A RECENT POLL commissioned by prospective mayoral candidate Betty Ann Kane, an at-large City Council member, has found that District of Columbia voters, by a 75-to-19 percent margin, disagreed with the statement that "only a mayor who is black can really understand and deal with the problems that affect this city."
It was a question with only one answer, for hardly anyone would disagree with such a statement.
But if the polling firm of former presidential pollster Patrick Caddell had asked the voters the second half of the question -- "Would you vote for a white for mayor?" -- I'd lay you odds of 10 to 1 that they would have gotten an answer of "no" in just the reverse ratio.
That is not because the residents here are race-baiters or do not ideally feel in their hearts that picking a mayor should not be a question of a candidate's race, but rather of his or her character.
Still I feel black voters would answer "no" because of the city's recent history and a pattern of events they see that frightens them and that they commonly call "the white takeover."
First the history.
Washington became a predominantly black town because whites did not want to go to schools with blacks or live in the same neighborhoods with them. As a result of white flight, the school system was destroyed and much of the city's housing stock rapidly deteriorated as well.
At the same time Washington represented the end of "Tobacco Road" for many blacks from the South, who came from North Carolina and South Carolina in search of a better life.This population settled in places like Anacostia, far away from an established black middle class that is among the most educated and refined in the United States.
When the city's black population edged toward 80 percent of the total, blacks saw a way to gain political control. This never represented economic control. The vise-like hold of economic power in the city was, and remains, white.
At the time of the riots, a few whites were beginning to trickle back into the city, but that trend was effectively stopped from 1969 until the mid-1970s, when several events converged to bring substantial numbers of whites back into Washington. The rising cost of gasoline made the city attractive again. As the entire country faced hard economic times, many whites could not afford to buy suburban homes and it was economically expedient for them to buy crumbling ghetto houses and rehabilitate them. Meanwhile, the social climate also was improving.
In recent years, widespread restoration and rebuilding has changed the face and complexion of many neighborhoods. Many blacks who are renters cannot afford to stay and escalating real estate taxes are threatening the working-class homeowner.
With Capitol Hill developed, ownership of homes in the Shaw area near the new Convention Center is rapidly slipping from black hands and Anacostia is up for grabs. Ironically, with today's astronomical interest rates, even whites are having to double and triple up to afford to buy houses in areas that once were slums.
When the housing and neighborhood patterns are teamed with the firings and layoffs at the federal and local government levels, which disproportionately affect blacks and those with lesser skills; when there is a drive for tuition tax credits for schools; when there is an absence of controls on taxes and the rising cost of utilities; when there is a squeeze on every-day working people, many blacks see a troubling mosaic developing that they believe is "a white takeover."
Sterling Tucker, one of the potential D.C. mayoral candidates who would benefit from those favoring a black candidate, put it this way: "I think there are a lot of people out there who believe in a conspiracy theory, that there is a master plan by whites for regaining control of the city. I don't share that view and I think it's unfortunate. But you keep hearing comments to the effect that the "white establishment" is looking for a 'great white hope.'"
The fear at times takes on self-destructive forms. On a recent WHUR radio broadcast, callers told Morning Exchange host Jerry Phillips that they would prefer prostitution in their Logan Circle community rather than have their white neighbors band together to fight it. These suspicious blacks, fearful of being pushed out by redevelopment, were signaling that they could better deal with the physical threat from prostitutes and junkies than with the sophisticated housing speculation they've seen that has pushed out their friends and relatives from neighborhood after neighborhood in Washington.
And they're mindful that access to political power is limited -- only the mayor and members of the City Council and Board of Education are elected. Moreover, blacks own few big corporations in the city and do not head big department stores.
So before many would give up the political power and the access it provides, they would think long, hard and deep. It's not a minor thing when a pollster asks whether only a major who is black can understand and deal with the problems of Washington. But the answer has led Paul Maslin, vice president of Caddell's firm, to conclude that "most voters in Washington will be voting on another basis other than race -- because of issues, competence and compassion of the candidate."
The burden is on the backs of the citizens to register and vote, which they haven't been doing too much of in recent years.
And who's right? In the end, only the voters can tell.