Perhaps you heard the news: Washington is undergoing, um, “demographic change.” The preferred nomenclature may be antiseptic, but the story behind it represents a live wire lying just inches away from nearly every conversation about D.C. Marvelling about the number of new eateries in some neighborhood? Complaining about the rent? Debating bike lanes, school reform, liquor licenses? Chances are you’re moments away from careening into a discussion of The Whitening. Unfortunately, most such discussions tend to be either myopic or hysterical. For every chest-thumping booster of a gentrified neighborhood—“no one used to send their kids to the schools!”—there’s someone lamenting how a proudly African-American city has been coopted by dog-walking, snowball-fighting little twits.
But can the future identity of a big, dynamic place actually be so simple? Of course not. Enter Tony Williams, whose mayoral term coincided with the acceleration of a 30-year-old decline in the black share of the population. “Cities have a certain background, and that culture permeates, even long after that group is no longer the majority,” Williams told the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher about halfway through another long Census-prompted story. “The Irish influence in Boston is still very powerful, even though Irish people are no longer the bulk of the population.” In a time of frantic local identity anxiety, that idea—D.C. will always be black the way Boston will always be Irish—seems both right and reassuring.