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."