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A Big White Lie?

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 1997; Page B01

It turns out that belief in The Plan -- the persistent, decades-old notion that Washington's power establishment would someday make the District a majority-white city once more -- has more staying power than home rule itself.

On the day when the White House and Congress agreed on a proposal to strip Mayor Marion Barry of much of his authority and deliver extraordinary powers to the unelected financial control board, some longtime proponents of this persistent theory responded with a simple, "It's The Plan."

"I'd been leery of conspiracy ideas, but now it's substantiated," says Rock Newman, the boxing promoter and Foxhall resident who is the mayor's friend and 1994 transition chief. "There has indeed been an ongoing plan by Congress, by a handful of politicians who report to a group of financial supporters, allies and friends who want to be able to cut deals just like they did years ago, when rednecks in Congress ran the city. Does this make me want to leave the city? Damn right. Unfortunately, that's just what them [expletive] rednecks want."

The Plan is not the stuff of position papers or committee hearings. It is urban myth, a whisper that passes from generation to generation. The Plan knows no class or economic distinctions; it is accepted in law offices and at lunch counters alike. Teachers in public high schools have been known to teach it as fact. Black politicians regularly sit young reporters down in their offices to spell out the scenario.

"First you're going to hear all about how the blacks who run the city are just too incompetent," D.C. school board member R. Calvin Lockridge explained to a reporter in 1987. "Then Congress is going to have to take over the police to keep the unruly blacks in line. Then they're going to take over the agencies, one by one. You watch -- this home rule mistake ain't going to be around for long. The real estate boys won't allow it."

Yesterday, Lockridge -- who has since left politics and done a stint in the penitentiary for bilking an old lady of her savings -- declared himself prescient. "I've always said there's a whole group behind the scenes -- the business world, the Republicans, the Board of Trade -- with a Plan to take it back," he says.

And he has another prediction: "Next there'll be a transition mayor who is white -- [D.C. Council members] Jack Evans or Carol Schwartz. You watch: They have to reestablish the nation's capital."

In a time when conspiracy theories on everything from UFOs to the CIA's role in launching the crack epidemic win wide support without regard to actual evidence, The Plan is a particularly instructive example of the genre. Its staying power is due in good measure to its flexibility: As history deals the District new blows, The Plan adapts neatly.

And as a racial conspiracy theory, The Plan has the added power of an idea that is widely accepted among a minority, but virtually unknown to the majority. If you profess not to know about The Plan, you just might be suspected of being a part of it.

The history of The Plan stretches back to a time even before white flight turned the District into a city in which two-thirds of the population was black.

In the 1960s, when federal officials sought to complete Interstate 95 by building the highway straight up through Northeast, opponents of the project successfully turned the debate into a racial one: "White Man's Road Through Black Men's Bedrooms," the protest signs said, and motorists have made a giant circle around Washington ever since.

In the late 1980s, talk of The Plan was fed by the nightly images on television of a white, Reagan-appointed prosecutor inveighing against the corruption of the black mayor and his black business friends.

Barry has often raised the specter of The Plan. During his war of words with then-U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, Barry went on TV to note that "everybody in the top echelons in his office is white. . . . Some people don't like the fact that minorities get $150 million in city contracts each year. . . . Some people have said to me there are racial motivations" behind the various investigations into city corruption.

Barry's indictment and conviction on drug charges in 1990 fueled the murmurs of conspiracy.

The mayor to this day rarely shies from rhetoric that encourages belief in The Plan. Just last year, Barry spoke of "enemies of the people" who sought to take control of the city and abolish even the "half-slave," limited home rule that has been in effect for 23 years.

The Plan has always had an enormous logical problem: Despite decades of creeping gentrification of a handful of inner-city neighborhoods, there has been no wholesale movement of white suburbanites into the District. The largely white population of Wards 2 and 3 -- from Georgetown to Chevy Chase, D.C. -- has increased somewhat, but the primary cause of the District's changing racial complexion has been the way the city is increasingly shunned by middle-class black families.

Another logical problem arises from Congress's 1973 Home Rule Act: "I'm not sure why one would grant home rule and then plan to take it back," says Matthew Watson, a Washington lawyer who was city auditor for the first six years of home rule. "I've always been surprised at how willing people are to accept the least-likely explanation for anything."

The Plan is even impervious to fact. "Look at the staff of the control board, all those young white boys," Lockridge says in support of his theory of a white takeover. "Everywhere you look now -- whites." Actually, the control board staff, from its black executive director and on throughout the ranks, is racially mixed.

Yet, yesterday's news was confirmation enough to some prominent black Washingtonians.

"This is a fight for the actual ownership of land here," says Frances Murphy, publisher of the Afro-American newspaper. "It's not a conspiracy, it's a steamroller. If I was an average person living in the suburbs, traveling an hour each way on the highway every day, I'd want to own some of these beautiful houses in the District -- back yards, porches. Let's be real. That's what this is about."

"No one is truly surprised," says former D.C. council member H.R. Crawford. "There's always been an undercurrent that this city would eventually become the Manhattan of the South and Prince George's County will become the old Harlem. And that's exactly what's happening now. You can see the shift in population already."

"It works out to be a plan," says Howard Croft, former chairman of urban affairs at the University of the District of Columbia. "What The Plan really means is not necessarily a white majority, but a way to deal with this intractable poor, black population."

"What we see now is a kind of resignation," Croft says. "The only thing the poor had was their ability to pressure their elected politicians. Now, we see the creation of arrangements where ordinary people really can't affect decision-making. [Control board Chairman] Andrew Brimmer and a stockbroker in upper Northwest speak the same language. But in my neighborhood in Anacostia, we're still going to have a party for the first police officer we see on our block more than once a month."

@CAPTION: Rock Newman, Barry friend and manager of boxer Riddick Bowe: "Does [The Plan] make me want to leave the city? Damn right."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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