D.C. residents see class, not race, as city’s great divider

June 19, 2011

Most District residents — black and white — see socioeconomic class, not race, as the primary source of a stark divide in the city, according to a new poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And when it comes to their outlook on the city, their own neighborhoods and certain aspects of the economy, higher- income African Americans have more in common with similarly wealthy whites than with lower-income blacks.

But in many other important areas, the differences between blacks and whites persist, regardless of income level. Blacks with household incomes of $100,000 or more express significantly more sour views of the District’s economy than do whites with similar incomes. Higher-income African Americans also are less secure than whites about their own financial well-being, more apprehensive about the spreading effects of gentrification and somewhat more critical of the state of race relations in the District.

The overall results of the poll show that even as African Americans attain a higher economic status, their perspectives remain shaped by decades of economic difficulty and a sense that many blacks, including some in their own families, are still struggling.

Still, the long-told tale of two cities — a Washington divided neatly along racial lines — is far more nuanced than typically described, the poll shows.

The poll of 1,342 District residents offers a unique opportunity to look at the similarities and differences within and between racial groups in Washington. In a city with stark economic disparities often characterized solely by race, the survey provides fresh insights into the dynamics behind the District’s quickly changing racial mosaic.

While Washington has long been a city defined by tense race relations, particularly in the years after the riots in the late 1960s and into the long tenure of former mayor Marion Barry, relationships between blacks and whites have taken a new turn as African Americans make up a lower percentage of the city’s population. A city that 30 years ago was 70 percent black has now seen the end of its black majority.

Nearly three-quarters of African Americans say this population shift has changed the culture of the District; barely more than half of whites say the same. Both blacks and whites who sense an altered culture are more apt to say the change has been “mostly good” than “mostly bad,” but more African Americans see a negative turn.

In many cases, the views of higher-income blacks are less bleak than those of other African Americans and more like those of white people across the city. Nearly half believe the city is heading in the right direction, mirroring the views of upper-income whites, but differing a bit from the responses of blacks in families that earn less than $100,000. Only 41 percent of African Americans in families making less than $100,000 said the District was heading in a good direction.

In some instances, the difference between higher- and lower-income blacks is larger than the racial gap itself. When it comes to problems paying for housing and food in the past year, there’s a bigger divide between African Americans with family incomes of more than $100,000 and those from households under $35,000 — near the median income for blacks in the District — than there is between whites and blacks overall.

High-income blacks also tended to agree with upper-income whites about whether their neighborhoods had gotten better in recent years, further complicating the picture of race and class in the city.

Overall, the survey showed a complex racial divide on relations between blacks and whites, feelings of financial security and other long-standing city issues but more agreement among wealthy whites and blacks on personal safety and city services, such as the police department and public parks.

“Like it or not, . . . there are some lifestyle experiences that break along racial lines,” even when accounting for class, said Kevin Chavous, a former Ward 7 councilman whose district included Hillcrest, one of the wealthiest black enclaves in the city. “If you think about churches, family, neighborhoods, Washington is still very segregated in where people live, go to school and go to church. So [the poll numbers] may sound surprising at first glance, but if you think about how people live, it makes sense.”

Finding it hard to feel secure

High-income blacks and whites disagreed most sharply in their views of the city’s economy. African Americans who participated in the poll said later in interviews that they feel economic insecurity, even if they are doing well now. They also said they had friends and family members who were unemployed or in the economic doldrums.

“I like prospering. I like feeling good about what I’ve accomplished, but I would like to see our entire racial group here in the city prosper too,” said Delores Johnson, 51, an African American information technology analyst who lives off 16th Street near Rock Creek Park, an area with a high concentration of upper-
income black homeowners that is known as “The Gold Coast.”

“It’s hard for me to consider the quality of life good for me when I see so much poverty in our neighborhoods and with our people,” Johnson said.

For Curt Simpson, 41, the concern hits closer to home. A self-employed interior designer, Simpson said his 27-year-old brother got laid off and came to live with him.

“Obviously, you hear that this is a great place for jobs, that the federal economy never keeps skilled people out for long,” he said. “But there are some out here who are having a really hard time, and it does impact families . . . how we relate to one another and how we have to take care of one another.”

Simpson’s and Johnson’s experiences contrasted sharply with many white poll respondents who were interviewed.

“I feel secure now and about the years ahead, but. . . . If you were asking this question in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I’m from and where I have more of a connection to family and friends who were facing unemployment, I might have a different answer,” said Gregory Niblett, 56, who lives in the Chevy Chase section of Ward 3 and has lived in the District since 1992.

While high-income blacks who responded to the poll say they generally feel financially secure, they are not as enthusiastic about that security as whites. More than nine of 10 whites in households making more than $100,000 feel financially secure, while 80 percent of their black peers do.

In many cases, blacks said they felt as if their financial footing was on precarious ground, largely because they did not have a deep well of savings or because they did not have family members to fall back on.

Tene Dolphin, a federal employee, came to the District to go to Howard University and never left. Now she lives in the Woodridge section of Ward 5. The daughter of a social worker and a postal employee, Dolphin said she has surpassed her parents financially, but she understands the sentiment registered by African Americans.

“The school of thought is, ‘I know that if I’m first-generation, there’s no cushion, there’s no support, I’m the beginning and the end. If I lose this job in this economy, what happens next?’”

“Well, times have changed”

While Washington has long been defined by tense race relations, the relationships between blacks and whites is evolving quickly as the city changes so dramatically.

In follow-up interviews, blacks and whites said the tension is less than it once was. But how much better things are often depended on the race and experiences of the respondent.

In addition, many blacks expressed concern that the city’s leaders were more concerned with the new white population than they were with blacks who have lived in the District for years — themes that were at the heart of the Democratic mayoral primary last year between former mayor Adrian M. Fenty and current Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

The views of those interviewed on race also were shaped by their own brushes with discrimination or perceived discrimination: 31 percent of blacks in families earning more than $100,000 say they have been discriminated against because of their race, while only 16 percent of whites at the same income level have.

James Robinson, a retired Department of Defense engineer who took part in the survey, has lived in the city since the 1960s. He said the city has done a good job taking care of basic services, such as garbage pickup, and improving schools.

But he believes that some of the other changes in the city, have, as he puts it, “a racial motive.”

“Streetcars in Northeast Washington, do we really need that?” he said.

Robinson, who is black, said he saw the demographic changes in the city firsthand as he waited for jury duty recently in D.C. Superior Court. Among the pool of about 60 people, Robinson said there were nine African Americans. “Everybody was white, and young white,” Robinson said. “That kind of opened my eyes. I wonder, where do these people work? What kind of jobs are they doing in the District now?

“I was kind of surprised at that. I said, ‘Well, times have changed.’ ”

Derek Conrad, 23, may well be an example of that change. He came to the District from Houston to attend American University. After college, he settled in Georgetown, but he decided he’d rather be near the heart of the city. He chose the racially diverse and gentrifying Columbia Heights neighborhood.

“I probably wouldn’t have moved to Columbia Heights years ago. I think it’s definitely the demographic changes.” said Conrad, who is white. “I love going to the local bars and walking to the 930 Club. I have those opportunities I didn’t have in Georgetown.

“I think in Columbia Heights, [whites] are the minority, but we’re all going about our business and there’s no difficulties or problems. I think the more, the merrier, “ Conrad said.

Conrad, who works in government-relations lobbying, has taken advantage of new features in the city, such as Capitol Bike Share, and the burgeoning night life in revitalized corridors along U Street NW and H Street NE.

“I define quality of life as easy transportation to work and to going out at night, available services like dry cleaning and stores, and just how safe you feel walking around town. I really enjoy it here,” Conrad said.

Many African Americans agreed with Conrad’s sentiment. Welford Pollard, 56, who lives in Hillcrest Heights in Ward 7, said he thinks that the demographic changes are for the best.

“We have a lot of different cultures here now, and it’s helped the city because even in some of the so-called bad areas you actually see white people living in those areas and they’re trying to make those areas livable again,” he said. “Being there, they’re saying, ‘You’re not going to hold me hostage in my neighborhood,’ and people have learned to respect that.”

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