It made news a few years back when we learned that Chocolate City, as majority-black Washington had long been known, wasn’t so chocolate anymore.
And the news today? Not only is the city’s African American population shrinking — almost half of the District’s 650,000 residents are white — but it’s getting harder to be black in the nation’s capital.
The city that had long been a beacon for the nation’s African American population — where slavery was outlawed nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, where segregated public schools were the first in the nation to be integrated after Brown v. Board of Education — has gone through more than just a huge demographic shift.
It is a change in the attitude of the city, the culture, the way we view and treat one another.
This week, Jason Goolsby, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, stopped at a bank on Capitol Hill with a couple of friends. The 18-year-old was pondering whether to withdraw money from the ATM when he held the door open for a mom with a stroller, then left after deciding not to get cash.
The woman called 911 to report a possible robbery and told the dispatcher that “we just left but we felt like if we had taken money out we might’ve gotten robbed,” according to a transcript of the call.
But didn’t she do the same thing: go to the ATM, then leave?
And how about those shopkeepers in Georgetown who — as my colleague, Terrence McCoy, discovered — alert one another about “suspicious shoppers” on an app they share.
Is it a coincidence that about 90 percent of the photos they took and posted of shoppers they thought to be “suspicious” were black?
This in Georgetown, which was nearly 40 percent black back in the 1800s. Now, the African American population in that part of the city is about 3 percent. It’s so white, folks have a hard time figuring out what black people are doing when they go there. Um, shopping?
In the new Latte City, it’s hard to shop while black. Or decide not to get cash at the ATM while black. Or how about staying in your home town while black?
The disappearance of affordable housing is making it increasingly difficult for the poor, who are overwhelmingly African American, to remain in the District.
Now developers want to turn a complex of low-income, rent-controlled housing in Congress Heights into one of those insta-villages — you know, the gleaming new condos, a chain restaurant with $12 salads, a fitness studio, a CVS, an (organic) dry cleaner — that seem to pop up, out of nowhere.
And, yes, that part of town — Southeast Washington — has been starving for investment and development. But it will come at the expense of the residents who have been rooted there for decades. They’ve put up with landlords who have neglected the property so horribly in an effort to drive the old-timers out.
Abandoned, trash-filled apartments, lack of working toilets, vermin. The owners of the properties are just letting the apartments rot, waiting for folks who didn’t take a payout to leave.
Across town, at a rent-controlled apartment building on Kalorama Road in Northwest Washington, we see a renter success story. A new owner bought the building, but there was no move to demolish it and build something hotter. Instead the mostly white tenants — many elderly and fixed-income types — banded together to form a tenants organization, used the laws put in place to protect them and secured their controlled rent.
Even when the economics are similar, the results are totally different, depending on your skin color.
So many of the things that make Washington one of the hottest cities to live in — our grand monuments, the elegant housing stock, the culture — were created, constructed and nurtured by its African American residents.
How many newcomers crow about the diversity they love in the District?
Some of this is a policy issue. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) faces some challenges in fulfilling her promise to make a city affordable for all Washingtonians. She can help do that by engineering deals with developers that have realistic accommodations for low-income and fixed-income residents.
But the other stuff? Residents and business owners racially profiling their neighbors? That’s an internal fix. All of us need to recognize the times when our actions don’t match our words.
Chocolate City, after all, is more than a population number.
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