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There have been majority-white D.C. Councils before, though you might not know it if you moved here recently, in the era of never-ending angst and analysis of the city’s changing demographics. The District’s minority race held a majority of the seats on its legislative body from 1999 to 2009. And—though, again, it might come as a surprise if you weren’t paying attention to D.C. politics in earlier decades—the Council has had a white chairman, before, too: Dave Clarke, a member of the first-ever D.C. Council elected in 1974, served as chair from 1983 to 1991, and then again from 1993 to 1997.
But there has never been a white chairman of a majority-white Council, and there’s never been a D.C. Council of any racial makeup in a city that was anything less than 50 percent black. Which means that when Chairman Phil Mendelson (a white guy) and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso (another white guy) are sworn into their new gigs in January, the racial politics of the moment will be interesting. If not fraught.
It’s easy to view virtually everything in D.C. politics through a racial lens; we in the media certainly seem to sometimes. Fault lines over issues like bike lanes, corruption, education, and development run along geographic and socioeconomic patterns, as well as racial ones, of course, but in the District, geography and demography have been largely synonymous until the last decade. That’s no longer entirely true: Just ask Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, a black District native who won a special election in April behind a diverse coalition of new and old residents, black, white, and other, that many observers would have said was impossible earlier. (Maybe it was impossible earlier; McDuffie had finished in third place in a Ward 5 primary just two years ago.)
But it’s still true enough to make you wonder: Will the next Council session be seized by talk of “the Plan” (on the one hand) and insufficient sensitivity to the legitimate gripes about gentrification that prompt it (on the other)? The hopeful answer is “no, of course not.” Whether that’s the realistic answer, we’ll have to wait to see.