Immigrants: D.C’s Other Black Residents

There’s much to be discussed about today’s Washington Post story on the meaning of D.C.’s changing demographics. But aside from the heated comments on gentrification — which even spurred a bingo card –  comes this comment on the actual story, from poster gardyloo:

What stories on the census don’t discuss is how many of the 300,000 Washingtonians identify as African Americans because they are immigrants from Africa, or children of immigrants from Africa. That number is probably as high as ten percent of the overall total of African Americans here now. Their story is, for the most part, the immigrant story, the story of a search for opportunity and a better life. They aren’t weighed down by the city’s history and golden-age thinking.

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The Washington Post ran a story on D.C.'s changing demographics.

We’re not sure exactly where those particular figures come from (perhaps they refer to the African population in the entire D.C.-metro area, which numbers as 150,000 strong). But if we look at the most recent Census estimates, the District had about 74,000 foreign born residents in 2009. Of those, about 18,000 are black immigrants from African and Caribbean countries — accounting for 24 percent of all immigrants here in the District. Those numbers obviously don’t include the U.S.-born children of these immigrants, but they do speak to a sizable population of folks in D.C. who may check “black or African-American” on a Census form but perhaps don’t identify first and foremost with the American black experience.

DC9 Death Continues to Cause Pain, Confusion

Flickr: Andrew Bossi

A memorial for Ali Ahmed Mohammed, at the entrance of DC9 on October 24, 2010.

In the early hours of Oct 15, 2010, Ali Ahmed Mohammed tried to enter DC9, a local nightclub located on a block unofficially known as “Little Ethiopia“. When he was denied entry, he picked up a brick and hurled it through the club’s window.

In response, five of the club’s employees chased Mohammed and, depending on which version of events you believe, either beat him to death or roughly restrained him, triggering a cardiac arrest.

After a witness reportedly claimed to have seen DC9′s employees attack Mohammed, Cathy Lanier, D.C.’s Chief of Police, characterized the situation as “vigilante justice“. The five employees from DC9 were arrested on murder charges that were eventually dropped. Mohammed’s death was ruled a homicide.

The story seemed to polarize parts of the city, with fans of the nightclub expressing support for DC9 and its employees while the city’s prominent Ethiopian community decried the attack on one of their own. Even today, five months after Mohammed’s death, some Ethiopian Americans are hurt and confused.

News of the controversy has spread as far as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, where Abubeker Mohammed, a 29-year old D.C. cab driver with no relation to the man who died, was visiting when he first heard about it.

Mohammed said if the situation were reversed– if the club’s employees were Ethiopian and the man who died was white– then it “would be news all over the U.S. They’d never let them out of jail. Unfortunately, the guy who died was an immigrant. Ethiopian, black, Muslim…he had everything possible going against him.”

Hemen Solomon, a woman who lives in Columbia Heights added, “It breaks my heart that there’s no justice. Who can we turn to?…You struggle to make it here, to have a better life, and all you have is a dead body to take back to where we come from.”
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Salvadoran Women in D.C. via Metro Connection

Metro Connection: Kate Sheehy

In case you missed it– last Friday’s Metro Connection had a “Visitors” theme and examined everything from D.C.’s Most-Missed Monuments to Temporiums or “pop-up shops”. One story got my attention and might be of interest to DCentric readers: “A New Life: Salvadoran Women in D.C.“.

The D.C. region has the second-largest Salvadoran population in the United States. For the past 30 years, primarily men have been coming over, and sending money to family members back home. That money has helped pay for the education of a number of young women. But these women often have difficulty finding a job in their home country, so many head north, with plans of sticking around long enough to save up and go home. But Kate Sheehy introduces us to women who have come here and stayed, in hopes of improving their lives.

Second-largest! I thought we’d have the largest population in the country. It turns out that distinction belongs to Southern California.

Should local police have to give fingerprints to the Feds?

Twistiti / Flickr

You’ve heard of the DREAM Act, the bill that would offer a path to legal residency to great students that arrived in the US illegally when they were children. You’ve probably heard of SB 1070, Arizona’s law making it a state crime for non-citizens to be without their registration documents. But you might not have heard about Secure Communities, even though it’s a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s immigration policy, and it’s igniting plenty of controversy here in DC. And now more details are leaking out about how DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier has tried to work with the program. Continue reading

Miss Metro? Hire a Taxi or Sleep on the Street.

Flickr: Chris Dag

Fisheye view of the red line.

Last week, I posted about the debate surrounding Metro’s proposal to close earlier on the weekends for maintenance and monetary reasons– “Metro: It’s not just for drunks.“. This weekend, the Washington Post dispatched four reporters to spend “the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings riding the trains to gauge reaction.” Most of the piece focused on party people, but one anecdote stood out:

After midnight, Metro is the domain of the young and intoxicated. In this atmosphere, it’s easy to pick out the night commuters, who stand out of the way like hungover club kids might in the morning rush.

On the Green Line, Aloh Che, 63, quietly reads a newspaper. His eyes look tired. A patch on his jacket explains why he is out at 1 a.m.: security. His job often ends at midnight.

“Once you miss the bus, then you miss the train, then your only alternative is hiring a taxi or sleeping on the street,” he says. He’s done that – slept on the street until Metro started up again. “Three or four times,” he says.

Che, a native of Cameroon, works in Bethesda and has worked two shifts this day. By the time he gets home to New Carrollton, the buses will have stopped running, so he will pay a taxi driver $10 to take him the rest of the way.

The City Paper’s Profile of Ali Ahmed Mohammed

Ali Ahmed Mohammed stopped existing on October 15. I use that odd phrasing because of something striking I have noticed– white people tend to say “he died”, while Black people use words like “he was killed”. Almost four months after a death which is still shrouded in mystery, the City Paper’s feature, “Something Happened at DC9. Who Did it Happen to?” doesn’t provide any additional information to those of us who wonder how Mohammed died or why.

So this is what the piece does do; it humanizes Mohammed while providing details about a man who has either been vilified or martyred, depending on whom you ask. This is what it does not do: assign blame. Maybe we’ll never know what happened, but if you are interested in one of the city’s most prominent immigrant communities, the article is worth a read:

One thing to know about Little Ethiopia: It’s not little. Decade-old census figures place the number of Ethiopians in the region at about 30,000, but community members suspect the real number is considerably higher—at least 100,000. It’s the largest Ethiopian community outside Ethiopia, says Andrew Laurence , president of the Ethiopian-American Cultural Center and the neighborhood’s unofficial historian.

Like the demographic that congregates there, Little Ethiopia has been growing. Today, Laurence says, it encompasses a “traditional border of 18th Street in Adams Morgan from Columbia Road to Florida Avenue over to 9th Street along Florida (U Street) to 9th Street and then down 9th Street to Q Street and over to 7th and Q Street.” Of course, Ethiopians aren’t the only ones who flock to the 1900 block of 9th Street NW. DC9, with its appeal to white hipsters, and Nellie’s, a gay sports bar on the corner, reflect two other populations with a growing presence in the neighborhood.

Laurence says D.C. became a hub for Ethiopian immigrants starting in the 1970s, “when Haile Selassie was overthrown.” The Marxist military regime that took over began killing off elites and intellectuals, Laurence says. Many fled to America, which had supported the deposed monarchy. The immigrant population was initially centered in Adams Morgan, near the former home of the Ethiopian embassy.

Tiger Mothers, Black Sons

Flickr: Vearl Brown

Literally, a tiger mother.

Now reading: “How to Raise a Model Minority.Tiger Mother” Amy Chua is right about one thing: Assimilation is the enemy of achievement for minorities in America“, via The Root:

“We gotta get out of here.”

My friend Allison was talking about the city we both live in, Washington D.C., where she and her husband were typical black strivers trying to do right by the race. Couple of kids, a house, advanced degrees, professional careers. Model minorities.

Allison and her husband were thriving professionally but felt suffocated by the U.S. education system, backlash against the Obama election, guns at town hall meetings, the inexplicably enduring public presence of a failed Alaska governor, the dueling Beck and Sharpton rallies — the nastiness that settled over us like an angry, evil cloud.

So where to? Maybe they wanted to join the bourgie reverse migration down South? “Mozambique … ,” she said. “Maybe Venezuela. We haven’t decided yet.”

Huh? Crazy talk! But I couldn’t fault her for wanting to flee the country. My son, an athletic bookworm, was having a rough year when we heard an NPR report in the car about black boys failing in schools. There was a long, uncomfortable silence as I searched for but did not find the words to say, “But they don’t mean you!” without denying him pride in his racial identity…

Bearing Gifts We Traverse Afar

Flickr: Mr. T in DC

Three Kings in the Epiphany Procession in Columbia Heights, 2009.

The New Columbia Heights blog points out what I missed on Sunday (drat!):

This past Sunday was Epiphany, also celebrated as Three Kings’ Day. Latin American Catholics in the neighborhood (and around the world) celebrate it with a big procession of people dressed as the Three Wise Men, Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, and more, complete with donkeys and sheep.

The procession goes down 14th and ended with a performance at the Gala Theatre, plus free churros and hot chocolate…The reader says more animals showed up a bit later.

Always like to see interesting cultural traditions like this.

Losing a Home Thanks to a Meter

Flickr: vpickering

This is not a Ford 500 in Columbia Heights. It is a Lincoln in Georgetown. I have Flickr-failed you!

Once I left my building and tried to hail a cab, I realized it was too cold to be outside without a scarf or gloves. I’ve lived here for 12 years, but my California roots are easily misled by bright sun. I was extra relieved when a cab driver waiting next to CVS waved me over to his “new-fashioned” cab. When I think of a “Taxi”, I think of massive American sedans, like Crown Victorias, their Mercury-twins and old Lincolns. Any smaller, more modern car, whether it be a Toyota Camry or a Ford Taurus feels “new”. This cab was so “new” I couldn’t even identify the model. I slid in.

“Boy, am I glad to see you. I’m cold!”

He smiled and quietly asked, “Where to?”

I told him my destination and looked at the front, passenger-side visor. For once, it was flipped downwards and the driver’s name and photograph were perfectly visible. Nine times out of ten, when I am in a cab, I notice (with great annoyance) that such crucial information is deliberately obscured by other papers or cards, paper-clipped on top of helpful details like the name of the cab operator. This name looked French.

“D’où venez-vous?”, I asked hopefully. I usually don’t have a language in common with Cabbies in D.C. besides English; in a different city to our North, whenever I splurged on a big yellow ride, I practiced everything from Punjabi to Greek .

The question was a catalyst for transformation in the front seat. The man who had cordially agreed to make a left on Park, and take Reno road to blah, blah, blah was brought to life.

“I am from Haiti!” he exulted. He did not ask me how I knew French, which filled me with childish delight. I looked like I might speak French! Zut alors! He did ask me, “How did you know?”

“Your name. Jean P____.”

“Yes! That is my name!” He sat up straighter in his seat, eyes twinkling in the rear view.

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More on Brown-on-Black Racism

Flickr: Chaymation

My “DMV Masala“-post– which was about my interaction with an African-American cab driver who was interested in my ethnicity because her own niece was half-Indian– inspired four of you to comment! That’s no small feat here at DCentric, where I’m more likely to hear crickets than reader reactions– I kid, I kid. I hear silence, not bugs. Anyway, one comment from American RogueDC deserved to be highlighted:

I remember very well having my heart broken by a co-worker (an Indian woman) whom I thought was a friend. We had worked together for more than ten years. One day, while viewing some photographs she was sharing of her female relatives taken during her baby-shower (I in fact had just given her my gift for the baby), I said, “You should introduce me to some of your nieces.” Her reply was simple, “You are too dark!” Until that moment, my being an African-American man who is only slightly darker in skin tone than her had never “seemed” to be a problem.

How painful, to be so crudely and immediately rejected by a long-time friend. The first thing I wondered was whether the woman was first- or second-generation.

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