In a city full of roiling change, Cleveland Park, the upscale Northwest Washington neighborhood, appears be what it has always been: a relatively idyllic community with nice yards, good schools and sensible watering holes.
But on the neighborhood’s infamous listserv, where “problems” often constitute stolen flowers and noisy leaf-blowers, it appears Cleveland Park is experiencing significant change, especially on the thorny topic of race. While the forum can be looked at as a fun distraction, it’s a powerful place for conversation. Its subscriber list is over 13,000, it has been highlighted by Washington City Paper and it even has its own parody blog.
The list is a big deal.
So when Jennifer Kauffman, 33, read what she believed to be discriminatory coded language in several recent posts, she spoke out.
“It’s disturbing to me the way in which people of color have been described in a few emails,” Kauffman, who is Hispanic, wrote. “Issues that seem more like city nuisances have been described as serious criminal matters — and the only rationale I can seem to find is that the perpetrators are described as ‘African-American’ or ‘Hispanic.’ It’s very subtle, and it’s just happened in a few emails, but it’s truly made me feel as if I’m not an entirely welcomed part of Cleveland Park due to my ethnicity.”
Kauffman, who has lived in the community on and off for 12 years, was reacting to a trio of e-mails this spring, including this one that partially read: “When we came home at about 6:30 this evening … 2 of the 4 bikes that were in our back patio were stolen.
“As I was leaving, I saw 2 young black men walking in the alley walking towards our house. I remember saying to myself that I should remember what they look like. As I was driving away, I even looked at my rear view mirror to see if they were still walking and I even thought about going back to my house. But I was late for my son’s tennis match, so I kept driving.”
Unsurprisingly the conversation about stereotyping wasn’t welcomed by everybody. Kauffman, who recently bought her condo in the area, says she even received some nasty personal e-mails about her decision to air her frustration publicly. “Some people have earned their reputation,” read one, in part.
On one reply to the thread, Ronni Davis came right out with her fears. “Enough already. I am a person of color (Afro American, Black, Colored, Negro). … Who are we kidding?” she wrote. “Enough is enough. Black mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers are afraid of their own men folk. … If I see a black male, I routinely cross the street.” When asked if she cared to expand, she replied via e-mail, “I think its pretty much an open and shut case.”
But what was a surprise, at least for the listserv’s standards, was that Kauffman’s comments made the forum at all. Back in 2008, resident Emily Bruno submitted a similar letter to Kauffman’s. It never made the listserv. Moderators decided that the conversation, in short, wasn’t worth having, according to e-mails acquired by The Washington Post.
Referring to why Bruno’s e-mail was not posted, Kauffman said: “They said because it’s going to start a discussion and people’s feelings are going to hurt. I found it really interesting that we’re in a different place now where your e-mail made it through past the moderator and we could have an interesting conversation about this.”
Indeed, a year after Bruno’s e-mail was censored, The Post’s Colby King wrote about racially coded language on the forum, connecting it to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. while he was trying to get into his own house — an issue that sparked a national discussion on racial profiling. Larry Irving, who tipped King to the listserv’s tone then, says now that the fact that more than just the offended parties are speaking up shows that the conversation in Cleveland Park is evolving.
“I think it’s one thing for the black guy in the neighborhood to say, this is the problem,” Irving, who moved to the neighborhood nine years ago, said. “I think it is more powerful and amplifies the problem of some of the crazy, racist stuff, when there [are] white people and Asians, and international people saying, ‘This is crap. What are you doing? Stop it.’ ”
Catherine Robertson, a white woman who grew up in North Bethesda and now lives in Cleveland Park, said that some attitudes on the listserv are a matter of societal laziness.
“I think in this neighborhood there are a lot of old, nervous people who haven’t thought about it. … They figure that they’re liberals and that’s enough,” she said. But she added: “I think there’s real change. I think there’s real awareness. I think there’s genuinely kind of a new generation.”
As the area gets younger and more diverse economically, maybe there will be a change to how those who “look like they don’t belong” are described. Tolerance, it seems, takes time.
Yet on Saturday night, you could feel the slow pace of change in a neighborhood that almost entirely shuts down at night. At Nanny O’Briens, Soul Elements was setting up to play on the small stage usually reserved for a projector screen. The establishment, which is ostensibly an Irish pub, was now blasting the tunes of a three-piece reggae band with the door wide open: a cover of Shania Twain’s of “Still The One.” Some even danced. You could hear the irie sounds far down Connecticut Avenue around midnight.
Which is where I ran into one bar-goer and resident who chose to stay anonymous because she works with children in the area. She had a message for the older generation holding on to their fearful ways.
“The only thing you’ll take with you is racism when you die out.”