Credit: Illustration by Julia Terbrock; Map courtesy of The Library of Congress

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On the front yard of her Michigan Park home, Rafi Crockett displays a colorful sign that humorously comments on the demise of the District as “Chocolate City.” The upper right corner of the placard, which resembles a candy wrapper, proclaims “Now With 30% Less Chocolate!”  

A few miles west, Darren Jones considers with dismay the transformation of his neighborhood near lower Georgia Avenue NW from a virtually all-black enclave to a place where African Americans today are about half the population, thanks to a recent influx of white residents. 

Across the District, in Anacostia, Rev. Willie Wilson, the longtime pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church, laments that many of his parishioners didn’t heed the warnings he’s sounded for more than 30 years: If you sell your D.C. home, you’ll probably never be able to come back, because well-off white people will move in.

Crockett, Jones, and Wilson—all of whom are African American—believe the dramatic demographic and economic changes that have swept across the District during the past three decades did not occur by happenstance or aren’t solely attributable to the powerful market forces of housing supply and demand. Each of them believe the whitening of the city and its power structure came about because of The Plan, a conspiracy theory dating back to the 1970s with enough reach to have its own Wikipedia page. The Plan, according to that Wikipedia page, holds that “white people have had a ‘plan to take back’ the black-majority city and the offices of the local government. The theory asserts that the decline of low-income black residents and their replacement by wealthier white people from outside of Washington, D.C. is intentional through the calculated use of gentrification and urban renewal.” The entry also asserts that most people in the District regard the idea of The Plan as false, “while some believe it has quiet but considerable support among black residents and influences local elections.” 

Many relative newcomers to the District—people who’ve arrived in the last 15 years or so—probably haven’t heard of The Plan. It’s likely that many white residents, newcomers and longtime Washingtonians alike, would dismiss the idea as far-fetched paranoia. But for many black Washingtonians of a certain age—say, Gen-Xers and older—the concept is familiar and credible.

“We’re not talking about people who are poor or uneducated,” says Linda Wharton Boyd, a longtime D.C. government official who believes there’s something to The Plan. “These are people who are educated and know this city, who live here, worship here, shop here. They have a sense of the history of this city, they can feel the sensibility of the city. This is what they believe, and their belief is based on what they’ve witnessed and experienced.” 

I learned about The Plan almost immediately after moving from Los Angeles to D.C. in September 1989 to work at the Washington Post as a night police reporter. At the time, the District was widely and colloquially known as Chocolate City. In 1990, D.C.’s population was 66 percent black and only 27 percent non-Hispanic white, according to U.S. Census data. Most non-Hispanic white residents were concentrated in upscale neighborhoods west of 16th Street NW, like Georgetown, Cleveland Park, Woodley Park, and Palisades. In many majority-black neighborhoods, the only white people you saw were cops, firefighters, and journalists. 

At the time, the city’s elected officials, reflecting the District’s population, were also overwhelmingly black; the mayor, and 10 of the 13 members of the D.C. Council were black; three, including the council chairman, were white. Seven of the eight councilmembers representing wards were black; one of the four at-large members of the council were white.

Given those numbers, I shrugged off the idea of The Plan at the time. People will believe what they want to, I thought.

Thirty years and change later: Black people are no longer a majority in the District. As of 2017, 47 percent of the city’s residents were black and 37 percent were non-Hispanic white, according to U.S. Census data. 

The city’s elected leadership has also undergone a dramatic transformation. Compared to 1989, the number of white people on the D.C. Council had, until recently, doubled. Five of the 13 members of the D.C. Council are white; the number was six until Jack Evans resigned from his seat representing Ward 2 under the cloud of an ethics violations scandal. 

White people have in the last 10 years or so flooded into once solidly black neighborhoods like Shaw, Bloomingdale, Trinidad, and Columbia Heights. As the city became whiter, property values—and property taxes—climbed. A generation or two ago, D.C. included dozens of affordable neighborhoods. Now, rents and home prices become more unaffordable by the day. 

Many newer residents are doing quite well financially. Last year, the percentage of city residents who reported earning at least $100,001 in personal income reached its highest level ever, according to an audit of city finances. The review, conducted by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, showed that nearly 25 percent of D.C. residents who filed personal income taxes in 2019 reported incomes in the six figures. The data apparently confirms the widespread perception that a lot of well-off people are moving into the city; the percentage of people reporting a six-figure income is 11 percentage points higher than it was 10 years ago. 

A whiter D.C. government: check. A whiter, wealthier population: check.  

The idea I shrugged off three decades ago has seemingly become real.  

***

Thirty years ago, the crack trade brought deadly violence to dozens of neighborhoods in sections of the city east of Rock Creek Park. Beginning in 1989, the District recorded more than 400 killings for five years in a row. In 1990, Mayor Marion Barry was arrested by FBI agents and D.C. police officers after authorities videotaped him smoking crack in a downtown hotel. Many District government services were widely viewed as atrocious. Residents dreaded going to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Public housing complexes were plagued by gang violence, widespread vacancies, and disrepair. 

At times during the crack era, it seemed as though local authorities were overmatched by the violence unleashed by battles over drug turf, which morphed into a subculture of retaliation. In the spring of 1989, President George H.W. Bush considered deploying the National Guard to confront D.C. street violence. A little more than four years later, in October 1993, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly asked President Bill Clinton to activate National Guard troops to patrol city streets wracked by crack trade violence.

As the body count rose, property values throughout the city tanked, starving the District government of much-needed tax revenue. The District was a bloody, broke mess.  

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Today, the District is one of the most prosperous cities in the country. It’s also unaffordable for many working-class and middle-class people. According to data from the real estate and home rental site Zillow, the current median rent in the District is $2,700. The median home price is $636,372. 

A raft of government policies and initiatives facilitated the transformation.

In the early 1990s, D.C. police and federal agents used federal racketeering statutes, initially enacted to fight the Mafia, to take down dozens of neighborhood drug crews. This approach took violent offenders off the street, but also put hundreds, if not thousands, of nonviolent offenders in federal prison for decades, hollowing out dozens of neighborhoods.

With the District government facing a $722 million budget deficit (this translates to more than $1.2 billion in today’s dollars), Congress, in 1995, enacted legislation creating the District of Columbia Financial Control Board. The five-member board had the authority to override the actions of the mayor and the D.C. Council. The law also created the post of Chief Financial Officer, which assumed day-to-day control of D.C. government’s financial operations. 

Anthony A. Williams, the Control Board’s first CFO, guided the city’s finances to solvency. Spurred by his success as CFO, Williams in 1998 resigned his post and launched a bid for mayor. He won and served two terms. Development in the city accelerated during Williams’ tenure, so much so that at a groundbreaking for the Clifton Terrace apartment complex in Northwest he joked that “I should really just keep a shovel in my truck, because these groundbreakings are becoming a way of life.” 

The explosion of development led to the construction of luxury apartment buildings downtown, and in Shaw, Navy Yard, Columbia Heights, and dozens of other neighborhoods; the rejuvenation of the 14th Street NW and H Street NE corridors, which had been largely left in ruins for decades after the 1968 uprising. Gleaming apartment buildings, fancy coffee shops, yoga studios, and high-end grocery stores brought the long-neglected corridors back to life.

In 1997, Congress enacted the D.C. Revitalization Act, which shifted a number of local, county and state responsibilities away from the District and to the federal government. The feds, for example, assumed financial responsibility for the city’s retirement obligations to law enforcement officers, teachers, firefighters, and judges, which relieved the District government of a huge ongoing financial burden. The legislation also created tax incentives to stimulate investment and development downtown and in less affluent neighborhoods. 

The opening of stations on Metro’s green line during the 1990s helped to disrupt some open-air drug dealing. The Shaw-Howard U station, which opened in 1991, helped revitalize the neighborhood, making neighborhood shops and restaurants more easily accessible. The foot traffic had the corollary effect of discouraging brazen drug dealing in the 600 block of S Street NW. 

In May 2001, the city closed DC General Hospital, which for nearly two centuries had been the city’s only public hospital and served thousands of poor and working-class black  and Latinx people. Officials said the hospital was a drain on city coffers and closing it improved the District’s finances. 

During the last 30 years, the city has also bulldozed several sprawling public housing complexes, displacing thousands of residents, the overwhelming majority of whom are African American.

Examined one way, all these changes and policy decisions helped create a vibrant, prosperous city. But the gentrification of the city priced out tens of thousands of longtime black residents who couldn’t afford the rising rents or property taxes. 

Former Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous doesn’t believe in The Plan, but he understands why others would. “I don’t know that it’s part of an organized, clandestine effort,” Chavous says. “But to many people, it feels like it. There’s this feeling that people are being systematically pushed out of the city.” 

Sharon Pratt, who served as mayor from 1991 to 1995, when she went by her married name, Sharon Pratt Kelly, also doesn’t believe The Plan is real. “I do not think there was an organized conspiracy to take the city out of the hands of African Americans,” says Pratt, the founding director of the Institute of Politics Policy and History, located at the University of the District of Columbia. Rather, when money began flowing into the city, most of those riding the tide were white. The wealth disparity between black and white people dates back to slavery, for which African Americans as a group were never compensated by the U.S. government, she says. 

“When gentrification came upon us, I don’t think it was a byproduct of a conspiracy,” she says. “But I think there was a power elite in the city that perceived they should be directing the city.” This power elite includes not just developers and wealthy business people but members of Congress, who often run in the same circles. And wealthy business people often donate to members of Congress, she notes.

Pratt compares the displacement of black residents in the District to a legal analysis. In criminal law, whether a suspect is charged with a crime sometimes comes down to whether he or she had malicious intent. Pratt says she sees no malicious intent behind the gentrification of the city that’s pushing out so many longtime black residents, but does believe there was “a reckless disregard for a great many people who contributed a lot to this city.”

Of course, when it comes to determining why things large or small happen, correlation isn’t necessarily causation. Similarly, the fact that the District has undergone a broad transformation in the way The Plan described it doesn’t necessarily mean the changes came about because of the alleged scheme. It’s also useful to keep in mind that the District has experienced racial transformation before. For generations, the federal city was majority white, including in many neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. In the 1950s, white flight led to a metamorphosis of the city’s demographics to solidly majority black. 

The framework of the idea behind The Plan is simple, but what people believe about it is complex. People who believe in The Plan don’t agree on how it has, in their views, unfolded.  Crockett and Jones, for example, don’t believe a group of powerful people held meetings to game out a scheme for white people to take over the reins of the District government and the city’s neighborhoods.

Jones, president of the Pleasant Plains Civic Association, says he believes D.C. government officials have been “complicit” in the skyrocketing property values that have forced many longtime black residents from their homes. Jones says his home, near Howard University, was assessed by the city as being worth $70,000 when he bought it in 1994. A couple of years ago, a neighbor sold a similar house for $300,000; a developer purchased the home, spent thousands on renovations, and flipped the home for about $580,000, he says. 

A huge bump in home values may be good if you plan on selling your home. It’s not so good if you want to stay in the neighborhood and have to pay dramatically higher property taxes. Jones knows personally. When he purchased his home, its assessed value was $247,000, and he paid about $700 in property taxes annually. In 2019, the city assessed his home’s value at $664,000. Jones hasn’t made any major improvements or renovations. His last property tax bill was $3,000. These tax increases flow into D.C. government coffers. 

“I think powerful people wanted certain parts of the city, and they did what they could to increase the property values so only certain people could afford to live there,” he says.

In the last 20 years or so, a series of mayors and D.C. councilmembers have done more for newcomers—creating bike lanes and dog parks, for example—than for longtime residents, who’ve seen neighborhood public schools close while their property taxes skyrocket, Jones says. 

Crockett has a similar outlook. “I don’t know if anyone sat down and said, ‘We’re going to rid the city of black people,” Crockett says. Rather, she believes people in power “wanted it to be a richer city, and richer means whiter.” Like Jones, she believes District policies regarding property value assessments fueled The Plan.

Crockett also believes federal officials and many D.C. leaders—longtime black and white politicians, pastors and community activists who were in office or were influential with city officials in the 1980s and 1990s —set the stage for The Plan.

Many local leaders didn’t do enough to address the social conditions—poverty, lack of economic opportunity, a troubled public education system—that allowed the violent crack epidemic to roar through much of the city, Crockett says. It seems a distant memory now, but D.C. at the time was known as the nation’s murder capital because it had the highest per-capita rate of killings among major cities. 

Violence, neglected homes, abandoned apartment complexes and bad schools were among the factors that, during the 1980s and much of the 1990s, depressed property values, she says. This prompted developers and short-term investors to buy such properties, renovate them and sell them for hefty profits to those who could afford them, in many cases well-off white people. 

Crockett believes it wasn’t an accident that the violence and drugs that devastated dozens of working-class and poor neighborhoods in the District never materialized in well-off areas just a few miles away. 

“You didn’t see drugs and violence running amok in Chevy Chase,” Crockett says.

Rev. Willie Wilson, on the other hand, believes local and federal officials have schemed for decades to move black people out of the District in favor of well-off white people. 

When I met Wilson in the basement office of his church in Anacostia, he showed me documents which he says bolster the case that The Plan is not only real, it’s been executed in plain sight.

One is a yellowing clip of a Washington Post story from May 17, 1977, with the headline “City Policy of Attracting Money Urged.” The lead of the article said Thornton W. Owen, the white chairman at the time of one of the District’s largest savings and loans banks, was advocating for a formal city policy “of encouraging more affluent people to move into the city while finding housing for some of the city’s poorer families in the suburbs.” 

Owen was no outsider. He made his comments at a meeting of the city’s Legislative Commission on Housing, of which he was a member. The commission included the directors of the District’s planning office, housing department, and budget office, and two D.C. Council members, Barry and Nadine Winter. The article noted that some officials privately held the view, which D.C. Councilmember Julius Hobson, who died a few months earlier, expressed openly, that the “return” of white people to the city “is part of a conscious effort by bankers, businessmen and other white forces to dilute the black power base of this predominantly white city.”

Owen’s statement was reported in the wake of a study by Washington Center for Metropolitan Studies documenting that, for the first time in decades, the number of white households in the District was increasing while the number of black people in the city remained stable. Winter was aghast at Owen’s comments. “It’s a form of suggesting a black exodus from the city,” Winter told the Post. “Whites left the city. We (black people) should not have to leave because they want to come back.” Barry agreed with Winter’s assertion that Owen’s statement had racial implications, “because low- and moderate income people in the city are mostly blacks.” Owen said he was referring to economic, not racial groups. In an interview, Owen told the Post that low- and moderate income black residents shouldn’t be forced out of the District, however, “the economics will force them out … they are virtually priced out now,” due to increasing housing costs. The average cost of a home in the District was $50,000 at the time. 

Wilson, 75, who was a longtime supporter and confidante of Barry, says the District’s transformation has borne out his belief in The Plan. In Wilson’s view, city officials over the years have put in place policies to fuel The Plan. 

“It’s racism at its best,” Wilson says. “Blacks will continue to be moved out of the city. If you do not own your own home, you can be pushed out whenever somebody wants to push you out. If you’re renting and the owner realizes he can make more money selling the home or raising the rent, you’re gone.”

Wilson says he’s heard that a hard copy version of The Plan exists, or did at one time. He even heard the name of someone who supposedly had a copy, but Wilson has never seen such a document. 

***

Versions of The Plan exist in other cities, like Chicago and Detroit, where gentrification is displacing black people and other minority populations, says Steven Smallpage, an assistant professor of political science at Stetson University in Florida. Smallpage researches conspiracy thinking in the U.S. 

“This is a particularly prominent conspiracy theory among African Americans who feel that they’ve lost power in recent local elections, and ascribe intentional actions to otherwise agent-less market forces,” Smallpage says. “Of course, as should be quickly noted, a conspiracy theory is not a priori false—there are indeed ‘true’ conspiracy theories. This is one reason why a conspiracy theory like ‘The Plan’ is so easily acceptable to many people: It correlates well with other larger (less marginal) beliefs like systemic racism, disenfranchisement, voter suppression, etc. Many of these factors do seemingly have agents ‘causing’ them, so it makes ‘The Plan’ seem even more plausible.”

Rumors and contemporary legends emerge when people are trying to make sense of disruption at the community level, adds Sheila Bock, an associate professor in the department of interdisciplinary gender and ethnic studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “A lot of these may seem outlandish at first, but there’s an element of truth (to them),” she says. “These stories wouldn’t get circulated or have such significance in the community if they weren’t felt to be plausible or possible.”

For years, some black people in D.C. and other cities theorized that the U.S. government was complicit in allowing cocaine to flood black urban neighborhoods. In 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published an explosive series of articles alleging that for the better part of a decade, “a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.” The series suggested the alleged drug connection played a pivotal role in unleashing the crack epidemic in L.A. and several other U.S. cities. The articles did not allege that CIA agents trafficked cocaine into the U.S. or distributed it in American cities. Rather, it alleged that Nicaraguans who supported the CIA-backed Contras trafficked drugs to raise funds for the fighting group. CIA officials denied any role in drug trafficking. But to some people in the black community, this was a distinction without much meaning 

Crockett, for example, believes the CIA was involved in bringing cocaine to D.C. and other U.S. cities. “Local players don’t have the means of transport,” she says. “I’ve never met a dude from Southeast who’s been to Colombia, ever. I put nothing past the U.S. government. The CIA’s the devil.”

Crockett doesn’t believe CIA agents posted up on street corners in Barry Farm or Congress Heights to sell crack, or even that they necessarily directly sold cocaine to middlemen in the District and other U.S. cities. More likely, CIA operatives looked the other way as drug traffickers they worked with brought loads of cocaine into the U.S., she says. 

The federal and local government’s responses to the crack epidemic were part of The Plan, in Crockett’s view. In 1985, the District recorded 148 homicides, a typical number for the early part of that decade. Crack hit the city in a big way in the next year or so. By 1988, the number of killings in the city had spiked to 372 as young men and teenagers formed drug crews and fought over turf. This violence metastasized into a subculture of violence involving retaliation and deadly force over minor disputes. The number of killings rose to 434 in 1989 and stayed above 400 every year until 1995. As a point of reference, D.C. recorded 166 killings in 2019. 

Crockett believes the U.S. government, with the support of many D.C. officials, deployed draconian criminal justice measures that disproportionately targeted young black males as part of The Plan. For example, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act boosted mass incarceration by encouraging states to pass more tough-on-crime laws and increasing penalties for many federal offenses, including drug violations. 

In addition to the thousands of young black men killed and maimed by nonfatal shootings during the crack era, the crime bill led to thousands more being locked up for long periods of time, often for nonviolent drug offenses. “All these black bodies were locked up,” Crockett says. 

Crockett believes the policies removed thousands of working-age males who could have been generating income and, in many cases, helping raise kids who were and are in the care of single moms. “Entire communities were decimated” by the law, she says.  

***

In the early to mid-1980s, Wharton Boyd, the former D.C. government official, taught a speech and communications class at Howard University. Boyd taught her students about different styles of speech and brought in Wilson and the Rev. William Revely, another minister, to teach her class about the rhetoric of preachers. 

In one session, Wilson and Revely started talking about The Plan, Boyd recalls. Some students expressed skepticism.

Lately, Boyd has heard from one of her former students. “The [former student] called back and said, ‘I guess it was true.’”