Housing Complex

Does Sustainable D.C. Have a Race Problem?

The plan's carefully race-balanced cover.

This week, the District Department of the Environment issued its very visionary, very broad and sweeping plan to make D.C. the greenest city in the nation, as Mayor Vince Gray says over and over again. It was forged through dozens of meetings with volunteer committees, and hyped through advisory neighborhood commissions, community associations, and professional groups.

And yet, while the kickoff event drew 440 people, only 25—count 'em—were African American. Sure, all meetings have their racial imbalances, but that one's pretty severe (it's not like all Gray's shindigs are lily white; 44 percent of the 1,700 attendees at the One City Summit were black). 

At the D.C. Council's morning briefing with the mayor this morning, after DDOE director Christophe Tulou finished his spiel, Councilmember Vince Orange had something to say. He'd been getting calls from black residents, worrying what this whole Sustainable D.C. would mean for them. "People in the African American community were scared to death of this thing," Orange said. "They thought this was another attempt to move them out of the city."

What people care about now is education and employment, Orange went on—not cooling the planet, so much. "I don't think that everyone can see themselves in this vision," he said. "Overall I think it's the proper direction, but I think the message and how we roll it out has got to be a lot broader."

The plan makes mention of "attracting and retaining 250,000 new and existing residents," although it omits "existing" on second mention, which very much clouds the intention. Orange, naturally, saw it as potentially driving out folks who've been here for a long time—or at least inconveniencing them. "Why would we in D.C. want 250,000 more people, when now it takes 45 minutes to get downtown?" he asked. Councilmember Marion Barry chipped in that more of those coming to city should be black.

What exactly the plan's drafters meant probably doesn't matter, though, since it's a vague goal, not a quota. "I don't know it's a matter of need. I think it's a matter of demand," Gray said. "People want to be here. The question is, how do we manage that."

The administration is clearly aware of the issue. Gray did his big reveal last night at Florida Avenue Baptist Church, an African American congregation that's made headlines for its trailblazing investment in solar panels. And of course, as Gray's spokesman Pedro Rebeiro pointed out, efforts like lowering utility bills (and building more densely!) directly correspond with keeping people here if they want to say.

That doesn't make the whiteness undercurrent any less real, and Orange is probably right that Gray's greenies should emphasize their plan's economic benefits for everybody, not just newcomers. "That is a fear that exists in many communities around the city," Gray said, referring to displacement. "People don't talk about it as openly as they probably should, but we all hear it."

  • Wrack

    Annoying how many people get away with glossing back and forth between 2 different tensions: "race" vs "newness to DC." Not all DC residents with roots in the District are black. Nor are all newcomers white. But that seems to be the overly-generalized view of so, so many people.

  • Tom M.

    I would like to commend you for raising this set of points about who considers themselves "included" or "excluded" for this sustainable city agenda. Given the divides in our community, there is a lot of bridge building work to be done. Who is going to lead the way?

  • PetworthRes

    Frankly I don't think the content is the issue. Many African-Americans in DC will reflexively position themselves against whatever is perceived as "white", and environmentalism is definitely white. Rather than waste time trying to appease those parts of the city, we should support the mayor for doing what's right.

  • oboe

    The jobs of the future are increasingly going to be environmental jobs. "Sustainable" jobs. I think PetworthRes hit it on the head: like initiatives that make it easier to bike and walk in the city, these are perceived as "Stuff White People Like."

    If the "newcomers" are perceived to be fer it, the folks who put Vince Orange in office are going to be agin' it.

    Of course, Gray doesn't have the option of running his next election purely on the resentment of folks east of the river--he's got to actually run the city, and will inevitably alienate the alienated. Hence, courting the GGW vote.

  • Jane

    Wrack, you may be technically correct, but not even you can believe that the old vs. new issue falls largely along racial lines, as PetworthRes says. Remember the first big fuss about bike lanes? It wasn't just because people didn't like bicyclists, it was a symbol of how white people were edging in and changing old neighborhoods. It's sad that people think sustainability is a "white" thing but that perception definitely exists.

  • Jane

    *should be "that the old vs. new issue DOESN'T fall largely along..."

  • Bob Stanley

    You have a race problem, not the city. This is not an issue. Where do these numbers come from? Someone evaluated the skin color of all 440 people at the event? Are all people with dark skin African American?

  • Drez

    Grays sustainability plans (energy audits, etc) will create lots of jobs.
    That's some low-hanging bridge-building stuff that's worth highlighting.
    Unless admitting the cost has you worried, that is.

    I like the plan.

  • lesserlesserwashington

    How many were Native American?

  • crin

    Sustainability, since the birth of the concept in the 70s, is based on three things: environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and cultural sustainability. At it's most basic that means we have enough energy, water, food and building materials to survive. That these resources be affordable (or else they're inaccessible or impossible). That these changes don't destroy our cultural identity and our sense of who we are (so that way they can be embraced without fear).

    This report, like most modern LEED derivatives, is completely silent on the third aspect of cultural sustainability (and mostly silent on the economic component). The reaction of fear from the Orange constituents can't be a surprise then.

    Here's something great that you can't afford and will change you into something you don't recognize. Do I have any takers? It's a normal human reaction that can't be offset by snark or incredulity. If you don't like the Orange response you have to recalibrate, not dismiss.

  • AWalkerInTheCity


    how does holding down the supply of new housing make housing more affordable?

    How does building a street car threaten historic culture in a city that used to have street cars?

    How does cleaning the Anacostia River so folks can fish from it more safely threaten cultural values?

  • JoeEsq 74

    Is there anyone else concerned (I find it creepy) that someone was counting racial makeup of crowd. ( I assume this was done based on physical appearance not with a form that attendees filled out.) Could I suggest that maybe the marketing of this green city initiative is the problem. It is good to see the rainbow of faces in the marketing banner, but maybe you can tweak the message a little to better reach other demographics. Before being ‘Green’ became hip and urban we were green in my house because being wasteful was simply seen as wrong. Reusing, recycling, repurposing was the way we lived and the way we saved a few $. Coming from the semi-rural south not having a lot growing up my parents were green long before it became hip, maybe that message would resonate.

    I have one other problem with many articles and reader comments about race, the ‘broad brush.’ "Those people feel this way," or "this group feels another way," B.S. you don’t know how I feel based on how I look. People are individuals and they have their own priorities.

  • http://letschange.org Respected Citizens

    Grays ass needs to go. We thought getting Fenty was our objectve, not hiring the old and ugly ass Fenty.

    This is weak Black rotten tooth man, who truly has no balls at all. If the fiscally empowered Jews, Europeans and/or Asian told him to jump, Vincent Gray would ask w/o any challenge, "How High," and thats a fact.

    It is sad, when some Black folks want to be of another ethnic and are subjected to being identified otherwise. Yet, they want to lead, and when they get in front of their kind, they commit to this and that, and in essence are the biggest liars and let downs ever.

    Mayor Gray enjoy your ride, for it's not for long, and that you can be assure thereof.

  • Sydney P.

    Forty-five minutes to get downtown? Vincent Orange must be speaking of the PG-County types who drop their kids off at DC schools before driving in to park and collect a tax-free paycheck downtown. Are they voting for him? That would explain his alleged "win" earlier this month.

  • crin

    @AWalkerInTheCity, you miss the point. It's not me you have to convince. It's the constituency and voters that Orange talks about. And hint: absolute, strident and know-it-all tones build resistance, not buy-in. Keep in mind, the legacy of displacement by government program, from places like Southwest and other DC neighborhoods, is a very strong piece of political identity in this town. Everyone seems to have a grandparent, parent or friend who lost their home this way. Even if it's not literally true, the feeling is.

    Ignore it or dismiss it, and you lose elections. Just ask Fenty.

  • Fearing Dystopia

    Would someone please ask Councilman Orange to be more specific about "45 minutes to get downtown"? From where to downtown? By what means of transport?

    The mayor's sustainability plan may be pie in the sky for now, but the current volume of motorized traffic in the city too frequently causes time-wasting, sanity-sapping gridlock that is perfectly color-blind. And whatever the Councilman's vision of African Americans getting downtown may be, it appears not to include those who daily take the Metropolitan Branch Trail, then the E Street or Pennsylvania Ave bike lanes to get from -- say -- Ward 5 to the Wilson Building.

    Orange's comments are redolent of the late Nadine Winter's explanation that she voted against no-fault auto insurance because "black people like to sue." Surely we are beyond so broad a brush in depicting this city.

  • oboe

    It's not me you have to convince. It's the constituency and voters that Orange talks about.

    Or we can just wait 5 years. While it's far-fetched to claim that Orange's supporters live in PG County, I guarantee you that a good portion of those folks will be living there in a decade from now.

    The widely reported Post story that found "between 2000 and 2010, the city added nearly 30,000 people, an increase of 5.2 percent and a reversal of five decades of population loss" actually soft-pedals the demographic change. It asks, in effect "Who are these 30,000?"

    But that's the net population gain; the city has been losing residents as well. Almost as quickly as newcomers have been pouring in, "long-timers" have been moving out.

    My guess is that the days of folks like Orange being elected to citywide office are numbered.

  • oboe

    The Brookings research paper the Post story was based on (PDF):


  • JustMe

    The basic pattern is that once anyone gets a middle class job, they decamp for VA or MD. It makes perfect sense that Gray would be interested in trying to figure out how to incentivize them to stay rather than move.

  • http://thegreatermarin.wordpress.com/ OctaviusIII

    Orange has a valid point. This plan is a good one, but it needs to be sold to white and black DCers alike. That means different emphases: jobs, lower energy prices, better transit on the one hand, cleaner energy, recycling and composting on the other.

    It's up to Gray to sell it as a win for black DC. Maybe, for once, Orange can help.

  • Ward 7 Rez

    @Fearing Dystopia: "the current volume of motorized traffic in the city too frequently causes time-wasting, sanity-sapping gridlock that is perfectly color-blind." LOL, so true.

    As for 45 minutes to downtown, that's about right for me via walking/bus/metro from Penn-Branch, 25 minutes by bike.

  • Race Matters

    Race still matters according to Dr. Cornell West and Dr. Frances Cress-Welsing.

  • oboe

    The basic pattern is that once anyone gets a middle class job, they decamp for VA or MD. It makes perfect sense that Gray would be interested in trying to figure out how to incentivize them to stay rather than move.

    Tracy Chapman wrote twenty years ago: "I know things will get better / You'll find work and I'll get promoted / We'll move out of the shelter / Buy a big house and live in the suburbs"

    Worse, when people fall out of the middle-class, they've tended to cluster in DC. So basically we have a vicious cycle where DC money is spent on public services to create PG County residents who pay taxes in MD. Not sustainable.

  • AWalkerInTheCity


    AFAICT Fenty's loss was in large measure driven by his personal lack of common touch, and his controversial positions on education. For all the dispute on the blogosphere, I'm not aware of any prominent DC black pols opposed to the street car, and I would be very surprised to hear of any opposed to cleaning the Anacostia.

    As for the population growth goals, I do agree that it will have to be explained how increasing the number of units is compatible with (and even supports) the goal of preserving affordable housing, how it incorporates inclusionary zoning etc. Im not convinced thats that hard to do.

    And note, politically its not necessary to win over ALL african americans in DC, just some of them, even without the demographic changes Oboe forecasts

  • Peter Rosenstein

    I am not surprised at anything Marion Barry says, but am a little surprised at Vincent Orange. If he feels that this program and vision needs to be explained in more detail to the African American community then he should be about doing that and not criticizing the Mayor for a vision that we could all be proud of.

    This is a longrange vision and of course we need to make sure that all its parts over the years take into consideration those that are here now and those that will move to the City. But this is not a plan that pits African Americans against everyone else. People will move to the City, and whether they are Black or White will depend on the advances we make in housing and education, safety and recreation, because the people that will move here will be working people who think they can either bring up their families here, live their lives as singles, or potentially empty nesters.

    They will as we have seen in the last few years be young professionals, those who are tired of long commutes and want to be where they can take metro, the bus, walk or bike within reasonable timeframes. They want to get out of their cars.

    It is an exciting vision and together we can work to make it happen.

  • RCDC

    I don't trust this mayor to deliver on this vision. I think his committment to these issues is suspect. Just a few years ago he leveraged the resentment some communities had to bike lanes and streetcars to get support from peoople who felt left out the "new DC". I really have no idea what his true feelings on these issues are because he said different things to different audiences during the campaign, tailoring his speech to the crowd. That made me question his core belieifs then and suspicious of anything he says now.

  • SEis4ME

    @AWalkerFenty's loss was in large measure driven by his controversial positions on education.

    I don't think his positions were controversial (Henderson has continued to implement many of many of Rhee's proposals). Instead, Fenty seemed to believe that he could win w/a constituency that looked vastly different than when he first won. So there wasn't a concerted effort to reach out to a broader community.

    @Peter Rosenstein, Orange doesn't work for Gray. He's an independent actor. At least according to this article, he isn't criticizing Gray. He's relaying the concerns (valid?) african americans have voiced. He went on to say that there needs to be an effort to ensure that people see themselves in the mayor's vision.

    That doesn't seem particularly critical.

  • SEis4ME

    because he said different things to different audiences during the campaign, tailoring his speech to the crowd.

    Name a politician who hasn't done that.

    Moreover, if you could link to an article where Vincent Gray suggested he was lukewarm on bike lanes and streetcars, I would appreciate it.

  • Thick with Irony

    Respected Citizens -- That's some seriously hateful, racist crepe.

    There is tremendous irony here, because Fenty got tossed on his rear, in large part because he was perceived as not black enough...or, to be more precise, for being too popular with with whites and pother (not black) groups. Gray was the guy who'd be more responsive to the concerns of the native (black) Washingtonians.

    The answer is for folks to quit having knee-jerk reactions -- to fear new ideas that will make the city better and more attractive for newcomers. Just because newcomers will like the changes doesn't mean the natives can't also.