There is fear and uneasiness in many segments of middle class black Washington these days because of what many see as an effort to thwart black progress at the upper end of the economic ladder at a time when many in the city also see black political power under attack and the District's white population growing.
It's nothing new. People have been talking about it for months. But in recent weeks, the uncertainty has become more obvious in the debate over black equity in downtown development projects and the rift between area blacks and Jews following D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy's contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization. That fear was one of the major undercurrents last week when the Washington chapter of the NAACP held its annual Freedom Fund dinner in the International Ballroom of the Washington Hilton Hotel.
There were times when the mood among the more than 800 persons, most of them black, was decidedly glum and the outlook for the future was as gloomy as the segregated past that some recalled had been not that long ago.
It was successful black Washington in a vulnerable state, feeling itself already under siege and circling the wagons in self-defense of the economic and political gains of the past decade. "The truth of the matter is that many white organizations and white individuals did not support us this year," said lawyer Sam C. Jackson, co-chairman of the dinner committee. "We've never had this kind of support from blacks before."
Much of the evening's rhetoric' was in defense of the poor, and the background music for the fashion show was soul-jazz with an earthy theme -- "Street Life."
But this was not the street life crowd.
Most of those in the audience were not the upper crust blue-bloods of old black Washington. This was newer money -- mid-tier lawyers, upper level government workers, contractors, consultants and upstart entrepreneurs who owed much of their status to the economic gains of the civil rights movement and home rule in Washington.
They were the Joneses next door, doing well -- doing better -- but not getting away.
They paid $50 each to sip wine and champagne, and eat baked chicken. Patricia R. Harris, secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, was the guest speaker.
When the models changed out of the African apparel that opened the show, they switched to styles from Nikki Oung's -- "Washington's most distinguished specialty shop for well-dressed, sophisticated women. Fashionably located on Connecticut Avenue, NW," the dinner program read. There were furs from Miller's downtown.
It was no accident that Harris was roundly applauded when she told the audience that power and not protest had to be the top priority on the black agenda of the future. Many in the audience have moved far beyond wanting a seat in the front of the bus or even wanting to drive it. They want to own a piece of the bus company.
So Mayor Marion Barry, once criticized by some in this audience as "the white community's candidate" because of his strong political backing from whites, emerged as the black community's mayor because he supported equity for blacks in major downtown developments, even if that equity was derived through little or no cash up front.
"We want you to know," Jackson told Varry, "that the NAACP and the Freedom Fund Committee stand 100 percent behind you."
NAACP President Edward A. Hailes, whose organization has not been a significant force in the city for the past 10 years, also praised Barry for reinstating Joseph P. Yeldell, the former aide to Walter E. Washington.
Criticism of Eldell's record of hiring, leasing and management of the city's Department of Human Resources was taken by some as a racist vendetta on the part of white-owned newspapers against a powerful black man who controlled a budget of nearly $450 million.
"Those who attack the mayor on this assignment of Joseph Yeldell seem more interested in persecuting a black executive than the promotion of efficient and effective public service to the District of Columbia residents," Hailes said.
It was not as if the talk that evening of helping the poor fell on the deaf ears of persons who had forgotten their roots. It was simply that for many in this audience, poor had apparently become a relative term. Middle class blacks consider themselves poor when compared to middle class whites, and the last to enter the middle class are often the first to leave it when hard times come. you let the people see, just who youwanna be. And every night you shine, just like a suprstar. That's how life is played, a 10-cent masquerade. You dress, you walk, you talk. Ou're who you think you are. Street life, you can run away from time. %Street life, for a nickel or a dime. Street life, but you better not get old. Street life, or you're gonna feel the cold.
("Street Life," lyrics by Will Jennings, music by Joe Sample. Copyright, 1979. International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Published by Irving Music, Inc. and Four Knights Music O. 7BMI). Used by permission.)