When I came to Washington 20 years ago, segregation forced most blacks to depend on small enclosed black communities for social life. Black political power was minimal. Getting a house in other than an all-black neighborhood was like trying to shoot the moon. Few private firms employed more than two or three black professionals. Even so dubious a privilege as having a charge card at certain prestigious stores eluded all but a few blacks.
Then a revolution roared in to blast away that old order. Recall that on Aug. 28, 1963, more than 250,000 joined Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington to demand that "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy." And there were many whites among that thundering crowd. Many Americans died after thay day to force open doors previously shut to blacks.
But today my friends and I see a blatant resegregation that is a throwback to the old ways. Subtle racism is rising, and blacks and whites are more polarized than ever.
Today most whites want to go for themselves alone. They've been deafeningly silent as the current administration has declared a social war and has engaged in guerrilla warfare against the elderly and the needy. I came to Washington a few years after an American president sent the federal troops to enforce integration in Little Rock. Today, a president restores tax exemptions for the segregated academies that were founded to avoid complying with the law.
This resegregation is often paradoxical. Reasonable calm and absence of conflict prevail. Blacks who have the money can live in all but a handful of Washington's neighborhoods. Blacks are seen all over the Washington area, in clubs, movies, restaurants, private schools. But with resegregation has come a subtle racism that is so insensitive it borders on meanness, that is reminiscent of the pre-1960s revolution.
In the early 1960s, when I was anticipating marriage and looking for a place to rent, a white acquaintance took me to her neighborhood in Cleveland Park. The owner of the house commented loudly to the woman I was with that she would be happier if I were an African diplomat. The place cost too much anyway, but I always wondered if I'd been priced out of the neighborhood.
By the early 1970s, however, several friends of mine had moved to Cleveland Park. They weren't ambassadors from Burundi either, but they managed to afford the rent or mortgage. Some had a lot of trouble getting a house and had to use a white emissary to assure the neighbors they were "a nice black professional family."
Once installed in their new home, however, one friend told me, "The neighborhood wasn't what I expected." At first the neighborhood kids wouldn't play with her children. Their son, then 12 or 13, was harassed by the police as he moved around the neighborhood at night. "If he wasn't home by a certain time I would start to worry about whether he'd come home with or without the police," she said. A neighbor once called and said a black boy was wandering around her back yard.It was a friend of my friend's son.
Today, the neighborhood is theoretically integrated. And my friend is a 10-year-resident of Cleveland Park, but she is still cautious. She restricts the activities of her family more than whites do. Seeing her neighbors enjoying a recent lawn party, she said she wouldn't permit her now-grown children to entertain that way because she felt neighbors would ask her to have them turn the music down or even call the police. "If my son and his friends want to eat crabs and drink beer, I tell them to come in and close the door and stay inside. I'll sit on the porch and laugh and talk with my neighbors, but I'm very cautious."
In the 1960s blacks looking for a job were often encouraged on the telephone only to find that when they showed up for an interview the job had "just been filled." It is a little surprising that in this post civil rights law era, such discrimination continues without missing a beat.
I have a friend who recently called in response to an ad for an interior designer. On the telephone, the employer was enthusiastic about her credentials and tried to sell my friend on the job by emphasizing its exclusivity, its potential for high pay. She even offered to drive from her Rockville office to the one in Bethesda for the interview to accommodate my friend, who lives in Northwest Washington. But the sight of my friend's tawny, freckled face produced a complete turnaround. Enthusiasm became evasiveness and a mumbled promise to call. The employer later telephoned and suggested she might have some part-time work in the North Portal area -- a prestigious black neighborhood.
While many blacks walked through the doors of equal opportunity that opened in the 1970s, overall blacks are losing ground in the jobs arena. The official unemployment statistic for black youth is around 50 percent, and the jobless rate for black adults is twice that for white adults. Still blacks find deep resentment by some whites that they have made a place for themselves at all.
One of my friends is a prominent musician who found the token opportunities held out to black musicians in the 1960s deeply resented by white musicians. They regarded special black opportunities very jealously, not because they doubted discrimination was real, but because they didn't want anybody to get ahead of them.
An Artist I know found similar resentment in the 1960s when he was able to gain a modicum of acceptance for his work. And he finds the same thing 20 years later: "I find a lot of whites don't like my power position; they feel I get everything, but they don't fell the same way about a white artist who may get the same thing and even more than me."
This resentment is often accompanied by shock when blacks do manage to achieve. A friend of mine opened a small nursery school in the late 1960s in one of the city's racially and economically mixed areas. Clients came from the city and suburbs, and some whites, she recalled, would walk past her to a white teacher she employed. "There's the director over there," the teacher would respond with escalating embarrassment as it happened over and over again.
By the mid-1970s, this woman said, parents could accept that this black woman owned the business. But race still has not taken a back seat. Now white callers ask about the racial balance of the school and are satisfied when she tells them it is 60 percent white: the parents say they do not want their children to be a minority.
As blacks react with distrust and disillusionment about the intractibility of racism, much of it institutional racism, among whites, they are also emerging with some new attitudes about themselves.
The experience of another friend demonstrates what I mean. This friend is a hair stylist who came to the city 10 years ago and became one of the first black stylists in such salons as Woodward & Lothrop's Chevy Chase store, Garfinckel's, Elizabeth Arden and shops at Dupont Circle and downtown. It was a significant step. Blacks who once could not try on clothes at these stores now had their most intimate grooming needs met alongside whites, many of them well-to-do.
At one of the salons my friend asked for "minor black experiences": that is, he wanted black faces in ads in the salon, black elevator operators, a line of black cosmetics in the store. But his black customers wouldn't support his stand, and when he left these shops to go to a small black shop, some of his black customers refused to go to his less well-appointed new digs. But in the past couple of years, many of his customers have returned to the modest shop he now owns, deciding that he does hair as well there as in the fancy downtown, Dupont Circle or Chevy Chase salons.
If whites have arrived at a new place, blacks have also arrived at a new place. It is a recognition that they must have economic power.There is less hysteria about integration, but equal hysteria about opportunity and justice. There is more comfort with their black identity, and more talk about forming coalitions with whites who are beginning to find that Reaganomics is color-blind.
I see this even in the art galleries and museums where I've spent a lot of time, since I'm married to an artist. About 10 years ago, I was the only black woman standing in the thinning crowd of a P Street Gallery opening. Three black girls, clad in jeans with the beautiful skin only 21-year-olds have, peered cautiously through the locked doors. Elegant Plexiglas sculpture floated before their eyes, and I motioned to them that there was another door about six feet away that was open and they should come in. No, no, they protested, smiling shyly, they were just waiting for the bus. They had to be traveling on.
How somberly that scene stayed with me as I wandered about the room, surveying the exhibit, talking to acquaintances I'd known for a decade.
I thought recently of those three girls who were too fearful of the unknown even to venture a step inside an open door. The occasion that brought them to mind was another gallery opening. This time, however, three young black women owned the gallery that is located in Adams-Morgan. They had the de rigueur protocol down pat: There was a flawless opening and an after-opening dinner carried off with celebratory aplomb. Sure, they're beginners and not quite as sophisticated in the complex and tricky world of art as some white dealers I know, but they're getting lots of help -- from white and black galleries, from artists -- and their chutzpah is hard to match. I took a sip of wine that night and thought: Full circle.
There are more blacks doing more things than when I came here, but the progress hasn't been qualitative, and blacks still continue to lose ground every day.
This new polarity is a troublesome place to be. It's sad and dangerous when hostility cancels out hope. That was the state of affairs when Martin Luther King's dynamic civil disobedience philosophy started a civil rights revolution 20 years ago. The world has changed a lot since then.
Whites must perceive that including blacks in the mainstream doesn't have to mean less for them. I hope things get better between blacks and whites. Not love, just respect. And not just because blacks need it. But because America does.