When Wesley S. Williams Jr. and his wife Karen Hastie Williams, both high-powered lawyers, reflected on the 14 different parties they attended on the heaviest social weekend of the Christmas season, they had one conclusion.
"We both said nothing has changed," said Wesley Williams, a partner at Covington & Burling. "We attended many different events -- a reception before a benefit, private parties hosted by whites, a black organization Christmas party. At the white events, there were only a handful of blacks. At the black party, there were no whites."
Their observation is shared by many blacks and whites in Washington -- a city nationally known as a center for the upwardly mobile black professional, but sometimes described as one of the most segregated towns in the country after 6 p.m.
Fifteen years ago in the spirit of the civil rights movement and post-riot reconstruction, social interaction in Washington was pushed by both blacks and whites both through and at benefits for the old Freedman's Hospital, the Workshops for Careers in the Arts, the Washington Performing Arts Society and other education and arts causes. It worked, even touching the world of private dinner parties.
And in the first decade of limited home rule, Washington saw opportunity for interaction grow with local elections, affirmative action and a cultural explosion. Meanwhile, the numbers of black upwardly mobile professionals grew in numbers, affluence and visibility from the tennis courts of Rock Creek Park to the power-lunch restaurants on Connecticut Avenue.
But in 1985, the only events where integration is a matter of course are public occasions such as dinners of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Big Brothers, the Joint Center for Political Studies, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Black Student Fund and the Washington Performing Arts Society, along with mass gatherings such as the Redskins games, the Jacksons' Victory Tour concert, the city's New Year's Eve party and a few happy hours.
Behind closed doors and in many downtown restaurants and clubs, the two cities of an earlier era still exist.
Some insiders paint a more homogeneous picture, citing new social lineups brought on by home rule.
"Certainly on the public level, there is greater social integration because of the power shift from the Hill to the local government," observes Delano Lewis, vice president at C&P Telephone, and the transition chief of Mayor Marion Barry's first term. Lewis cites the annual dinner of the Board of Trade, and the fundraisers by local politicians, as examples of the new interaction. "The businessmen know the influence of city hall and invite those people to meetings and functions. And vice versa, when politicians have fundraisers, they invite the business community."
But more are discouraged. Ronald Brown, a partner with Patton, Boggs and Blow, and deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says interaction is "much less than you would expect in a city that is predominantly black and where blacks have made significant progress in politics and other professions. I would assume that is because race is still a significant factor in American life."
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce says: "I have rarely been to a party where I have been the only black, but the numbers are very small."
Nancy (Bitsey) Folger, a fund-raiser whose public and private parties are cited as the best example of integrated socializing in town, thinks the people who integrated in the 1960s are still committed to those efforts. However, she adds, "I think there has been a real drawing back. In the last few years, I don't think the same effort is being made to reach out. Maybe we don't need to anymore, maybe a lot has been accomplished."
Polly Fritchey, a Georgetown hostess and fundraiser, has seen some progress -- but not enough. "Things have changed, but not as much as I think they should have. But they have changed greatly in the world of business," she says.
Peggy Cooper Cafritz, chairwoman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts, agrees with other blacks who are often the only black guests at select dinner parties: "Washington remains one of the most segregated cities in America. The changes have been very slim."
And, some people, such as George Stevens Jr., director of the American Film Institute, find the social separation befuddling. "The fact that I have to think about it shows that there is little progress," says Stevens. "It is one of the problems or mysteries in a city with a large black population that there is not greater attendance at Kennedy Center and other events."
Ironically, these complaints are being aired in a city that has always been a special study of race relations. Since the Revolutionary War, Washington has been home to a sizable black middle class and a springboard for national initiatives and leadership, from abolitionist Frederick Douglass to former ambassador and Cabinet officer Patricia Roberts Harris. It traditionally has been a trend setter for blacks in education, medicine and consumer habits, as well as entertaining and socializing. But in the past the existence of the two social societies also meant a heritage of public segregation.
Today Washington continues to be a showcase with the most affluent black community in the country. In the city, blacks make up 70 percent of the population, according to the 1980 census, whites account for 27 percent, and Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups make up the rest.
Yet the arts and social power base has been penetrated by comparatively few blacks. Among them: the Williamses; arts activist Cafritz; attorney Vernon Jordan Jr.; psychiatrist Carlotta Miles and attorney Tony Miles; surgeon LaSalle Leffall Jr. and Ruth Leffall; physician Warfield Clark and educator Savannah Clark; surgeon William Funderburk and public relations consultant Marilyn Funderburk; Edward Mazique, president of the medical staff at Providence Hospital and education administrator Margurite; professional volunteer Vi Curtis Hinton; and surgeon Aaron Jackson and Alexine Jackson, a professional volunteer.
Yet they too feel the social gap is widening. Margurite Mazique, an education specialist at the Department of Health and Human Services, counted six blacks among 80 people at one of Vice President George Bush's holiday parties, about five blacks out of 100 people at the Providence administration Christmas party, three black women at the Rotary Club auxiliary luncheon attended by 75 women, a dozen blacks at the Symphony Ball among 1,000 guests, a half-dozen whites at the Christmas party of the University of the District of Columbia president Robert Green for about 75 people, and a dozen whites among 1,000 guests at the 100th anniversary dance of the Medico-Chirurgical Society, the local chapter of the black medical association.
Among the reasons may be a new sense of independence within the black community, says Robert Johnson, president of District CableVision, which has been awarded the local cable franchise. "Blacks feel they should be the captains of their own fate and they don't want that one white to be the patron. Now blacks can do that for other blacks."
The social contacts are not expanding, says Carlotta Miles, because of a new attitude of separatism among blacks that she has noticed in the last two years.
"One thing that is causing it is the action from the top -- the lack of interest in black people who are still disadvantaged has caused anger in all blacks. There's a curious polarity because whites are tired of carrying poor blacks. They feel they have paid their dues, they have paid their penitence for slavery. This lessening of commitment has grown out of self-concern," says Miles. And she feels blacks as well as whites share the burden of this separation.
"Blacks often want to keep control over the degree of closeness they have with whites. So they will keep it at the business level, the fundraiser and benefit, and will not open their homes. This is an old ambivalence that disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s but is more operative now."
The conservative mood of the country, as well as the tone set by the Reagan administration where few blacks hold prominent jobs, is blamed by many people for the slowing of black-white socializing.
The first Reagan term featured about 35 state dinners and the guest lists show an average of two black couples per dinner. At the first three large social functions of the Reagans', blacks provided the entertainment but were absent from the guest lists.
"Our intent is to be colorblind," says Sheila Tate, press secretary to Nancy Reagan. She says she has not participated in any discussion about more minority participation at White House events. "But we are sensitive to that issue," she says.
Melvin L. Bradley, a black presidential special assistant, says today's mood is one of choice and that public and private White House socializing is like it is in any corporation. "They associate with people they mix well with and it has nothing to do with race," he says. His own large annual party, a barbecue, is well-integrated, he says, but his smaller functions are 90 percent black. "I have the black constituency as part of my portfolio."
But some of the reasons for the social stalemate go beyond either the makeup of the administration or the success of local politics.
Most frequently cited are:
Lack of willingness.
Lack of personal friendships, despite the rise of blacks in the professions and the shared education, values and influences.
Divisions caused by patterns of black and white neighborhoods.
A retrenchment caused by the end of a conscious -- and fashionable -- effort to invite one black couple or one white couple.
Lack of reciprocation by blacks to invitations to white parties.
The small number of people who are defined as the black leadership and white leadership by whites and blacks, a fact that leaves out many younger people who have more of an integrated social life than the publicly visible leaders.
The limits on invitations placed by corporations underwriting "purpose parties" that end up favoring national names over the local politicians.
The lack of coverage by the media of social events in the black community and the infrequent inclusion of blacks in coverage of white-organized events.
The rising cost of benefit tickets and entertaining, plus the history of donations by blacks to schools and hospitals, rather than to symphonies and museums.
The discomfort some blacks feel at parties because they think they are under a microscope and the hesitancy by some blacks in black circles to say they enjoy the company of whites. And the uneasiness some people still feel around interracial couples.
A shrinking number of black and white women who do volunteer work and sit on the committees that structure the fund-raising social events.
Washington socializing has changed in recent years, regardless of race.
"Things are much smaller now, the big embassy parties are gone," says Ruth Leffall, whose husband is chairman of the department of surgery at Howard University Hospital and a past president of the American Cancer Society. "You have to look at it in two ways. When things are smaller with one dinner table, should you expect to see four blacks? No, you don't necessarily see other blacks. So I don't know if we should be too critical. But when you go to a larger gathering, you do think it is unfortunate they don't know the people we know."
The charities remain, however, as a traditional opportunity for entry into a city's social life.
The question of how to support charity events is an evolving one in the black community. "Often fundraisers have a more integrated list than 10 years ago," says Patricia Mathews, vice president for programs of the Community Foundation of Greater Washington Inc. "The question of whether you get a more integrated audience is different. It depends on those in the private sector who have the ability to pay or who can claim it as a business expense."
The largest annual social event in Washington is the Kennedy Center Honors and the guest list includes members of the public who have requested tickets and are willing to pay from $50 to $2,000, which goes to underwrite the center's educational programs. This year, besides the guests of the honorees, about a dozen blacks attended out of the nearly 2,000 guests. Those who attend regularly say that was a decrease from previous years. Carolyn Peachey, one of the event's party organizers, points out that there were more blacks invited than showed up, but added, "Charity is different with black people. I think most blacks would rather give to a social-issue event than the Kennedy Center."
Shortly before a gala to raise money for Wolf Trap Farm Park last year, Catherine Filene Shouse, founder of the performing arts center, met with Margurite Mazique to discuss why more blacks didn't use the park.
"My answer was we have not been made to feel we had the privilege of using it. A year earlier the Doll League a black club had wanted to book the opening night of the Dance Theater of Harlem and we had to get Theater founder Arthur Mitchell to intercede," says Mazique.
The two women cohosted a dinner for 150 guests at Shouse's home.
"Out of that, 20 people ended up taking the $100 tickets for the ball. Some did take lesser price tickets," Mazique says.
Savannah Clark, who teaches health and physical education at UDC, is harsher on the outcome: "When you have to put the money or the time out, most blacks don't have their priorities in order."
More basic to the way social interchange works, black guests don't always reciprocate invitations they accept from white hosts, some social observers say.
"People make an effort, and some are making many efforts. But for whatever reason, they aren't reciprocated. Economics is a big factor. I don't think that part of it is anything intentional. Most of the mixing takes place in public settings," says Nancy Folger, who has given parties for Andrew Young, John Ray, Marion Barry and Bishop Desmond Tutu, among many others.
Mary Helen Thompson, the press secretary to former senator Paul Tsongas and a nine-year veteran of the integrated political and civil rights dinners, says: "In terms of reciprocating, people are so busy and they have a limited income. And in a way whites don't expect it. They feel it is all right for you to come to their house but they wouldn't come to yours."
Also, some blacks feel, blacks entertain differently and prefer old-fashioned house parties.
Says a nationally known journalist: "White guests require more work. You have to make sure they are meeting everybody. What people decide is that they will have an integrated party or an all-black party. At an integrated party, you usually don't dance."
Furthermore, it is no longer a sign of a black's status to have had dinner at a Georgetown grande dame's table. The novelty of being seen at the Kennedy Center or the Jockey Club has worn off. And there may be some negative reaction from the black friends of blacks when the party is integrated.
Peola Spurlock, the minority relations coordinator for the Peace Corps, works against that negative reaction.
At a birthday party recently, she invited blacks, whites, East Indians and Caribbean people. Yet she understands why she is an exception. "Black people who maintain a totally black environment see white people as the enemy. And some blacks have such an entrenched feeling of 'black is beautiful' that they don't feel any need for white interaction."
Ultimately, some blacks ask themselves what point there is in integrating prominent social events.
"If more blacks are on the Corcoran board, will more blacks be on the staff?" asks Peggy Cafritz. "If more blacks are on the symphony board, will more blacks be in the orchestra? How this integration could filter beyond this small circle and affect the quality of life is the question."
Not all of the analysis offered is negative, however.
Social worker Linda Gunn of the Psychiatric Institute says that black-white socializing in the 1960s had a certain pressure behind it. "Now nobody is saying you have to do it and people are doing a good job of mixing. It gets to the point where color is not an issue, it is what you have in common."
Says writer Susan Mary Alsop: "Twenty-five years ago there was a certain self-consciousness on both sides. But that disappeared and a happy intermixing occurred. That continues because people became friends."
And many observers feel that a mix is inevitable in this predominantly black city.
"There is still some conscious effort for balance on charity committees. But in the corporate world, they want political balance," says Gretchen Poston, the White House social secretary during the Carter administration, who runs a special events planning firm. "On one level, I think the mixing is just taken for granted. But I think there is less private interaction. I know there is a lot of money in the black community but I don't think blacks care about being in the social mainstream. All of a sudden I don't think black people care. No one is really trying. I don't think either group cares and maybe we are all too busy to make the effort."
In any case a number of organizations are working consciously to foster interaction.
The largest social event organized by Howard University is its annual Charter Day dinner. Of the 1,800 guests this past year, 10 percent were white, but 40 to 50 percent of the financial support for the dinner came from white corporations.
The dinner for the Black Student Fund, a placement and scholarship service to integrate private schools, ended up being 50 percent black, but only after the committee made a determined effort.
"It took the effort of white people on the committee to say we can't make this a white event," says one committee member.
When the local affiliate of the National Urban League noticed interaction was declining, except at a few large dinners, it acted by creating the Home Town Run, a road race through the city streets.
"In putting that committee together, we have tried to put together an interracial committee," explains Betti Whaley, the local president. In its first four years, the road race has grown in popularity and last year the white runners outnumbered the black.
Whaley casts a questioning eye on those who say the balance in socializing is fine. "The people who move in those circles don't question it because they are comfortable. And those who aren't don't give a damn."
Some Washingtonians, too, dispute the assessment of a growing social division, citing business community changes that have been an outgrowth of home rule -- for instance, the push by the Barry administration to have 30 percent minority equity in development projects and the fact that Roger Blunt, the president of Tyroc Construction Corp., is next in line to be president of the Board of Trade.
Even though his social world has expanded, Robert Bryant, an architect and partner in several development projects, says the inroads have been few. "We have been invited to the theater, sometimes to gatherings after that and to country clubs. That's a direct result of my participating with local businesses and being on the national finance committee for Ted Kennedy. But in many cases I might be the only one to add a little color."
And if last year's Congressional Black Caucus dinner was still a predominantly black event, more white corporate executives attended than ever before. Gretchen Poston noted the lure was power. "A lot of corporations are aware of the marketing value of that audience," she says.
Most ironic of all, perhaps, is the fact that social leaders of both communities are so similar.
"The control group of the white population are people who are accepting and whose pedigree and wherewithal are not greater than a substantial segment of the black population. That counts exposure, schooling, pedigree and accomplishments of parents and themselves. But we still live in the wake of the cataclysmic experiences of slavery and segregation," says Wesley Williams.
His re'sume' includes private schools, and a degree in French literature from Harvard College and Harvard Law; member of the Metropolitan Club since 1978, the City Tavern Club and the University Club; board member of the National Symphony Orchestra and Broadcast Capital Investment Fund; past president of the Family and Child Services board and the National Child Research Center board; vestryman at St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square and trustee of the Cathedral Chapter, the corporate entity of the Washington Cathedral. Just recently he was nominated to be an overseer of Harvard University.
While Williams describes colorblindness as "a wonderful modus operandi," he adds: "Perhaps we have to shed that instinctive colorblindness in dealing with the instihitions and events. I am fearful of the danger of the slowdown and entrenchment."
Whaley thinks the social gap is unhealthy. "We aren't going to see growth in the city until there are better relationships. I think this is an issue about what kind of city do we want to live in. We have got to get people excited about making the city work."
Architect Bryant sums it up: "You cannot mandate social interaction. The interaction has to come from the heart. It is going to take time, understanding and you people coming along who are not encumbered by the old values."