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By William Raspberry
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, February 1, 1998


Washington is a civil rights town. Its first elected government after a century of congressional fiefdom was a civil rights government. To recall the names of the city's leaders since home rule was enacted a quarter of a century ago is to recall a veritable roster of civil rights heroes, not all of them homegrown: John Wilson of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Sterling Tucker of the Urban League, Julius Hobson of the Congress of Racial Equality, Walter Fauntroy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, of course, Marion Barry, who came to Washington as a SNCC organizer.

Indeed, many of these same activists – along with the likes of Willie Hardy, David Eaton, David Clarke and Roena Rand – were at least partly responsible for home rule in the first place, leading a variety of coalitions, sponsoring a host of protests, generally agitating for Congress to "Free D.C."

That modern Washington was born of protest isn't surprising-and it may even have been necessary. The whole idea of the home rule movement, after all, was to get the white power structure, as represented by Congress and the White House, to deal fairly with black folk.

The problem we face now is the failure of the local leadership – indeed much of America's black leadership – to move beyond the civil rights mode. That failure has important implications for the future of Washington.

To begin with, the heart of the civil rights approach is confrontation – generally with blacks confronting specific white people and white-led institutions they see as standing in the way of their progress. And that, almost inevitably, spills over into a general casting of whites as the enemy.

The result is not merely a poisoning of race relations. It also changes the way we see progress. To take one example, black Washingtonians like the idea of resurgent business, night life and real estate values, all of which are taken as indicators of the city's economic health. But because the "regentrification" that drives these indicators tends to be led by young whites, what would otherwise be viewed as a positive becomes evidence of a white takeover – The Plan – even by those who benefit, economically and otherwise, from the process.

The civil rights inclination to see things primarily through the prism of race is also a huge barrier to city-suburb cooperation the city desperately needs. In addition, the civil rights mode places the power for change in the hands of others and requires of the protesters only that they identify the concession to be demanded, demonstrate their justification for demanding it, and show the necessary fortitude and militancy to see things through. But civic success depends on the determination of people to do for themselves.

For a longtime Washingtonian, it is almost startling to recall how much of that self-help determination has been lost. When I came to Washington in 1960, the most influential groups around were the ubiquitous civic (black) and citizens (white) associations. These associations were like civil rights groups in that they petitioned their government for the services they thought they deserved, but far more important was their work in the neighborhoods for which they were named: Dupont, Columbia Heights, Lamond-Riggs, Brookland, Barry Farms.

To an astounding degree, these associations (along with the churches and fraternal organizations in which the association leaders also tended to be active) helped to create viable communities, even in the economically depressed parts of town.

This is what James G. Banks, Washington's erstwhile poverty czar, has in mind when he declares that the city's impoverished blacks were "better deployed and better structured to move up the ladder in those days than are impoverished people today."

Banks is worth listening to for a host of reasons. After a long career fighting poverty through better housing, he has spent the last several years running the Anacostia-Congress Heights Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. He is wise, experienced and personally involved in community building in the city where he was born 77 years ago – to parents who also were born here. And strikingly, considering the widespread sense that Washington may be on a more-or-less irreversible downslide, he is hopeful for the future of the city. But he thinks we first need to get some things clear.

"The civil rights takeover of the city that began in the '60s and reached its full fruition in the '70s followed a path that said the success of blacks depends on how much money and other resources we can get from various sources – for blacks. What we should have realized is that we cannot succeed by isolating ourselves as black people – that we have to be a part of the total process. That political isolation, along with concentration of troubled and impoverished families – which almost inevitably drives successful families away – is what we must change."

Surprise: It is changing. "You ought to come to Anacostia and look around," says Banks. "They are demolishing 1,000 units of assisted and subsidized housing, private and public, and there are RFPs [requests for proposals] to refurbish another 600 units for rent or sale. They're laying the groundwork for a much better mix of incomes. That's a new perspective, and the residents are part of it. You can't do it unless the residents are willing and able to participate."

But it's not just Anacostia where the early signs of change are beginning to appear. Brookland, 18th and Taylor and 18th and Montana in Northeast Washington may also soon see a spurt of privately built mixed-income housing, with an emphasis on what has been the missing gap in Washington real estate. Most of the home building here in the last 30 years has been either above $200,000 or well below $100,000. Banks believes that another decade or so will see better-balanced communities across most of Washington.

And why will that matter?

To start with, it will make it possible for the city to keep many of the upwardly mobile families who, still unable to afford Washington's high-priced housing, have been moving to Prince George's County. Those are the very families that could provide the lift for some of our troubled neighborhoods.

"It's awkward to talk about," says Banks, "but those community leaders, the citizens associations leadership of pre-home-rule Washington, tended to be well-educated, often college-trained people whose leadership grew out of their personal achievement. They were not just role models, though they were that, but they also made the neighborhoods work even for the impoverished residents. We need to bring them back."

If neighborhood health is Banks's yardstick for measuring the quality of life and the coherence of community in Washington over the next 30 years, the quality of education is mine. I worry about the children – how can you contemplate the future of Washington and not worry about the children? – and I fear that the process Banks envisions is, by itself, too slow to hold much possibility for halting their headlong slide into ignorance, dysfunction and worse.

I think of the old Washington as a place where people who grew up in quite poor families still remember how schools made a difference in their lives. And I'm afraid I think of today's Washington as a place where the schools that serve poor children are little short of disasters – even when they manage to open on time. Take the recent report that in 14 of the city's high schools, upwards of 94 percent of the 10th graders scored below grade level in math, or that at two of those schools the under-performance was 100 percent.

Washington cannot be what I want it to be for my children and their families unless it does a lot better for the children it is now so tragically failing.

And here, perhaps, is where my vision and Jim Banks's vision merge. Poor children do better-and have a greater chance of breaking out of their poverty – when they have neighbors who care, and who know from personal experience what it takes to overcome. This, it goes without saying, is not something you can picket and protest for, or demand in the name of equality or as recompense for past sins. It is not something that someone else can deliver. It has to come not from people who owe, but from people who care. That's why Banks sees the community-building potential of mixed-income housing as vital.

So do I. But it's not enough. What we also have to do, if Washington is to become the city it can be, is to commit ourselves to rescuing those children. Washington's middle class – specifically its black middle class – will have to become the caring neighbors these children need, wherever we live and wherever they live. Starting now.

William Raspberry has been a Post columnist since 1966.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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