City Desk

D.C.’s “Dirty Secret”: Rule by Apartheid?

Katie Connolly over at Newsweek offered some thoughts the other day on the nature of race and class in D.C. after City Paper's Sexist, Amanda Hess, blogged about why the District has the lowest marriage rate in the nation. Among them: This city is ruled by apartheid.

Connolly wrote:

Anyone who's lived in D.C. is aware of the city's dirty secret: it essentially operates under an unwritten form of apartheid. In general, affluent, college-educated white folks with decent, steady incomes are clustered in the northwest quadrant. Their needs are serviced by a massive underclass, consisting largely of underprivileged immigrants, African-Americans, and Hispanics, that inhabits the remaining three quarters. Visitors to the city rarely glimpse this side of the city because there's little reason to venture beyond the fancy hotels, restaurants, and attractions.

Apartheid? Her use of that term caught the attention of Greater Greater Washington readers today after that site linked to Connolly's post; several commenters suggested it was "extreme" and "horrendously oversimplified," and that seems about right to me.

If it was unintentional, it was, at best, a sloppy reference; if she meant it, it was hyperbolic and inaccurate (even with that "unwritten" thrown in there). Apartheid has a very specific meaning beyond just racial segregation. And what Connolly described: That's segregation.

There certainly is no disputing the segregated nature of this city (and many others). And there is no disputing all of the disparities, along racial lines, that exist within it, in areas ranging from education and income to health care and beyond. But let's not call that apartheid. Terminology matters.

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  • Anonymous

    The Newsweek piece is the most obnoxious thing I have read in a long time...then again it was written by a white, twentysomething transplant (from Australia) so I guess we shouldn't be surprised...still, doesn't Newsweek have editors? She has a lot of basic facts incorrect.

  • Former Staffer

    Two personal examples.

    On the Hill, outside of the minority offices, the majority of the staffers are white. The administrative employees (kitchen, maintenance, loading docks) are minority.

    In the Agency in which I work. The managers are all white. The attorneys have a little diversity. The administrative staff (secretaries, janitors, security) are minority.

    Own up to it DC, this is still the South, not the "Mid-Atlantic".

  • nivin

    Perhaps it was hyperbolic, bur the fact that she is from Australia means she may see the situation without American politically correct biases. If it looks like apartheid and acts like apartheid to a non-amercican, maybe that just means we need to take a closer look.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Former Hill Staffer, I know you're going to find this shocking...but there is life outside of federal Washington here in D.C.

  • Former Staffer

    Anon - Where?

    I'm just calling the caste system I see.

  • Martin

    Wow. I don't think anyone is arguing whether or not some type of racial/economic segregation still exists. Of course it does. It will take a generation or two for that to disappear.

    But to use the word "apartheid" is just stupid. It assumes that there is a state-sponsored policy to keep minorities down. That's simply not true. Inequality exists, but last I checked it wasn't D.C. policy to maintain it.

    Finally, her opinion is far too broad. She ignores the fact that the city's Latino population is largely in Ward 1, which is in NW. Actually, Ward 1 is the city's most diverse ward. Additionally, Ward 6, in SE, is also extremely diverse, both in racial and economic terms. I agree that segregation still exists, but it's not, for lack of a better term as black and white as she claims.

  • Downtown Rez

    Agree with Martin. The author went for cheap shock-value when she chose her wording.

  • Quinn

    Please...she knows what apartheid means. She's from Australia. Ask her how many Aboriginal Australians she grew up around, went to school with, etc. Not to be snarky, but I wonder how she would describe the plight of Aborigines in her native country. Does it bother her?

    And seeing as the mayor and many members of his Administration are not white (Black, Korean, Indian, etc.), how does her claim of "unwritten" apartheid hold up? And at the federal level, Norton Holmes isn't white. And PLEASE, Congress is much too busy (not to mention, not as evil as we think!) with other stuff than trying to set up an apartheid regime in DC.

    I'm a young black woman who is sick of young white women trying to be armchair commentators on these kinds of issues without sufficiently educating themselves. They think they're being progressive, but when they base a lot of what they write/say on faulty, biased and sometimes prejudiced assumptions, they end up embarrassing themselves.

  • Dave

    The whole "3/4ths of the city is oppressed by the other 1/4th" thing is wildly inaccurate and betrays a lack of basic knowledge about D.C. geography.

    A cursory glance at a map of the District would show that the NW quadrant is far larger than any other quadrant. In fact, I'd estimate that at least half of the residents of the District live in NW. If we are to extend Katie Connolly's "3/4ths-1/4ths" argument, that would mean SW represents a quarter of the city. Obviously, it does not.

    Furthermore, NW is no where near as homogenous as she implies. Yes, the areas east of Rock Creek Park are pretty affluent. But there are large pockets of poverty - Shaw, anyone? - throughout NW.

    If I had to guess, I'd say Connolly either just moved here or doesn't actually live here at all. That, or she's never ventured east of 23rd st.

  • Downtown Rez

    You don't know what you are talking about. Obviously, SW does oppress the entire city, in that the one quarter of the city that would be SW has retro-ceded to VA, and actually has voting representation in congress.
    But it's okay, because Richmond oppresses them, so it all evens out.

  • Dave

    Lol, good point DRez. Arlington and Alexandria - along with every other jurisdiction in the nation that has voting representation in Congress, i.e. the entire country - do oppress the District. Those Southern bastards!

  • Mike DeBonis

    My big problem with the Connolly item, and these types of things generally, is there is never mention the existence of a black middle class in this city, which exists in every quadrant. (Gold Coast in NW, Brookland/Michigan Park/Woodridge in NE, Hillcrest/Penn Branch/Bellvue in SE). It's always set up like there rich whites to the west, poor blacks to the east, and a few childless yuppies and gays in the middle. Sheesh.

  • Chris

    I agree the term "apartheid" is misused, if not grossly misused, but there is not doubt the city has been and remains deeply segregated. The degree of segregation is most shocking in the DC Public schools systems:

    How can it be possible for white students to represent only 5% of the public school student population when whites make up 36% of the general population in the District? As long as this trend continues, these social/racial lines will forever remain.

  • Downtown Rez

    GREAT point, MDB.
    Except that, through omission, you continue to marginalize the Latino man.

  • EdTheRed

    I posted this in the comments section of the original article:

    "You know, referring to the population of the only city in the U.S. that is Constitutionally disenfranchised as living "under an unwritten form of apartheid" is not only wrong, it's offensive. You've actually managed to offend me...unless, of course, you mean that, like black South Africans, all DC residents are legally denied the basic rights of other American citizens (which, of course, you didn't mean).

    "Then again, you probably still vote in Australia, so you likely didn't even think about that.

    "Now why don't you spend some time thinking about the difference between de facto segregation and de jure segreation, and come back when you're ready to discuss DC's very real problems without throwing around loaded words that don't mean what you seem to think they mean."

  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    DC is ruled by apartheid. So is the USA. A few rich people run everything, using henchmen of all colours to oppress working people.

    Anybody who doesn't recognize those facts has his head stuck up his navel, still gazing. Good luck, you ignorant bastards - you're going to need it.

  • Quinn

    But Chris, of the 36% white population, what percentage are children?

    Can you blame people for wanting to send their kids to the best schools they can? DC schools are so segregated because DC can't raise revenue like a real state - so DCPS hasn't ever been able to really do what it needs to make the school system better. They try, I think, but the money isn't secure/dedicated enough. Add to this, Congress's meddling in DC school affairs. So, unfortunately, the better off parents send their kids to private schools or move to somewhere in the region that does have good public schools. The poorer DC kids are left to languish in DC schools.

    Now there are a few good dcps schools. But I would think that is because they are in areas where parents have the means to basically subsidize things those schools need. Like books, computers, etc. I don't know, this is just what I think. I remember my mom buying special multi-racial skin toned crayons for the entire 2nd grade class at my suburban Montgomery Co. elementary school back in the day. And the PTA raising money to bring famous children song artists like Red Grammer to perform.

  • Mike DeBonis

    Didn't mean to marginalize anyone, but let's remember the D.C. hispanic population is relatively small. According to the latest Census estimates, D.C. is 8.6 percent Latino, 52.8 percent black (yes, I know there is some minuscule overlap b/c Latino isn't a race). In any case, mea culpa. And most of the Latinos are in NW, which fucks with her thesis in any case.

  • Lisa Harris

    Well, what shall we call it?

    Terminology does matter, I agree. And I find it odd that the few rich white people that do run everything get all upset if anyone suggests that they are - oh, I don't know - privileged.

    That the city, dare I say, the world, is ruled by a privileged class is not news. But calling it out is somehow considered offensive.

    So what shall we call it? What term would make those members of the privileged class feel less guilty. Because I think we should all be about making them feel better.

  • J

    Quinn: Lack of funding was not the problem with DC schools. There have been times when our schools spent more per pupil than almost any other system in the nation, while simultaneously performing at the bottom of national rankings.

  • downtown rez

    i was just messin', MDB

  • Comrade Al Gonzales

    Get real, people. Crack vs. powder cocaine laws - apartheid. Capital punishment - 90% of the time it's for a black man killing a white person. Or a white psycho, the other 10%. Felons can't vote - well, who are the felons? Private industry prisons in white states holding black prisoners. DC farms out its prisoners. Etc.

    Anyway - think about it a little please.

  • Angry Al Gonzales

    The woman is an Aussie fox.

    O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    It wad frae monie a blunder free us
    An foolish notion:
    What airs in dress an gait wad lea'es us,
    An ev'n devotion!

    To people from outside the USA, it looks like apartheid. It is apartheid-light. Case closed.

  • Grace Jones

    Welcome to the United States.

  • Martin

    Lisa (and others),

    The point is that apartheid was a conscious attempt by one race to keep another down. Yes, D.C. is segregated, and yes, some of that segregation is due to history and existing policies, like Comrade Al Gonzalez points out, that largely affect African Americans. But it's not like members of the D.C. Council and the mayor sit around and say, "How can we screw minorities today? What laws can we pass that will raise the fortunes of white folks at the expense of everyone else?"

    Apartheid is a term that should be carefully used. She threw it out there for shock value.

  • Downtown Rez

    Right you are, Martin.
    Page "hits" are counted, and greatly determine the amount of advertising dollars that 'zines collect.
    Look at this case- we have 25 comments (and god knows how many page views) debating what is and is not apartheid.
    Talk about cynical sensationalism... You also see it at the HU "Booty Wall" post.
    And the band played on...

  • huh?

    Indeed, it is a worthless post that is not well thought out AT ALL. I don't know whether this girl was half asleep when she wrote this or what, but blog posts like this on a nationally recognized magazine need to be screened a little more closely by editors.

    But you know, since she did get an MPP from the Kennedy School, the same degree that our dearest friend Michelle Rhee has, she must be really smart. Or at least that's what her professors told her.

    I always think it's funny when people who never leave their little island of security in this city pretend like they actually know what's going on. The perception that everyone who is black in the city is poor is thoroughly ignorant and without merit. She should own up to this and apologize.

  • Kwame Brown



    Kwame: Newsweek Article Wrong about Apartheid in DC

    WASHINGTON – Today, At-large Councilmember Kwame R. Brown released a statement in response to an article written by Katie Connolly at Newsweek. The article entitled, “Why So Few DC Residents Are Married” argued that low marriage rates in DC were due in part to “an unwritten form of apartheid.” Specifically, the article stated that “Anyone who's lived in DC is aware of the city's dirty secret: it essentially operates under an unwritten form of apartheid.”

    “As an elected official in DC, I’m appalled that a reporter at Newsweek would compare our system of government to apartheid,” said Councilmember Brown. “The article simplified the complex issue of marriage by pitting DC residents against each other and race against race. In fact, District residents are united in our efforts to alleviate poverty, reform our schools and create a city where families thrive. Our only remaining form of oppression comes not from each other but from our lack of full voting representation in Congress. Anyone who’s lived in DC should be aware of that dirty little secret.”

  • Downtown Rez

    Way to stretch the discussion to include MR.

  • Pingback: Kwame Brown Didn’t Like Newsweek’s “Apartheid” Reference, Either - City Desk - Washington City Paper

  • Lisa Harris

    So, Martin, I ask agian, what do we call it?

    In reality, it is classism, not racism, that divides the city. If you have the money to live well in DC, no one will stop you. And I do believe that the DC Council does in fact make laws that adversely affect poor people and give more advantage to the rich.

    Racism, sexism and classism are not like plants that need to be watered in order to thrive. They are institutional and insidious, but never accidental.

    So, DC is ruled by apartheid based on class, and that is fact. If you'd like to call it something else, be my guest, but the result is the same.

  • Martin


    Apartheid based on class? Well, that doesn't make sense apartheid is specifically defined as being based on race. But we'll stick with your argument for the time being.

    Yes, certain public policies surely do favor the rich. That being said, it's tough to argue that city policy is to specifically tailored to screw the poor when there are programs for food assistance, affordable housing, public schooling, etc. Sure, these aren't perfect, but they're an indication that a proactive sentiment exists within local and federal government to promote social welfare.

    I agree that racism, sexism and classism are insidious and still very much alive in our society. But it's still a far cry between that and claiming that because they exist then we must be living in apartheid.

    I can't stress enough that the white South African leadership made it a stated public point to screw the black population. It was their goal. Regardless of the segregation that still exists in D.C., it is simply not possible to say that Mayor Fenty and members of the D.C. Council -- many of whom are black, mind you -- similarly sit around and say, "How can we keep black folks down today?"

    Sure, D.C. is segregated, but it not apartheid, period.

  • Emily

    I actually had a bit of a back and forth on Twitter with Katie about this. She said to me:

    emfmorrison: @katiemconnolly GREAT piece! But many cities in the US have the same issue, & "apartheid" isn't working for me...maybe de facto segregation?

    katiemconnolly @emfmorrison understand your point, but didn't feel like "de facto segregation" is stark /harsh enough. just a personal preference I s'pose.

    emfmorrison:@katiemconnolly I've lived in South Africa &'s DC should not be compared to the brutality, inhumanity, devastation of apartheid

    katiemconnolly @emfmorrison you're right. point taken. was not my intention to diminish that experience
    10:32 PM Oct 20th from TweetDeck

    Point being, yes she made a gross oversimplification, and owned up to it 3 days ago.

  • Martin

    She also posted a clarification:

    "*It seems I've aggravated a lot of people with my reference to apartheid. I agree it was a poor choice of words, which unfairly exaggerated the social and class issues we have in DC. I've reworded that sentence to more accurately reflect my intention, which was to highlight the fact that there are two distinct class worlds in DC: an affluent group that clusters in the north west and a much poorer community whose work helps enable the higher living standards of the richer residents. It's also a reality that, like in many urban areas, a majority of those who live in DC's poorer areas aren't white. Those areas have worse schools and less access to services. In my mind, the contrast is stark and unjust, and in order to remedy this unfairness, DC residents should be conscious and open about the class politics surrounding them. But I admit that's a very different situation than in South Africa, and the analogy was a bad one."

    I still think she's wrong to insinuate that D.C. residents are somehow unaware of the segregation we see in this city. And she keeps harping on how all rich white folks live in NW, without admitting that it's the biggest quadrant and that it has the city's most diverse ward, both in racial and economic terms.

  • Mike Hawke

    Just three points:

    1. Regarding the 95% of the DCPS system that is black. How many white people in the District actually have kids of school age, and either aren't super rich or haven't moved to the 'burbs? I know anecdotal evidence doesn't equal data, but I personally don't know ANY.

    2. This Connelly woman really doesn't understand the actual economic tapestry of DC, as some others have pointed out. For example, I'm a white guy who's lived here for almost 38 years, since 6 years old, who lives in a very racially mixed neighborhood in Southeast near Potomac Ave. Metro. Again, as pointed out before, there are quite a few other areas throughout the city that are similar.

    3. Since the original article's overall subject was, apparently, the low marriage rate in DC, and the author seems to think it's because of a lack of interaction between the races, I'd just like to say: Hey, hot Nubian sisters! A lot of us white guys are quite smitten with you, but never get the time of day. I've got a J-O-B and a house! Interested?

  • Pingback: Katie Connolly Takes Back “Apartheid,” Adds Asterisk - City Desk - Washington City Paper

  • Pingback: More on Why Words Matter: The Examiner Says D.C. Suburbs are Becoming “Ghettos” - City Desk - Washington City Paper

  • Downtown Rez

    You've lived here HOW LONG and don't know ANY "white people in the District actually have kids of school age, and either aren’t super rich or haven’t moved to the ‘burbs"!?!?

  • mike hawke

    @Downtown Rez

    Nope. Not a one. Over the past 15 years or so, I have know quite a few of my friends (white, black or otherwise) get married and have kids - it seems to have been the time for it in their lives.

    Invariably, they've moved once the kids approach school age because, despite being good progessives for the most part, they don't want to send their kids to the atrocious DC school system. I can't really blame them. It seems that anybody with enough money to flee, but not enough money to send their scion to the expensive private schools in DC, would do the same, no matter what color they are.

    That's why, for the most part, the only kids in DCPS seem to be from the extreme economic underclass. And in DC, again for the most part, that means poor and black.

  • CastedClass

    I've lived in DC for most of my life and have spent only a couple years in public schools at the elementary level. My family was living in NW DC at the time, in an area with a decent mixture of races and incomes, yet 90% of students were African American, 8% Hispanic, and that other 2% were everyone else including whites. Two years in that school was hell. The teachers were incompetent, the Principal was a crook (she purchased her PHD online from a Degree Mill), and I was placed in a "special ed" class because my English (though my first language) had a solid accent. My teacher, though fluent in 7 langauges, was not that proficient in English. So two years, in that hell, I can't see what capable parent would want to send their Child into a program like this. Currently, I am sending my kids to a program in MD, though I live in DC and I will not ever put them into a DC Public School unless it's Deal or Oyster or something along these lines (which from everything I read is predominantly white. Hell, I would send my kids to Dunbar if it was a respectable program, but it isn't and it happens to be a predominantly African American school. It's a testament to 1- my own prejudices (nothing consciously racial, I hope; 2- how bad the system is in the District; 3- how hopeless it is under this administration.

    I agree with Hawke. The people who are financially capable in this City, including and especially the Mayor and his cronies, will not send their own children to a predominantly African American School. The problem isn't who constitute the school body, but rather what resources goes into them. From what I can tell, Conolly was dead on. This is state-sanction segregation.

  • Chris

    @MikeHawke and @CastedClass

    I'm not denying that the DC Public system is in a sad state, but when 1/3 third of the population turns a blind eye to problem, it becomes a infected sore that festers and damages the entire system.

    As for the percentages, they should be proportionate. Yes, perhaps the student makeup would not be 36% white, but much more than the paltry 5% it is now.

    Also, I don't want to suggest that white students are magical cure for a poor school system. There are plenty of black and Hispanic students and families who value a good education. I'm only suggesting that no public school will succeed with such a large percentage of the local taxpayers and parents showing little to no interest in the success or failures of the system.

    If there's a pothole on a neighborhood street in Georgetown or Cleveland Park , the city gets inundated with phone calls. But when hundreds of children fail to get a quality education in local public schools, nobody seems to give a crap.

  • SolotruthDC