The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C., where blacks are no longer a majority, has a new African American affairs director

Rahman Branch,center, the former principal of Ballou High School, is the district's first director of the one-man Office of African American Affairs. ( Lateef Mangum/Office of the Mayor)

The District’s predominantly African American leaders have long taken pains to address the concerns of underrepresented minority groups in city hall, including Latino, Asian and gay residents.

Now another group of residents feeling increasingly marginalized in the District will have a voice in the office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser: African Americans.

As of Wednesday, a full-time employee will advocate for black residents in the city of Marion Barry, Duke Ellington and Charles Drew — a “Chocolate City” where blacks made up 70 percent of the population a generation ago but now no longer represent a majority.

In the opening week of Black History Month, Bowser (D) named Rahman Branch, a former high school principal, as the city’s first director of African American affairs during an event at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Congress Heights — a neighborhood east of the Anacostia River whose population is more than 90 percent black.

It was the latest sign of the evolution of the District, where racial disparities have grown as a redevelopment boom in some parts of the city has eluded its least-fortunate corners, and where a new urgency has emerged among some city leaders to make sure the black community — still the city’s political bedrock — is not left behind.

“We see income gaps growing, we’re not satisfied with how fast we’re closing educational gaps, and we know that we have to invest in good jobs and affordable housing,” said Bowser, the latest in a line of black mayors stretching to 1967.

Branch’s appointment reflects not only the anxieties of the city’s black population — which at 49.5 percent retains a racial plurality but not a majority, according to census demographic data — but also the complicated politics of governing the District in recent years.

While politicians cheer every ribbon cut and every crane erected, many longtime residents view them as harbingers of displacement. And while tens of thousands of new residents have streamed into the city in recent years, it’s the longtime residents — most of whom are black — who are more likely to vote.

“There’s a need for this kind of office because the growth of D.C. and the expansion of D.C. and making sure every resident of D.C. plays a part in that is really what the community has requested,” said Branch, who was principal of Ballou High School in Southeast Washington for six years until departing in the summer.

His appointment comes more than three years after the D.C. Council established an unpaid Commission on African-American Affairs to "assist the Mayor in planning policies beneficial to African American communities with low economic, education, or health indicators."

Black D.C. Council members, including Barry, said at the time that the city needed to pay more attention to the disparities between African Americans and other groups of city residents — disparities that have been heightened by a three-decade exodus of black middle-class families to surrounding jurisdictions. In 1980, 70.3 percent of D.C. residents were black.

"People want to talk about how good things are, and maybe they are good for some, but when I look at housing, crime, education, things like that, a lot of people need a lot of help," said Maurice Jackson, a history professor at Georgetown University who has chaired the commission since 2013.

Two decades ago, the idea that the District mayor would need a special deputy for African American affairs would have been unthinkable — particularly after Barry, through rhetoric, appointments and contracting set-asides, made black empowerment part and parcel of the city’s daily business.

Fifteen years of economic growth and demographic change — and a changing of the political guard highlighted by Barry’s death in November — have thrown that commitment into doubt.

“It was assumed that because we had an African American mayor and city council that all of the issues were being looked at closely,” Jackson said. “But certain trends developed that people did not pay attention to.”

The Office on African-American Affairs joins a number of established groups in the mayor’s office tending to the needs and concerns of various minority groups, including the Office on Latino Affairs; the Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs; the Office on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs; and the Office on African Affairs, focused on immigrant communities.

Charon Hines, Bowser’s community affairs chief, said Branch’s job would be “making sure that the African American demographic has an advocate” similar to those for other groups: “With the changing face of D.C., how are we able to help residents sustain where they’re living and not feel pushed out?”

While it was former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) who moved last year to add a full-time African American affairs staffer to the mayor’s office, there are early signs that Bowser — who was raised in a middle-class Northeast Washington neighborhood, the daughter of a nurse and a public school facilities supervisor — is also mindful of those disparities.

Her stump speeches­ discussed making the city government responsive for residents whether they've "been here five decades or five minutes." She pledged to appoint a deputy mayor focused on the needs of the overwhelmingly black, comparatively poor neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. And she has highlighted efforts devoted to African American young men and boys several times in her early weeks in office, echoing a focus of President Obama.

The Commission on African-American Affairs, meanwhile, is gathering data on the exodus of the city’s black residents and businesses, and analyzing the disparities affecting those who remain.

Jackson, who is sitting on the panel until 2016, said he plans to take a sabbatical in the fall to work on a report on those issues, with an eye toward releasing a draft to the public early next year. He said that the Bowser administration did not consult with the commission on Branch’s selection but that he welcomed the support.

“I hope that a full-time staff person sees that their job is to pay attention to the trends and not just to echo a voice saying everything is going good,” he said, “when everything may in fact not be.”

Read more:
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Most say neighborhoods better, but redevelopment helps rich

D.C.'s complexion is changing. Will the next mayor reflect that?