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Marion Barry wants to save Chocolate City.
“We’re going to stop this trend—gentrification,” Barry said in remarks reported by The Washington Post. “The key to keeping this city black is jobs, jobs, jobs for black people so they can have a better quality of life in neighborhoods in the city.”
Barry has long been a symbol of everything white people—and not just white Washingtonians—see as wrong with D.C. When he was re-elected to a third mayoral term in 1994, the road to the Wilson Building made the Los Angeles Times. But rhetoric like Barry’s reaction to last week’s Census data had, actually, mostly disappeared from D.C. politics in the last few years. Until racial tensions roiled the city’s Democratic primary race for mayor last summer, the District was having its own post-racial moment.
While he was 2010’s candidate of bike lanes, white newcomers, and mass teacher firings, when Adrian Fenty was first elected, he was both the candidate of bourgie Upper Northwest and the folks living in what Barry calls “apartheid” in Ward 8. Barry actually endorsed him. A precipitous drop in employment, the city’s long-developing demographic changes, and Fenty’s own political tone deafness led to a racial dynamic in the city that resembles the inverse of the one Barack Obama is facing nationally: A whole lot of angry folks who want their country—sorry, city—back.
I don’t want to overstate the parallels between the wealthier-than-average, right-wing populist Tea Party movement demanding Obama keep his government hands off their Medicare, and D.C.’s exasperated working-class black residents. The former, after all, has always had a voice in politics, while the latter is rightfully concerned that its dwindling influence means they may never get to share in the prosperity west of the Anacostia River. But just as the browning of America has awoken a novel white identity politics nationally, the demographic forces that framed D.C.’s last mayoral election may prove to be the prologue to a new era of polarizing racial politics in the District, one in which explicitly catering to its most affluent white residents is a path to victory rather than a route to an ignominious defeat.
The Census numbers released last week showed that D.C.’s black residents have been fleeing the city in even larger numbers than expected, leaving blacks with a bare 50 percent majority of the population. The raw racial and cultural divide exposed by the contest between Gray and Fenty is also exacerbated by which residents are leaving. In 2009, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute noted that “while incomes have risen for white households and those with the most advanced educations, incomes have been stagnant or falling for others.” The exodus of the city’s black middle class only exacerbates the trend. Playing to a base of black voters, now more than ever, also means playing to a base of poor voters.
The city’s been racially polarized before, of course. In 1994, when Barry ran against then-Councilmember Carol Schwartz, eight out of 10 blacks supported Barry, while whites opposed him in similar numbers. Before Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy cast D.C.’s whitish creative class, with their Mac laptops and brunch spots, as “myopic little twits” last year, he was mocking former Mayor Anthony Williams for launching a write-in campaign when many of the city’s poorer residents were illiterate. But now, D.C.’s white residents, who have always had more influence than their numbers might imply, make up a big enough share of the population to play their own game of identity politics. During a D.C. Council meeting earlier this week, At-Large Councilmember David Catania argued that Mayor Vince Gray’s personnel troubles were evidence of “a political caste system in the District,” a loaded phrase that augurs the possibility that a lack of whites among mayoral appointments could someday be just as controversial as Fenty’s selection of Michelle Rhee as schools chancellor or Cathy Lanier as police chief. As the city gets whiter, whites are going to start demanding more of the spoils.
Things can get a lot uglier than they were last year. A severe economic downturn that punished D.C.’s overwhelmingly black poor and working class, the influx of whites, and the outward exodus of more affluent blacks were factors largely beyond Fenty’s control as mayor that nonetheless gave the insurmountable impression that, like George W. Bush, he just didn’t care about black people. That’s not to understate Fenty’s political weaknesses—his abrasiveness, arrogance, or uncanny ability to project indifference to those suffering from violence or the city’s economic downturn—in his loss, or in Gray’s late decision to run in the first place. But despite the level of support he received from the city’s white residents, Fenty never ran as “the white people’s candidate,” and Gray never indulged in the kind of explicit racial politics Barry once mastered. The idea of Gray as the second coming of Barry is absurd—15 years ago the city’s white and middle class black residents might have been aligning with the Dunbar-educated Gray against whatever candidate Barry endorsed, much the way they did when Rev. Willie F. Wilson ran against Williams in 2002. It was remarkable that both candidates studiously avoided explicit racial politics, even as their supporters and detractors spent months tossing labels at each other.
Yet the city polarized along racial lines in numbers not seen since the last time Barry was on the ballot, with 80 percent of the black vote going to Gray while Fenty drew the same numbers among white voters. The post-Barry truce between the black middle class and the city’s white residents dissolved, increasing the probability that the city’s class divide will morph into a racial one. White voters’ initial impression of Gray has stuck despite his efforts to alleviate anxieties west of Rock Creek Park through a series of pre-general election town halls. A survey released by the Clarus Research Group last week showed Gray with a 17 percent approval rating among white residents. Yes, the mayor managed to short-circuit his honeymoon with a series of disastrous appointments that have driven down his approval ratings even among the black residents who voted for him. But it’s hard to say his low approval among whites is so easily explained. After all, that 17 percent resembles his share of the white vote in the primary anyway. If anything, he’s just confirmed what they already thought about him in the first place. What makes this baffling is that Gray ran largely as an alternative to Fenty in style rather than substance, and the policy differences between them were virtually nonexistent. Gray went as far as appointing Kaya Henderson as Rhee’s replacement, signaling continuity with Fenty on education—the one issue in this city over which there’s something approaching genuine ideological conflict, and the one most white voters flagged as the most important.
In a one-party city like D.C., where there are few genuine ideological divisions, issues of identity become ever more salient. So if you think the recent national emergence of a flagrant, unabashed white identity politics on the right has been bad, just wait until you see what D.C. is like post-Chocolate City. And no, Marion Barry is not going to save us.