DC Mayor Muriel Bowser joined Chairman Phil Mendelson, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and two US Senators in a press conference on January 24 to discuss a bill to grant District statehood. The mood of an otherwise choreographed and celebratory event suddenly shifted when this paper directed a question to U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), "The District has some of the worst racial health and economic disparities. A 2020 study showed that (the racial difference in) life expectancy in the US is shrinking but is growing in the District. The income inequality by race is now $100,000. Is this the type of government that we can expect under statehood?"
Senator Carper refused to answer the question, "I don't know I want to go down that path." Only minutes earlier, he quoted abolitionist William Wilberforce in defending statehood for District residents, "You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know." For the Mayor's part, she appeared astonished, then scowled once the question finished. Ms. Holmes Norton glanced in the direction of Mr. Mendelson, who was out-of-frame, as if she was looking for an explanation. Mayor Bowser announced the following day at a forum hosted by the Committee of 100 that her administration would seek to raise Black income by $25,000, quite belatedly after eight years in office. To our understanding, this is the first time that Ms. Bowser has set a target for addressing widening racial income disparities. However, the most obvious impediment to this goal is that the gentrification economy proceeds unabatedly and will exacerbate racial divides.
The District's struggle with racial inequity raises profound questions about the relevance of race in US society. Despite the size of the Black electorate and Blacks' prominent positions in government, DC is the top US city for intense gentrification in the 21st century with an estimated 40,000 Black residents displaced. The racial difference in life expectancy is decreasing in the US but widening in the District. Racial income inequality now stands at nearly $100,000 and increased appreciably during Bowser's two terms. Racism is widely accepted as a set of beliefs and practices impacting social, political, and economic life, but racism and race are different. Race no longer shapes or predicts attitudes and policy positions the way it once did. A consensus on its historical and cultural meaning has diminished. Few Black elected officials today would remark upon gentrification in the same way as former Mayor Marion Barry did in February 2014, "White people are taking over this city. I would keep people in D.C. I would do all I can to help people get jobs, expand the summer jobs program to ten weeks, challenge the white business community to hire more Black people."
Race has evolved for many Black residents, including politicians and community leaders, away from a heightened awareness and sensitivity to the plight of Blacks. Instead, it has shifted toward moderation and dilution as if there exists no crisis at all. Insight into this shift can be seen in the issues that garner public attention, the activities of community organizations, everyday conversation, and policy priorities. The District has squandered a viable tourism industry by avoiding the city's rich Black history and culture that made the nation's capital distinguished. There are no efforts for new monuments to movements and historical figures, much less festivals to celebrate events like the Pearl Escape of 1848. Southwest is entering its third annual commemoration of this historic event. Too often, those whose views that race is cultural and politically irrelevant or inconsequential are given greater social access and a seat at the table. Those practices must end.
On the other hand, Black solidarity remains strong in plenty of neighborhoods. We find that vocal criticism of District policy is especially strong among moderate- and low-income communities who maintain cultural and community ties to racial identity. Blackness is an ethical, cultural, and political orientation steeped in the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement and Black liberation philosophy. Leaders such as ANC6D Commissioner Rhonda Hamilton have spent their careers seeking the end of environmental and housing injustice and discrimination. Her side of Southwest from Capitol Park Plaza and Twins to Syphax Gardens has the greatest concentration of Black community leaders who consistently and vocally oppose flourishing racial injustices. They reflect a deep moral and cultural understanding of racial identity that not all Black residents share.
In a recent appearance on The Politics Hour with Kojo Nnamdi in, at-Large Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie explained, "It reminds me of Barack Obama. If you were to ask a conservative about what they think, they probably think that Obama was too far to the left. If you ask somebody who's on the left side they'll think that he's too conservative. And the reality is I'm somewhere in between. And I think what residents want is less labels and more action." Mr. McDuffie was a co-author of the Racial Equity Achieves Results (REACH) Amendment Act of 2020 but also favors to keep the pace of development in the city - two positions that are not compatible. His view of race lacks a decisive moral and policy position. The lesson that Mr. McDuffie took from former President Obama on political moderation may be sincere but is not helpful.
If every Black politician or citizen for that matter sought to be centrist like Obama, there will never be any room for meaningful racial reform. There must be a Dr. King, a John Lewis, and a Fannie Lou Hamer to represent their people from a consistent moral, political, and cultural position. Once we accept the true leaders and voices of cultural Black communities, then we begin the real work of racial reform. Another insight is that racial justice advocates have plenty of allies varying in racial make-up who seek nothing else but for the District and country to make good on its promise of racial equity. The American story of combating racism and oppression often includes White allies and institutions - an important hallmark that we should also celebrate during Black and Allies Histories and Cultures Month.
How Race is Reshaped with Neighborhood Change
The dynamics of a gentrifying neighborhood, like Southwest, may have particular dynamics due to the direct financial benefit of neighborhood change — rising property values and personal wealth. In other words, neighborhood change works against racial equity in several forms. First, it is related to displacement and marginalizing Black communities - culturally, economically, and politically. Second, personal views on racial equity are moderated because of the growth in personal wealth that gentrification brings. Rather than emerge as vocal opponents to neighborhood change, many Black homeowners may choose to stay silent, even shift their alliances. Neighborhood change exerts considerable pressure on community social networks by strengthening alliances among incoming high-income earners, existing property owners, and developers whose self-interests intersect, regardless of one's race. This interracial coalition shares favorable attitudes toward neighborhood change and may realize that ignoring deepening racial inequity will solidify their alliance. They also practice exclusionary policies that erect social and policy barriers to prevent the meaningful inclusion and participation of minority populations adversely impacted by neighborhood change.
We have observed all of these phenomena in Southwest. One story is particularly egregious. A few years ago, a White representative of a Southwest organization felt that she would be able to show up with 100 volunteers to paint Greenleaf public housing, which she disparaged as an "eyesore" - language intended to make Greenleaf a neighborhood embarrassment. It is anything but. A poem about her appears at the end of this issue. The Southwest organization with which she was affiliated had endorsed this plan without any consultation with the residents, the resident council, or the DC Housing Authority, which owns the property. This is not hyperbole. Her sense of entitlement led her to believe that she could appear and start painting residents' homes. When two Black community leaders pushed back on a call, she threatened to "take her money elsewhere."
Many homeowners in Southwest highly anticipate Greenleaf redevelopment despite the threat of displacement and plans for 80% market units that will do nothing to address the affordability crisis that minorities overwhelmingly shoulder. We recently heard from a Black homeowner, "They need to get rid of those houses." He needed reminding of the racial equity implications of Greenleaf redevelopment. The DC Housing Authority is only planning to replace the current number of 435 units but not to restore family units (bedrooms per unit). The idea of expanding the number of affordable housing units to meet Black DC residents' needs is not even being considered. Southwest is an optimal neighborhood to moderate the poverty determinants of health due to Unity Clinic, public transportation, and parks and recreation and should attract more low-income housing above the current levels.
Greenleaf redevelopment is part of a larger story of Southwest neighborhood change from which Blacks have not mostly benefited. The Southwest Voice dashboard has documented these trends. Southwest has no fewer than eight construction cranes despite the clear negative effect of urban renewal policies, especially on Black populations. Southwest has seen Black median household income decreased by nearly $10,000 between 2011-20 while increasing by $23,000 for Whites according to the US Census. Once a majority, Black residents' share of the population is 30%. Greenleaf Senior was half-emptied last year when the DC Housing Authority began encouraging seniors to relocate elsewhere in the city.
Rethinking Black Histories and Cultures Month
During the month of February, it is time for celebration and reflection on the incredible histories and cultures of Black Americans. There exists no monolithic history or culture, which the label of "Black History Month" might suggest. It is a time for cultural regeneration, learning, and sharing. The achievement of major racial gains also involved White co-leaders who risked their economic livelihood and suffered from physical violence to secure the political and social rights of Black Americans. Making "Black History Month" to include racial justice advocates will acknowledge that coalition-building within Black communities and across US society is vital to achieve racial equity. It does not mean that we "gentrify" Black History Month, but we find even more ways for others to see their humanity in our struggle.