Opinions

Putting the ‘divided D.C.’ meme to rest

The D.C. Council passed a budget unanimously, approving most of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s initiatives and adding a few of its own. Kenyan McDuffie won an overwhelming victory in a special election, more than doubling any other candidate’s vote total, in a ward that mixes young and old, black and white, urban and suburban.

Could an end finally be in sight for the theme, and meme, that the District is hopelessly polarized along racial lines?

Whereas the narrative for the past few elections made it sound as though all white people voted one way and all black people another (even if that wasn’t quite the case), people of all races, ages and income groups came to agreement about who should represent Ward 5 on the D.C. Council. Council members representing some very diverse and differing wards did the same on the budget.

Sure, the District has divisions. There are big gaps in income and education levels among residents. In many ways, there are two D.C.s: a world of highly educated professionals making far above the national median income, and a world of folks who have been left behind by our education system and have trouble finding jobs.

It’s healthy to talk about this divide, especially when thinking about how to bridge it. But to understand the problem, we need to look at more than just race. There’s an extremely strong correlation between poverty and race, thanks to a legacy of segregation and discrimination in this country, but the District also has a large black professional population, and residents of all races and ethnicities — let’s not leave out Latinos, Asians and others — are finding housing increasingly hard to afford.

There are black council members and white council members who want to do more to help the less fortunate, and there are black council members and white council members who stand firmly against having the most affluent contribute more. Politically, our candidates vary from left to right (even within the Democrats) in ways that bear no relationship to skin color, and those policy differences mean far more for the future than any immutable ethnic or racial distinctions.

I believe that Mayor Gray really meant what he said about “One City” during his 2010 campaign against Adrian Fenty. And despite a terrible first year, in which he made some hiring mistakes that cost him dearly, the mayor has indeed made good on his word.

Gray has made great strides in boosting the District’s job training, helped 3,000 residents find jobs through One City One Hire and expanded pre-kindergarten, just as he promised he would. He has funded initiatives such as the streetcar, traffic safety enforcement, better parking management and more bicycle lanes that will connect neighborhoods and make streets safer for all. And his administration’s sustainability plan is one of the most forward-thinking of any city’s.

There will always be some who want to stoke division rather than bridge it, for personal political gain. A few, for instance, astoundingly tried to frame the sustainability plan as being only for white people, when it’s often black residents who live in more polluted areas and whose children have far less access to healthy food and safe places to become physically fit.

There will always be some who find advantage in painting the division as black vs. white instead of around economics and education. A few tried to argue that because some white voters in Ward 5 supported McDuffie, black people should not, even though far more unites both groups of voters than divides them in this solidly middle-class section of the city.

Another destructive strain of rhetoric is pitting “native Washingtonians” against those born elsewhere. People who were born here and choose to stay are truly lucky, as they get to enjoy all the advantages of the District from birth. But everyone who’s chosen to live in the District, especially those of us who have bought property or otherwise made a commitment to stay, wants to see it be the best it can be.

What the rest of us must do is avoid being taken in by this rhetoric. The voters of Ward 5 weren’t. McDuffie received significant support from black and white, old and young, native and newcomer. He preached a message that there are policies that help all residents, not just boost one group at another’s expense, and that one leader can represent all residents.

That’s all true, and voters believed him. That same day, 12 council members who haven’t agreed on much this year agreed on spending priorities that preserve affordable housing programs, will bring new library books to our neighborhoods, fund improvements to bus service, expand access to health insurance access and far more.

Let’s use these two victories for unity to start talking about how we are all similar instead of how we are different, since we are all stronger as one city.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He is a contributor to The Post’s All Opinions Are Local blog.

 
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