggest disconnect for me re: Barry.
It's bizarre that Barry paints economics along racial lines. As suggested in this article Washington has a nice cadre of upper- and middle-class Black people so when he says "the key to keeping the city Black is jobs ..." he's only referring to those in his jurisdiction (which itself is seeing greater numbers of gentrifying Blacks moving there). This article, strangely, fails to mention a balancing out of the Black middle- and upper-class here in DC: they don't just consist of people leaving the city but transplanters moving in, who are very similar to their educated White counterparts. Now it makes sense that Barry'd be focused on the needs of his jurisdiction, yet making this racial is both inaccurate and dishonest. Every Black person I know in the District is at least middle class, so the reality is that the District still IS significantly Black. What Barry means is "poor Black" ... so he should simply say so. Something tells me his polarizing is deliberate.
eve hit it right on.
I've been wondering about this for sometime now. It's encouraging that the candidates last year didn't engage in the racial identity exchange. But it doesn't look well that us voters (and our media) continue to harp on identity issues.

Whether D.C. becomes majority-white or stays majority-black is not the issue. The real issue is the lopsided development that gentrification is bringing and the adverse impacts that it is having on communities.

What this city, and our politicians, haven't done is offered up a program mitigating the negative effects of gentrification that fall disproportionately on the "poor class" - whether white, black, Hispanic, or Asian. Presenting this reality as primarily affecting the majority community makes the whole political discussion NOT about equity BUT about race.

For instance, take a look at the CityCenter project in Chinatown. Only 20 percent of the apartments and condos are going to be "affordable."
This affects everyone not in the upper income bracket of the District (and elsewhere). True, a majority of the District's black residents are not in this bracket. But it would be a mistake to present this problem as "only" affecting Blacks. The "poor" community and the black community, as Willie W. pointed out, is not an undifferentiated mass.

I've emphasized economics here, but the disparity goes way beyond that. You have to look at nutrition, education -- really a range of things related to opportunity. I don't think any of our politicians particularly care to really look at why this (gentrification) is working as it is.
It's not about black vs. white. Like Marion Barry, I remember the days when it was, but times have changed. It's about rich folks, black or white, controlling the District government, and pushing the poor folks -- almost entirely black -- around. That's why Fenty (black) was powerfully rejected by the east-side wards, while being supported by the upper-income, west-side wards, including majority-black Ward Four.

It's time to set aside the black vs. white conversation, and talk instead about the haves vs. the have-nots. "Gentrification" is all about high-income people, black or white, moving into low-income neighborhoods, sometimes with little respect for the lower-income residents being pushed aside and out.
Berry is still a butt hole barney.
My husband and I, are both well educated professionals who together earn a tidy sum. We feel priced out of the DC housing market.

What about me and those like me. Two income-middle class, well educated African Americans. We are not going to squeeze a potential family into a small 700 sq ft town house on capitol hill.

And under Fenty any vacant property the city owned went to private developers. A lot different than Williams who give a large number to non profits and individuals.
I have to wonder where Serwer has lived. I've lived in DC twice: 90-95 and 06-now and retained close ties to the city in between. I've lived in places with classic racial politics like Chicago and Cleveland and a place with a totally undeserved image for "moderation" (Atlanta). Racial politics in DC pale in comparison. Whites won citywide races when the city was 70% African-American. A new generation of Black politicians were anxiously waiting for the Barry era to end when Gingrich and company stuck their nose in DC business.

If my last trip to jury duty is any indication, the voting population already is majority white. The Black middle class has been leaving for decades. All of those Maryland tags in front of DC megachurches are good reminder of that. But it's not just middle class Blacks who have left. Large chunks of PG County are now home to low income African Americans who once lived in the District and neighborhoods like NoMa are examples of where many of these individuals once lived.

Loss of power is polarizing. This is what I lived through particularly in Cleveland. A remnant of that era is still very much with us. Dennis Kucinich, a favorite of many progressives, began as a race baiting councilman who has never really repudiated his past (unlike what he's done on abortion). He now represents a rather notoriously racist suburban area of Cleveland, along with a predominantly white section of the city.

DC will have a large African-American population for the foreseeable future. The notion that it will become poorer in real or relative terms is somewhat open to debate. Black gentrifiers have been going into places like LeDroit Park (90s) and Anacostia (now), as well as some areas predominated by whites. Middle class, predominantly African American areas like Hillcrest and 16th Street Heights have remained so, despite a few more white faces. Things are less dramatic than Serwer and other like to paint them. The dynamics will shift, though, and it will be interesting to see who constitute the swing populations. It used to be Ward 4 that was important tow watch. In the future, it might be something more generational. Gray was a lackluster candidate and not very interesting to me, but he attracted most of the endorsements of (largely white) liberal community activists. This goes un-noticed virtually everywhere and, yet, it also could be the beginning of new alliances.

White DCers who secretly want a white mayor unfortunately could wind up with Jack Evans (rumored to have his eye on the job for years), a pro-business hack who, in his own way, wouldn't exactly set the city on its right course. The "twilight" white pols in many cities with tense racial environments often destroyed their cities' financial integrity. Racial politics aren't pretty, but Barry isn't an insurgent like Dennis Kucinich and thankfully, Gray is not a crook like Ralph Perk (the Cleveland mayor who famously snubbed Nixon on his wife's bowling night) or even an incompetent like Perk's successor, Dennis Kucinich.
Brahmin, please tell me how 2 middle class educated blacks and others can not afford to live in DC? How can all these gay white males and oter whites afford to live here? Something is wrong with this picture. Are gay white educated professionals making more money or have higher salaries than educated middle class blacks in the District?
I don't have a problem with white educated U.S. citizens moving into the District of Columbia. These people are U.S. citizens and they should be able to live anywhere in this country, the same as other U.S. citizens.

I welcome white U.S. citizens into the District than illegal aliens coming or moving here from El Salvador and other their world Central American countries. Has anyone ever visited El Salvador on vacation? Are there any middle class educated Salvadorans in El Salvador? It seems that a large portion of Salvadorans are illiterate, poor, commit crimes in their country, and live like animals in their country. Why would the United States would to import poverty or illiterate people here?
there is more of a major consensus that DC has an issue with preference over principles ... when people prefer one over the other based on their personal preference rather than a practical common sense one; most deff not from their principles of how their lives will be effected, they deserve to be served their daily dose of corrupt medicine ... The bourgie blacks were only bourgie in how many zero's were in their paychecks because they were short on class and sophistication. as an outsider looking in - yes a black woman from the Midwest [or some might even say a damned Yankee in a southern town] I am still in culture shock as to how the blacks have manifested a subversion of white on black racism on each other [intra-racism and classism]. The whites that have come the gentrifiers think and approach all blacks as if they are native Washingtonians - therefore permeating a continual racist - white supremacist seperatist society. I live in Columbia Heights and been here since 2003 - it was hard enough to deal with the South American Immigrants and Blacks who just have no class ... now a white infux has shown me what my Native American ancestors must have seen when whites came in and then took over ... I have had the front door to my condo building pulled shut on my face cuz some new white chick who just moved into the hood thought no more colour-eds live in the hood. Only to be startled when I pulled my keys out and walked in - so far in 5 yrs 30 whites have come and gone - but more keep coming. All I want everyone to do is no matter how racist or classist bourgie you think you are or want to be - JUST MOVE TO ONE SIDE OF THE DAMN SIDE WALK WHEN YOU SEE ME COMING! Groups of white folks walking all huddled up like fricken gang mobs of fear and racial profiling ... Too bad yall don't know what your missing out on ... but then again that is why I am packing to leave for the brighter lights and bigger city of New York - where living really matters to people ... I voted for Fenty [although I only registered as a DC resident to vote for Obama] because of education reform and the fact that he was continuing to clean up this dirty city. I hear all the time from ignorant blacks with big paying jobs as to how the white people don't know Dr. King's dream. Well he sure as heck didn't say to black folks I want you all to stay in segregated cities called chocolate and live mighty while you have the worst schools in the nation - cuz you sent your uppity little coloured children off to private schools. DC has a class issue more than a race issue - if your kids are not mixing with the affluent of a society they will not be exposed to what is going on in mainstream society. I cringe every time I am approached by a DC school kid trying to sell something to raise funds for school and they can't even articulate to anybody what they are selling... NO CLASS ALL THE WAY ROUND!!! Living here has been a real turning point for me in understanding what true racism is and what true ignorance and self-hate are ... So long DC - whose citizens seem to think that that they struck a diamond mine with Target moving in the hood. WOW! People must get out and travel more to see how few black people are spread out in the rest of the USA. Once again we are all playing racial identity politics between black and white - straight and gay - when the real fun will begin when we see the first South American run for DC Mayor and put both sides on the edge ...
Scar,classism is the worse ism of all isms. Take your Black Stud ass to new york.Also, Willie Lynch is happy that people like you are rooting for a South American.
Some new aspects on this debate:
1. Are blacks fleeing or are they being drawn into the burbs? Or both?
2. If lack of jobs for (poor) blacks (according to Barry) is what is contributing to black flight, then wards 7&8 should be emptying since joblessness and poverty is concentrated there and as DC black population drops, no?. I don't see that happening. Why?
3. Or is that blacks getting pushed out or (pre) priced out of gentrifying neighborhoods are replacing natural turnover in Wards 7&8? What evidence?

What seems to be true so far in all the reporting and discussion on this topic is that there is much we don't know. I'd like to see a second stage analysis of the census figures and second series of articles reporting on:

1. Are newly arriving blacks, of whatever class, skipping DC and setting up in the burbs? Are some heading to the South instead (where black in-migration is growing)?
2. Are youngish whites who age and would head for the burbs and their schools and bigger, newer cheaper housing just staying put in DC? There's quite a few youngish moms with baby strollers in Mt. Pleasant now. This was documented as a factor for 'gentrification' in the 70's: not as many whites were moving out of DC as before to burbs, so when more incoming whites (or better off "minorities") arrived, bingo more gentrification
3. And where did the 30,000 or so blacks who dropped out of DC in past 10 years actually go? And where did the 30,000 or so blacks who might have replaced them, elect to stay or elect to relocate?

My suspicion is that part of the black population drop is due to some natural turnover (death, nursing home, military, college, family move, job transfer, etc.) of blacks in DC not being replaced by incoming blacks. Many other blacks lose their housing (possession or affordability) due to rent or tax increases, upgrading of housing units. condo conversion, etc.

I hear anecdotal stories of graying whites moving in from burbs once the nest empties and la manse seems too big or commute too brutish. Or that DC s now more hip or even green. I see and meet a lot of 20-somethings in DC who have just arrived from outside the area. A lot. Could it be the luster is off some other US cities and there is a HUGE surge of post-college folks arriving for DC jobs and amenities? So many households in DC are now listed as single. Public school enrollments over the past 2 or so decades have plummeted in DC.

My understanding is DC has been majority black for two generations (or ~56 years). Before that it may have been majority white for 4 or so generations. Some once majority black or now B&W (& Latino) mixed neighborhoods in DC, usually the hotter ones, were once long term white majority, even white "ethnic." But then DC area, federal govt, grew enormously, the burbs opened up only to whites (and some Jews in some places), the feds accepted some blacks, and whites skipped away merrily to the burbs.

Should we expect much flux and impermanence in our city? Is that the history of DC? Should we focus more on encouraging diversity, empowerment, and being the healthiest and fairest place that we can? It is good to have a range of elected officials that represent somewhat the range of citizens, but that the goal is to elect great officials, regardless of ethnicity?* Would we say the same about class? Do we forget or begrudge that there are many more blacks living in the DC burbs than within DC? That there are, in a sense, two or three "black DC's" out there in the scattered and not so scattered burbs?

* I prefer ethnicity since today, much "racial" denotations seem more cultural and genetics suggests there are no human races since our DNA is so similar, not disparate. Does a black law partner at a "white shoe" law firm seem that similar to a black bus driver? Yes and also, no. Is a white McLean Va super-lobbyist so akin to his white Greek cab driver at Dulles? Yes and no. Will they vote the same, have same self interests, as their "racial" peers?

In DC a lot of what looks and get discussed as race seems often really about class. In America, we tend to pretend there are not economic and social classes.

Finally, Eve: "every black person in DC you know is at least middle class?" Well, you may be honest and I commend that, but you might try getting around and getting more real. Is every white person in DC you know middle class? Then where is that third or so of DC residents hiding from you?
The reason many long time renters get displaced is that Section 8 has rent ceilings based on neighborhood and for whatever reason they are higher than market rent in wards 7 & 8 (providing an incentive to landlords to rent to low-income tenants) and below market in wealthier neighborhoods in wards 2 & 3.

The real change is happening in wards 4, 5, and 6 where market rents are rising and very recently surpassing Section 8 ceilings, providing an incentive for landlords to raise rent and get market tenants in areas that were low income for the past 10-20 years. The city could of course stop this by raising Section 8 ceilings to compete in the changing market, but for whatever reason city council has not made it a priority.

In my NE DC neighborhood (Eckington) a 3 bedroom house can get nearly $1900 in Section 8 rent, or as much as $2200 or $2300 in market rent. Who do you think the landlord would pick?
Hey, Ward 4 Citizen:

I live near Eckington and it isn't automatically bad if landlords prefer market-rate tenants to Section 8 ones. If responsible people with jobs are actually willing to spend their own money to live near you, you should be happy. It's a step up for everyone.
"please tell me how 2 middle class educated blacks and others can not afford to live in DC? How can all these gay white males and other whites afford to live here?"

Before you jump on The Plan bandwagon, I doubt that this couple can't afford to live in D.C. It's just that they may not be able to afford to live in the particular neighborhood in D.C. that they want to live in. And in that regard, they are no different from any number of my non-Black middle-class (and some upper middle-class) friends who complain about how they are priced out of the particular neighborhoods they want to live in. That's what it always boils down to. In most of the neighborhood blogs now there are lots of complaints about the DC real estate market and how people are priced out of it. But it's really about being priced out of particular neighborhoods, not the entire market.

How is it that "others" can afford to live here? In many cases, it's by moving into neighborhoods that many won't consider moving into. Columbia Heights and U Street are booming now but 10 years ago you could have bought any amazing property for a song.
I disagree with the statement that "But despite the level of support he received from the city’s white residents, Fenty never ran as “the white people’s candidate,” ".

My white 73 year old father lives in Ward 3 and compared Fenty's "Can I count on your vote” visit schpiel to the anti-Harvey Gantt campaign. I regularly dealt with Fenty staff who pressed the story of Chavous v Williams with the point that Fenty could win without Ward 5,7, or 8...if "we" (Whites) just came out in enough numbers. When you hear that talking point from more than one staffer, it is part of the campaign.

Ron Moten was telling one side of the city that Gray was an agent of gentrification, while Jaffe was telling the other side that Gray was going to jump in his Delorean and bring back Rayful Edmonds. Just because Fenty was playing both sides doesn’t mean his campaign wasn’t actively campaigning as “the white people’s candidate” in white Washington.
1. You need a reporter who knows what the Tea Party is. They are not wealthier than average and retired, saying "keep your hands off my medicare." They are working people saying "Quit bailing out banks and Wall St., quit giving money to Acorn and other community groups, quit earmarks, cut foreign aid -- stop quadrupiling the deficit one year and then using that as baseline the next year."

2. You ended with something about shocking "white identity politics." That's so ridiculous that you probably owe half your readers new keyboards. Hispanic, Muslism, and more so, Black identity politics are the trend, by far. The Black Panther Case? The Pigford Scandal? Eric Holder and "my people"? Obama giving NASA to the muslims? Blacks for Obama by 94%? I could go on, but...puleeze.

This article was a siilly waste of time, 5 minutes I'll never get back. You obviously aren't big on objectivity. I won't be back, and I doubt if others who stumble onto the story will.
I can see both sides of problem...the criminal and thuggish behavior of black youth at Gallery Place and L'Enfant, the identity politics of Barry and Gray, and the white gentrification pricing federal employees like myself out of living in the City.

A pox on all your houses.
I live & grew up in the suburbs of DC ,I w,as all White and it's all right.
I came to DC so I could have hook,like, nigger,friends as my Towns people would say,it saddens me to see a once cool city be bombarded by they same types from my home town(only they hide they're racism in papers like this one,whats wrong with a black majority?
Yeah I thought so!!!!!
It got misprinted so I'll say it again, I came to DC so I couldn't've what my brother and father and yes mother would call; gook,kike,sand nigger,chink,friends! It racism to say mayor Barry was a bad mayor when none of the complainers actually libed here but, were toooung and in Texas or Alanna ,you came here looking for a job and like always you want change things just to suite YOURSELVES Nevermore the little neighborhoods you destroy and developed to fit what YOU think a community should be, wonder poor blacks rooted, hope the will again when they've been pushed to far again! As for my llama men family? People can see them for what they are, HATE LIKES AND BLACKS,WHAT ABOUT YOU NEW WHITES TO DC, YOU COME HERE TO RUN EN OUT TOO?!!

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