Racial Divide


DMV Masala

Flickr: Josep Tomas

Black and brown.

I walked outside yesterday and felt abnormally grateful for the traffic clogging Irving Street at lunch time. I needed a cab and there were several, stranded in front of me.

The middle one had a female driver, so I chose her. Once I slammed the door, I was surprised; the interior smelled like auto parts, dust and WD-40– a combination which immediately transported me three decades in to the past, to my father’s garage, a place where I learned the difference between a flat and Phillips screwdriver before I figured out the alphabet. I checked my sexism immediately and felt bad for the dissonance I was experiencing at the shock of such a scent combined with a female driver. I knew better than that.

“Thanks for picking me.” She smiled wryly. She was middle-aged and African American, with thick, bouncy curls. Some of her facial expressions reminded me of Loretta Devine, which secretly delighted me. Devine was the best part of one of my favorite seasonal guilty pleasures: “This Christmas“. Stop judging me. I liked it before Chris Brown did that. Oh, you’re judging me because it’s a mediocre film which over-relies on holiday cliches to make its point…sure, I deserve that. Carry on!

“I’m not going to lie,” I began. “I thought it was cool that you were a female cab driver. I don’t usually get those.”

“Yeah, we’re rare.” She studied me in her rear view mirror.

“Are you Indian?”, she asked.

“My parents are–”

“And so are you!”, she declared, emphatically.

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Washington’s Segregated Amusement Park

Radio Rover

From Flickr: "This photo was probably taken at Marshall Hall Amusement Park sometime around 1970 or '71."

Yesterday, Washington Post Metro columnist John Kelly incorporated reader comments in a follow-up piece about the Potomac river– and the vessels which traveled on it. The following note, about Marshall Hall, an amusement park across from Mount Vernon, got my attention:

Robert K. Jenkins Jr. is 63, a native Washingtonian and African American. “I remember both blacks and whites boarding the ship at the Wilson Line pier,” he wrote. “Many of the whites got off at Marshall Hall but not any of the blacks. I recall asking my father why. He responded: ‘Don’t fret. Spending time learning about history at Mount Vernon is much more important to your education than a wasteful day of frolic at Marshall Hall.’

“So this attorney/banker heartily thanks the bigoted Marshall Hall owners for their inadvertent contribution to his education and success.”

“There is this hope that Vincent Gray will do a good job”


A City Divided looks at D.C's issues with class, gentrification and more.

Yesterday, I posted an in-depth discussion with Jeremy Borden, Managing Editor of “A City Divided“, a special edition of the American Observer. Today, I’m serving up an interview with Dan Merica, who wrote “Different worlds reflected in the barber’s mirror” for the project.

Why barbershops?

Ever since I was young, I have found Barbershops interesting. People who come in don’t know each other, but they are still comfortable enough to talk. I was always fascinated by the range of conversations that happened. When I thought of this piece, I wanted to pick something that the two wards had in common. I considered ice cream parlors, bars, hardware stores…something that both wards have, but barbershops were the perfect place.

Which patrons were most interesting to talk to?

There was a guy named Tucker, he was the focus of the piece, he had just got out of jail– his perspective really struck me.

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Advancing the Conversation with “A City Divided”


As promised, here is my interview with Jeremy Borden of “A City Divided“. Jeremy was the Managing Editor of this special edition of the American Observer, which examined many of the same issues DCentric does.


I asked him about the reaction ACD has received:

It’s been great as a whole. Even though people have their specific critiques, that shows they’re looking at the stories and reflecting on them. That is advancing the conversation in a way that is very positive.

What was the impetus behind the project?

What we tried to do was hone in on the broader trends that came out of the September primaries. We knew there was all this divisiveness that had been written about in a broad way; we wanted to focus on specific narratives that exposed divisions in the city and also illuminated the big issues of that election. That’s a difficult thing to do, but I think one of the things that has been most pleasing to me is that we did hone in on narratives that matter to people. Look at the conversations people are having, they are good conversations about the issues affecting this city.

What about the smattering of negative reactions you’ve received online?
As journalists we do the best that we can within the constructs set out for us. What I think is extremely unfair– and there was only one comment like this, that felt we were being racist in our coverage…I felt the need to respond to that. Not everyone will have the same point of view, but all in all it’s been a really positive thing.
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An Age Divide? Or a Racial one?

Current District Department of Transportation chief Gabe Klein (whose name is trending right now on Twitter, locally) has announced that he will leave his post on January 1, rather than stay on under a Gray administration (which he characterized as “not a good fit” for him). Aaron Morrissey, Editor-in-Chief of DCist.com, just tweeted this about Klein:

Klein discussing age divide, as opposed to racial divide, as reason for many of DC debates over new transpo projects.
Aaron Morrissey

I’ve never thought of it that way, but it makes a little bit of sense. Some of my older relatives don’t understand why anyone would want to ride a bike on the crazy streets of D.C. when they could be driving or on the Metro. Having typed that, I would be very wary of downplaying the “racial divide” that exists here; when certain residents of this city see the passion exerted over bike lanes, they wonder where that same energy is, when it comes to the social problems that vex some of our neighbors.

A People’s History of Washington, D.C.

Amphis d'@illeurs

Danny Harris

Last night, I finally met and had a fantastic conversation with Danny Harris, the man behind the popular local website,”People’s District“. Danny is a photographer, DJ and oral historian who collects the stories of D.C. residents. Here’s why:

People’s District was my way of meeting the people I saw every day, but never stopped to introduce myself to: Carolyn, the crossing guard on my street; Cedric, who ran by my office most days, spinning in circles while yelling ‘HOOT, HOOT’; Dave, who rides his bike up and down my street in a finely tailored suit and fedora; and Josh, who checks my ID at the 9:30 Club. I saw these people more often than I saw my own family, yet I had never exchanged more than a ‘good morning’ or ‘thank you’ with them.

During one of those proverbial wake-up moments in July 2009, I stopped my first person to ask, ‘So, what’s your story?’ Joe, my first interviewee, spoke passionately about growing up on U Street and his first experience of going downtown after the end of segregation. After Joe came Andrew, talking about overcoming homelessness, then Eric and Maddie, discussing the D.C. hardcore music scene. Each story shed light on a new slice of D.C. life and brought me into the world of a complete stranger who was kind enough to share his or her story with me.

Each of those tales is compelling and while this is the part of my post where I’d normally exhort you to visit Danny’s online collection of D.C. stories, I probably don’t have to– the number one question I get from DCentric readers is, “Have you seen this site called ‘People’s District’?”. I’m not surprised (both of our sites explore race, class and the city), but I am grateful for the recommendation (seriously– feel free to tell me what you are reading). If I did introduce you to a new addition for your reader, then I’m glad I was able to shine some light on a worthy endeavor.

About Rend Smith’s Profile of Courtland Milloy

It turns out the City Paper’s cover story on Courtland Milloy by Rend Smith has inspired an ongoing, online conversation. I pointed all of you to Natalie Hopkinson’s excellent response to the feature at The Root; in it she mentions how Smith asked Milloy if he likes white people. Smith explains why he went there, via this post for the City Desk blog, “Asking a Rude Question of Courtland Milloy“:

Root editor Natalie Hopkinson figures out one reason I asked: “Even though Smith is black, I don’t doubt that he was accurately channeling some urgent wonder among the Twitterati,” she writes.

That’s definitely true, but it also goes a bit deeper. As I point out in the piece, Milloy has often done a fantastic job relaying the kind of D.C. barbershop discourse on gentrification many non-black residents might otherwise miss out on. The assumption that he’s just not fond of whites can end up being the elephant in the room, though, and it’s an easy way for those who prefer to treat his admittedly rabble-rousing analysis as nothing more than a collection of bigoted rants. In light of that, neglecting to ask Milloy how he felt about white people—as uncomfortable a moment as it might have created—would have been a disservice to both the “Twitterati” and Milloy.

It wasn’t exactly the first time he’d heard such an inquiry, anyway. The impression I got hanging out with Milloy was that he gets prodded about his racial outlook fairly frequently. It’s also interesting to note that the question bore fruit. Milloy didn’t just reply with a simple, “Of course I do,” but with a long, expository answer that provided insight into both his amiable, humanistic side, and his angry, fed up side.

Still don’t get Milloy’s appeal? Read The Root.

Julie Lyn

View of the Capitol from Barry Farm, in Southeast.

Last week, I pointed you towards the City Paper’s extensive profile of Courtland Milloy by Rend Smith. Over at The Root, Natalie Hopkinson continues to unpack why Milloy’s voice is important to some and offensive to others. I think she nails it. It’s not about Milloy, it’s about the disconnect, the disparity:

This is the color-coded reality of life in the District. White median income is $92,000; black median income is $34,000. The boom in cafés and farmers markets has done nothing to stem a stunning slide into poverty in recent years. In 2007 the black child poverty rate was 31 percent; in 2008 it was 36 percent, and the latest figures show that the figure has shot up to an appalling 43 percent. Forty-three percent. The poverty rate for white children is 3 percent. Unemployment doubled, and black people disproportionately lost their jobs and homes.

This is what they mean when they talk about class warfare: two trains — one privileged, one not — running in opposite directions at a dizzying speed, each with divergent needs and expectations from government. No need to invent it or “inject race” into it; this is the objective reality of life in the District. Yet somehow the narrative about change becomes “Courtland Milloy doesn’t care about white people!”

The following point Hopkinson makes cannot be understated; certain black views are constantly invalidated. It’s sickening to read DCist or WaPo comments which refer to the residents of Ward 8 as if they are mindless, crime-craving savages who are too simple to grasp what their virtuous, wiser counterparts immediately grok (tellingly, occasionally when I’m mired in such threads, the words to “White Man’s Burden” appear, unbidden, to my mind’s eye):
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Understanding Courtland Milloy

It’s one of the busiest days of the year, but I wish I had a half-hour of quiet and a good cup of tea to sit down and give the City Paper’s front-page profile of Courtland Milloy the attention it deserves. Milloy infamously earned the ire of my laptop-toting peers when he mocked them by calling them “Myopic little twits” in his Metro column for the Washington Post. While my friends of one hue were outraged that the Post would legitimize a point of view they considered backwards, incendiary and racist, a few friends of another hue quietly maintained that he is the only one publicly representing the point of view of many D.C. residents who are otherwise never heard.

In Milloy’s telling, his barbs at D.C.’s creative-class newbies aren’t about lashing out at them because they’re new. He’s lashing out at them because they’re not. As gentrification takes hold of Washington and issues of inequality emerge, it’s not enough to take solace in Obama’s post-racial ideal while neighborhoods acquire a new mono-cultured cast. People who move into changing neighborhoods have a responsibility for what’s going on. Or so Milloy, in his role as the crotchety grandfather they never wanted, wants to tell them.

Milloy sees new Washingtonians as the flip-side of a process that, in his view, involves older ones being pushed out. And if the actual truth behind African-American departures is more complicated—plenty of folks, starting with Milloy, decamped voluntarily—he argues that it’s pretty damned egocentric to imagine that everything is sweetness and light.

“Well, I don’t know why people think I have a problem with the influx itself,” he says. “Not to be deliberately provocative, but that is the white view, it’s white-centered. ‘Why are you opposed to us moving in?’ But nothing about, ‘Why are you concerned about the way black people are being kicked out?’

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