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Mayor Anthony A. Williams steps toward the podium, places his notes in front of him, and greets the crowd. “Hi, everybody,” he says. “How’s everyone doing today?”
It’s a sunny afternoon in early October, and a crowd of people have gathered to celebrate the opening of the Sherwood Recreation Center at 10th and G Streets NE. To the left of the mayor, a group of senior citizens from the neighborhood sit in folding chairs.
In front of a row of television cameras, Williams launches into the requisite round of acknowledgments, thanking the community volunteers, the neighborhood commissioners, the friends of Sherwood. He thanks Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose and praises her tenacity. “I wish we had her on the defense of the Redskins,” says the mayor.
The speech drags on. Williams recounts meeting with senior citizens in the neighborhood who were excited about the new recreation center. “This will be a place where seniors can interact with youth,” says the mayor. “We need more of that in this city.”
The mayor’s call for intergenerational unity is simpleand innocuous. After all, octogenarians and teenagers rarely come to blows over who’s got the next game on the basketball court. But when it comes to addressing the greater potential schism lurking in the surrounding neighborhood, the mayor is mum.
He says nothing about race.
The Sherwood Recreation Center sits in the midst of the Stanton Park neighborhood, a patch of Capitol Hill now entering the vortex of gentrification. Historically, it’s been a black neighborhood. But in recent years, more whites have started to move in.
If the mayor were looking to speak out about some of the racial challenges facing neighborhoods like Stanton Park throughout the city, this would be the time to do it. The television cameras are rolling.
Williams could point to the freshly minted municipal building as a place for neighbors, black and white, to meet each other in the gym, on the basketball court, or in the weight room.
But he doesn’t.
Williams could point out how the increasing diversity of the city is reflected by the heterogeneity of his administration.
But he doesn’t.
Or he could use the guaranteed spot on the evening news to fire back at the critics who say he does nothing for black neighborhoods in the District.
But he doesn’t.
Instead, he tries another canned joke.
“I’m happy this place isn’t named for Tom Sherwood,” says Williams of the WRC Channel 4 reporter.
This time, he gets a few chuckles.
Over the past five years, the mayor has stuck to a simple formula when discussing race in the Districtthe strategy now on display at Stanton Park: The less said, the better. Williams employs this same method no matter what community event he’s speaking atwhether it’s here in Ward 6, in a predominantly white neighborhood in Ward 3, or in the melting-pot neighborhoods of Ward 1.
Occasionally, maybe in his State of the District or inaugural addresses, the mayor will toss in a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. But on the subject of race, Williams never strays far from the centrist canon of civil-rights rhetoric. He avoids personal anecdotes. He eschews emotion.
It’s been nearly five years since Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. packed up his bag of race-baiting tricks and walked away from D.C. politics. The civil-rights veteran invoked black and white so often that locals couldn’t fathom a debate about employment, education, or health care that didn’t get into identity politics.
In his time at the helm, Williams has proved himself a torch-bearer for some of the more unsavory traditions of the Barry epochethical lapses, cozy relationships with downtown developers, Barbara Bullock.
But on the subject of race, Williams hasn’t bit. By ignoring the race-baiting snares of his critics, Williams has managed to turn down the thermostat on racial rhetoric in the District. In so doing, he has quietly carved himself a legacy as mayor.
Future leaders who wish to mimic the Williams doctrine on race relations should start by emulating its core principle: silence.
In March 1999, Williams proposed selling the Connecticut Avenue campus of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and moving the school’s operations to a site east of the Anacostia River.
The plan came under immediate fire. Protest erupted along two fronts: The mayor hadn’t consulted with anyone at UDCnot the president, not the students, and not the alumnibefore announcing the proposal. And, some said, the plan to move the largely minority student body from the tony Ward 3 to the mostly black Ward 8 smacked of a return to segregation.
Julius F. Nimmons Jr., then-president of UDC, was quoted in the Boston Globe criticizing the proposal as a betrayal of civil-rights leaders who had survived “beatings, jailings, burnings, castrations, lynchings, spittings, humiliations, cursing, so that we would have the right to share a space in a neighborhood.”
How did the mayor respond? He met with members of the UDC community. He studied the issue. He crunched the numbers.
What he didn’t do is match the Globe quote with a racial response of his own.
As it turns out, Nimmons had never mentioned any lynchings. The quote in the Globe had been manufactured by now-discredited fabulist Jayson Blair.
The say-nothing approach worked. “Personally, I don’t believe it was a race issue,” says Darrell Williams, a graduate student at UDC and a former president of the school’s student government. “We have such a diverse culture here. Race is not a problem. It’s not a problem at all. We got whites expanding, Latino students, people from all over the world.” What upset Darrell Williams about the incident was the highhandedness of the mayor’s action. But the mayor conceded that it had been a mistake and promised to rectify it in the future.
A few weeks later, Williams dropped the proposal altogether.
“You have to understand the history of segregation in this city,” says the mayor, looking back. “You can’t be ignorant of that, and you can’t push a policy thing unilaterally.”
UDC offers the perfect forum to chronicle the end of racial politics in D.C. Under Barry’s tenure, the school served as both an institution of higher education and a setting for lessons in Race Baiting 101.
In 1996, Barry used the school to make one of the most racially divisive feints of his career. After a dispute with the D.C. Council concerning the university’s financing, Barry appeared on the Fox morning news to pin the blame on Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. “The council, led by Kathy Patterson, is trying to close down UDC,” said Barry. “So here we have a situation where some people don’t want blacks and young black adults to get a quality education.”
What was Patterson’s offense? She was insisting that UDC administrators run the school within the confines of their 1997 budgeta budget that had been submitted to the council by Barry.
Such technicalities meant little to Barry. The bottom line: Patterson was white.
By the time of the UDC budget debate, District voters had seen plenty of Barry’s racial politicking. The divide-and-conquer schtick started in the early ’80s, after black activists began decrying the growing influence of white people and institutions in a city that had been held up as a model of black leadership. Barry’s ties with white Washington and his ease in schmoozing on Capitol Hill had placed his loyalty to his black supporters in question.
“Barry took the warnings to heart,” writes Fred Siegel in The Future Once Happened Here. “He would never again be ‘out-demagogued’ on race.”
By the time Barry won his second term in office, in 1982, he had turned the groundless suspicions inside-out. People had accused him of conspiring with the federal government and white people; he would go on to accuse the federal government of conspiring against him and black people.
In June 1996, Barry kicked off a news conference by lambasting the city’s federally appointed financial control board. Barry told the assembled news media that the board reminded him of Nazis. “It reminds me of what happened in Germany during the period when citizens were abrogatedtheir rights were abrogatedin a totalitarian kind of state,” said Barry.
Their offense? The board members had asked for the resignation of Vernon E. Hawkins, then the director of human servicesand longtime crony of the mayor.
Resorting to racial hyperbole had become a knee-jerk reaction. “After using the rhetoric of racial harmony to get elected in 1978, Marion Barry rarely mentioned it again,” write Tom Sherwood and Harry S. Jaffe in Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. “By 1984, he was whipping up racial animosity by accusing federal officials of mounting a racist attack against him. Barry said he refused to be ‘lynched’ in the mid-1980s, and in 1990, when he was grooming an entire city of prospective jurors, he cynically used racist rhetoric to set blacks against whites.”
The only time Williams addresses race is when he has no choice. In January 1999, a few weeks after taking office, Williams accepted the resignation of David Howard, the head of the District’s Office of the Public Advocate, for his use of the word “niggardly” in a staff meeting. A subsequent investigation revealed that Howard had used the term correctly. In the aftermath, Williams looked bad. People had cried “racist,” and Williams had jumped.
“This whole episode speaks loudly to where we are on issues of race,” noted NAACP Chair Julian Bond at the time. “Both real and imagined slights are catapulted to the front burner.”
It was the first and last time that the Williams administration would do anything to speak loudly on race. There would be no more catapulting. There would be no more space on the front burner for race.
Eventually, Williams rehired Howard. And in retrospect, Williams says, he regrets how he handled the situation. What lessons did the mayor learn? “Let’s not all jump to conclusions,” says Williams. “And let’s calm down.”
For the mayor, dispassion functions as a racial ideology. When the subject comes up, Williams consults books, not his emotions or experience. He has a hard enough time serving up the corny punch lines of his speech writers. If you want a provocative take on race in the District, rent the movie Slam. Don’t turn on the mayor’s weekly press briefing. “I think I know more about African-American history than most people, than most African-Americans,” says Williams. “I’ve read everything. It’s a part of me. But it’s on an intellectual level.”
Sure, Williams could deliver erudite lectures on, say, W.E.B. Du Bois’ explanation of “double-consciousness.” But the city elected him mayor. Not visiting fellow.
As for the race card, Williams says he can’t bluff. “One [reason] that I haven’t raised the tone of black against white is because I’m just not capable of doing it,” he argues. “If I tried to do it, it would be seen as a joke. And secondly, I don’t believe in it.”
Williams says that, despite his quiescence, he is mindful of the economic and social disparities in the city that have resulted, in part, from its history of segregation. But Williams doesn’t see the podium or the press conference as the proper forum to grapple with those divisions. Instead of addressing the inequity rhetorically, Williams says he hopes to address it systematically, by improving services across the city.
He wants the new recreation center to speak for itself.
The mayor’s message will have to overcome the sweeping belief that affluent white neighborhoods get better service than black ones. “Trying to advance the progress of people who have been left behind, that’s tough for every mayor,” says Williams. “To address the situation without doing it in a racially divisive way is difficult. That’s the $64,000 question. And I think the jury is still out.”
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Williams insists he’s a walking embodiment of his equal-service ethic. No matter where he stops, he says, he gives the same level of performance, regardless of the audience, regardless of the neighborhood. He expects every municipal employee to do the same.
“One thing I’m proud of,” says Williams, “I don’t say one thing in Ward 8 and one thing in Ward 3. Everybody in the city gets the same dry, boring speech from me.”
On the subject of race, Lawrence Guyot can’t stand the silent treatment. Not from the mayor. Not from anyone.
“As explosive, as universal, as racism is in Washington, D.C., there is no justification for it not being discussed,” says Guyot, a longtime civil-rights activist. “There’s nothing done or contemplated in the District unless it’s viewed through the prism of race. But the discussion of race is forbidden.”
What could pass for a period of calm in citywide race relations is actually the eye of the storm, according to Guyot. What some see as progress, Guyot sees as denial. “There’s this wish that if we just don’t talk about it, it will disappear in five years,” says Guyot. “That just isn’t so. If everyone agrees to ignore a time bomb, that doesn’t stop it from being a time bomb.”
There are plenty of people to blame, says Guyot. The religious leaders. The labor unions. The mayor. “There’s nothing that you can name that race doesn’t impact on in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “What we’re really doing is allowing the nondiscussion of race to impact on every decision on this city.”
Thank you, Mr. Mayor.
Guyot believes that race and politics are inseparable. “Policy issues by definition are framed in terms of race,” says Guyot.
Earlier this year, the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission, a group of District residents, employees, and civic leaders, awarded Guyot its Living the Dream Award for his lifelong dedication to civil-rights issues. But the mayor’s hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil policy on racial dialogue is devaluing Guyot’s specialty. If no one’s talking about race, who needs Guyot?
The symbolism of District politics is simple: “East of the river” is equated with the common man, “Ward 3” with the elite. Currently, the city is about 60 percent African-Americana sizable majority. Although that majority has shrunk in recent years, speaking up for D.C.’s “black community” still carries rhetorical gravitas. “East of the river,” says Philip Pannell, former president of the Ward 8 Democrats, “you hear a perception and strongly voiced opinion that this administration is not working in the best interest of black people. The people in his administration don’t do the things necessary to connect viscerally with people in the black community.”
The mayor, in other words, is out of touch with “the people.”
The monolithic black community, however, is a myth right up there with the claim that Georgetown doesn’t want a Metro stop and the legend that all of D.C. used to be a swamp. Communities in the District are organized by myriad factors, including geography, income, profession, and sexual orientation. Not primarily by race.
Williams’ reluctance to frame policy in racial terms may be driven by his own personal foibles more than a high-minded sense of purpose, but the results are the same. Williams refuses to speakor pretend to speakfor black Washington. That very refusal keeps race-mongering out of circulation in the local dialogue.
On the rare occasions when Williams does mention race when taking a political stance, he does so in a cool, clinical manner.
At a Sept. 24 press conference, for example, Williams touched on race when describing his support for a federal vouchers program. “Here’s the thing on the scholarship program,” said Williams. “It’s really captured in our city, where you have the white kids scoring some of the best in the country, and black kids and Latino kids basically scoring down toward the bottom, toward the worst in the country.”
“A lot of people across the country don’t support vouchers because, you see, their kids are doing well outside the public school,” added Williams. “So why would they want to blow up the public schools?”
That’s more Brookings Institution than Al Sharpton.
When asked about his decision to mention race in the vouchers debate, Williams is quick to note that there are other factors at work. “I’ve been doing that more,” says Williams. “But it’s race and income. And I’m not trying to pit one group against another.”
This approach leaves Williams vulnerable to a predictable accusation: specifically, that he’s out of touch with the black community.
“Anthony Williams is uncomfortable with the black community,” says Guyot. “He does everything he is asked to by white people.”
Attacking the mayor’s credibility among black Washington serves as a shorthand method of challenging his mandate to govern the city. Never mind the mayor’s landslide victory in the 2002 Democratic primary, goes the argument. He’s beholden to the ultimate boogeyman special-interest group in the District: white people.
This is fiction, bordering on farce.
Where’s the evidence that the mayor is anti-black? Well, depending on whom you ask, it’s everywhere. It’s everything. It’s anything.
“If you ever see him at a white meeting, he’s jovial and cracking jokes,” says D.C. Taxicab Commission member Sandra Seegars. “Maybe it’s because those people have something to laugh about. We don’t have a reason to laugh.”
So the mayor should make fewer jokes around white people.
“Mayor Williams was raised in a different part of the town,” says George Gurley, a leader of the River Terrace Community Association in Northeast. “He’s like a kid that was raised in upper Manhattan and he moved to Harlem. He just don’t have that sensitivity for folks down here as he would up there.”
The mayor should be more sensitive around black people.
“I had never heard this before, but there were these black women who [made me aware] of this recently,” says Pannell. “They said, ‘Never trust a black man who has no facial hair.’ I started to look at black men. Most black men have some sort of facial hair. A mustache, or something like that. The mayor is clean-shaven.”
The mayor should grow a handlebar mustache.
Then again, Pannell concedes that an extreme makeover would never work for Williams. “The mayor cannot just remake himself,” says Pannell. “If he was to all of a sudden appear in Anacostia in a kente cloth, people would probably say that Halloween had come early.”
Pannell says that it’s all a matter of interpretation. When he attends meetings in Chevy Chase for the Ward 3 Democrats, he hears people criticizing the mayor there, too. “But they will call [his performance] detached,” says Pannell. “If you’re east of the river, it’s considered anti-black.”
Look at a head shot of the mayor and you’re bound to notice his ears. Those big, floppy, flamboyant ears.
But mayoral critics paint another portrait of the mayor’s ears.
“He has a deaf ear to criticism,” says Gurley.
“He hears what he wants to hear,” says Seegars. “Like the noise at the racetrack. He didn’t hear that,” she adds alluding to the Grand Prix race at RFK Stadium, which upset residents in nearby Kingman Park.
“He just doesn’t listen,” she says.
In most areas of public discourse, Williams’ inability to tune in to the subtle frequencies of his constituents has been a liability to his administration. But when it comes to ignoring the race-baiting questions of his critics, the mayor’s refusal to listen has served himand the citywell.
As Washington Times columnist Adrienne Washington noted on the D.C. Politics Hour radio program on WAMU-FM in March 1999, the District has lots of legitimate issues to discuss without getting bogged down in debates about whether the mayor is a tool of white Washington. “We shouldn’t have to have that as a public discussion when there are so many other things that need to be talked about,” said Washington.
Like, um, whether the mayor is a tool of white Washington? “The District went from Chocolate City to Vanilla Village overnight with the Bow Tie Bandit’s coronation,” wrote Washington, on the heels of Williams’ 1998 victory in the Democratic primary. “I listened as one white political pundit, who hails from up North, pronounced that the ‘new era’ is one in which the new black leader…doesn’t care about civil rights.”
The accusations against Williams have continued unabated ever since, including at least one article by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy and a piece in the Post’s Outlook section by Anthony Jenkins, arguing that Williams isn’t black enough.
But to date, Williams has refused to take the bait. “When I came in, there wasand continues to bethis notion of I’m not black enough,” says Williams. “For a little while, I was tempted to try to show that I could do this or I could do that. But I will never be able to speak as well as some people would like me to speak. I’m never going to be able to talk the lingo.”
Williams says that for the most part, his life hasn’t been adversely affected by racism or prejudice. “In a lot of ways, what my parents succeeded in doing was insulating me from a lot of the problems that other people face,” says Williams. “I didn’t have a lot of hardships growing up.”
Which is not to say that Williams had never heard a racist taunt before becoming mayor of the District.
As a teenager, Williams attended the predominantly white Loyola High School in Los Angeles. “It was like 99-and-two-thirds percent white,” says Williams. “There were three African-American guys from my [neighborhood] and three or four guys from around the city. At lunch, all the other guys sat at the quote-unquote black table. I would spend time at the black table. But I would also spend as much time with everyone else….I tried to work with both groups.”
In 1965, race riots ripped through Los Angeles. Occasionally, a white student would try to provoke Williams with a racist barb. “There were all kind of jokes made,” recalls Williams. “Did I have a TV in my car?…Bad stuff like that.”
“I would just ignore them,” recalls Williams.
The kickoff celebration at the Sherwood Recreation Center is winding down, and Williams stands in the gymnasium posing for pictures with various neighborhood leaders.
He has already delivered his perfunctory speech. He has cut the ceremonial red ribbon. Now he’s leading a tour of the facilities. There’s only one thing left to do: make a basket. After much goading, the mayor strolls onto the shiny wooden floor of the new basketball court. He picks up an indoor-outdoor rubber ball.
Traditionally, basketball has been a rough-and-tumble sport for the mayor. In August 2002, Williams dribbled a basketball in public and received a drubbing.
At the time, Williams was on the campaign trail, running as an write-in candidate in the Democratic primary after being kicked off the ballot for submitting falsified nominating petitions. About two weeks earlier, during a tour of Capitol Hill, some guys playing basketball had heckled him. So at the suggestion of his public-relations team, Williams took to the court for a halfhearted game of pickup basketball.
You didn’t have to be Joan Didion to decipher the mayor’s motive. The gameWilliams went a bumbling 1 for 8, including an airball that missed the backboard entirelywas made for the evening news.
So did critics accuse the mayor of catering to the city’s basketball constituency? No.
Did they denounce him for sucking up to sports fans? No.
The mayor, people said, was pandering to black people. As it turns out, nothing brings out the color commentary in the District like the sight of Williams shooting hoops.
“Teflon Tony’s latest pathetic pitch to ‘my people’the ones he left behind and visibly can’t stand to be aroundto ‘reach my goals’ is beyond redemption,” wrote Washington in the Washington Times a few days later. “And it will take more than a pickup basketball game in the ‘hood.’”
Others put it more bluntly. “All of a sudden, he’s black?” Seegars was quoted as saying in the Washington Post.
In hindsight, Williams says, he regrets the whole event. He wishes that instead of playing basketball he had taken a bunch of kids out on a canoe ride.
But today at the Sherwood Recreation Center, there’s not a paddle in sight.
It’s time for Williams to play ball.
Dressed in a gray suit, a yellow bow tie, and shiny dress shoes, the mayor stands at the free-throw line and takes a few two-handed dribbles with his head down.
With a jerk, the mayor cranes back, slings the ball behind his head, and flings it toward the basket. The ball bounces off the side of the rim.
The crowd offers encouragement, and someone tosses the ball back to Williams.
He shoots again. It’s another brick. Twice more. Brick, brick.
The fifth one hits the back iron, rolls around, and drops in. The mayor pumps both fists in the air. Everyone claps. Hallelujah.
What was going through his head? Was he worried that his return to basketball would set off another round of race-baiting?
“Not so much,” says Williams. “I was just shooting a basket.” CP