For D.C., Vince Gray's election is a bold step backward

By Kojo Nnamdi
Sunday, September 19, 2010

When I came to the District of Columbia from New York City in 1969, I was a restless 20-something actor and black-power activist looking for somewhere to call home. The District was a place, I felt, where black power could become reality.

But the city I arrived in wasn't some set showcase for black political leadership. It was gradually turning into one, and it is changing still. I was reminded of this when Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's congressional delegate, said to me casually earlier this year: "I grew up in a city that was predominantly white." She's a native Washingtonian.

The District today is becoming more racially, ethnically and culturally diverse than it has been in my 41 years here. The tax base is expanding, something every mayor in every city finds desirable. But this also means more affluent residents are displacing poorer residents. And with our city's troubled racial history, gentrification can be socially and politically volatile.

That volatility has resulted in Mayor Adrian Fenty's ouster. Vincent Gray, a decent and thoughtful man, benefited from black voters' anger at Fenty, a result of four years of real and perceived slights by the mayor toward his black constituents. But that anger has propelled us into a future that concerns me. While the past should inform the future, it shouldn't handcuff it.

Gray, the presumptive new mayor, will govern a diverse city. The thrill of his not being Fenty will soon wear off. He will be confronted by demands to continue school reform with Michelle Rhee and demands to continue school reform without Michelle Rhee. He'll be asked to do that without hurting anyone. Black and white residents will demand to know, without explicitly saying so, whose side he's on.

He'll be asked to prove he's not Marion Barry. Some will press him to reopen D.C. General Hospital. Because his agenda is not yet clear, supporters will attempt to foist their priorities on him. His every appointment will be scrutinized to see if he's reaching backward or reaching forward.

For me, understanding this moment means reaching back four decades. Washington turned out to be a good place to observe and experience a tremendous growth in black power. At one level, that growth resulted in what my friend Frank Smith (a former Ward 1 D.C. Council member) once called "The Barry Revolution": Leadership positions, jobs and contracts once reserved for whites in the city were essentially transferred to blacks.

Back then, we black-power advocates were primarily concerned (at least if we believed our own rhetoric) with the least among us, the poor. Our naive notion was that we would see a rapid transformation in education, employment, housing and social services for those on the margins of society.

It didn't happen. The transformative promise of post-civil-rights black political power in Washington was limited to those of us who were educationally prepared to benefit from the transformation.

Many of us changed -- for instance, I went from Black Nationalist to Panafricanist to Marxist to whatever I am today, which I choose not to characterize ideologically, because reality has a tendency not to conform to ideological presumptions. But a lot of the black-power perceptions didn't change. Fenty should have been aware of that. His decision to appoint a majority of non-black leaders to the most important cabinet positions in the city stirred up a great deal of animosity among black residents.

When I mentioned this to a white friend, she remarked, "But I thought we'd gotten beyond that." I responded: "What do you think the response of white Americans would have been if Barack Obama had put together a majority-black Cabinet immediately after taking office? Probably not 'Oh, he's just finding the best people to do the job.' "

I am nevertheless disturbed by the level of hostility that was directed at Fenty, the outright hatred that seemed to come so easily to many African Americans I know, a hatred that seemed even more extreme regarding Schools Chancellor Rhee.

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