Of the two rivers that cup our nation’s capital — the Potomac and the Anacostia— the latter of the two is, perhaps, the most apt reflection of where America is at socio-economically. The Anacostia River, the Anglicized namesake of which was first officially recorded by Thomas Jefferson and referred to the Nacotchtank Native American tribe dwelling east of the river, is just down the hill from my Anacostia house and reflects well what divides our nation’s capital and ultimately, America.
A quick dig into the District’s demographics and it is painfully apparent: a growing white majority living west of the river, encroaching east, and a predominantly African-American majority living east of the river. There is no question that we are a deeply and demographically divided city. As I take Metro’s green line home to Anacostia after work, I am frequently the only white person on the train. Any remaining white folks on the green line generally disembark at Navy Yard, the last stop before crossing east of the Anacostia River.
As it happens in the District, so too does it happen in America. This year researchers at Dartmouth, the University of Georgia and the University of Washington looked at Census neighborhood data to compare trends in racial diversity and found that highly diverse neighborhoods are actually rare; African-Americans remain concentrated in segregated neighborhoods and newly-arrived immigrants continue to settle in concentrated racial residential patterns.
Yet this trend is not the only divider in the District. The Anacostia River is a divider of class as well, with a majority of the town’s wealth living to the west of the river and a much poorer population living to the east. Hovering much lower than the national average of $50,000, the average median household income in Anacostia struggles at $30,000 for a family of four, compared with Washington, D.C.’s $60,000, and the broader D.C. metro area at well over $80,000. In fact, U.S. Census data cites the income gap in the District as one the highest in the nation. Furthermore, the unemployment rate west of the river is roughly 8.9 percent, while east of the river it’s 35 percent.
The Anacostia River is also a racial disparity dividing line with regards to educational achievement and opportunity. More money, better access, more opportunities and higher standards characterize learning west of the river. Less money, fewer supplies, fewer opportunities and access, and lower standards characterize what’s available for students east of the river.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the District has the largest black-white and Hispanic-white gaps in the country by every measure of academic achievement the study looked at. There is a 73-point gulf between the District’s white and black eighth-graders in math scores. That’s more than double the national average gap of 31 points.