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When the D.C. Council and its Committee on Human Services decided last week to prop up the antiquated, deficit-ridden D.C. General Hospital, they declared that they were defending and protecting the poor. But the lawmakers’ actions had about as much to do with the city’s indigent and uninsured as Alcatel’s ads have to do with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. Like Alcatel, councilmembers who oppose the redesign and phasing out of the city’s public hospital are supremely interested in establishing and maintaining the appearance of authenticity, which is defined and earned by a dedication to “the community” and to all things from “the ‘hood” or connected to what some call “roots.”
In other words, the D.C. General debate is another round in the District’s most pernicious game: Who is black, or liberal, enough?
Defenders of D.C. General have framed the current health-care debate as being about saving a public hospital that serves “the community.” Closing its doors or even redesigning its operations threatens “the community.” Although Mayor Anthony A. Williams has failed to understand this dynamic and its potential to erode the man-of-the-people image he is attempting to cultivate, councilmembers are acutely aware of the connection. Standing before the media and D.C. General enthusiasts last week moments before the council’s drive-by assault on the mayor, Chair Linda Cropp said she and her posse weren’t fighting the executive or the financial control board, but rather were standing up for the community. They wanted the “appropriate structure” to ensure quality health care “for our citizens.”
Although the control board on Wednesday sent the contract to implement the new health-care plan to the mayor, no one should expect the council to divert its attention from the community.
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For African-Americans only two generations removed from the Jim Crow era that kept them in segregated communities and low-paying jobs, “the ‘hood” means black neighborhoods in various states of deterioration and the people there who are subject to discrimination in the labor market. Blacks in the middle class who forget about their rootswhich often include time spent in segregated schools and visits to public clinicsare considered traitors. Middle-class blacks are expected simultaneously to embrace the values and priorities of their group and to maintain a personal and often emotional connection to the ‘hood. The result can be a sort of duality neurosis: To emphasize their status, members of the middle class require a low-income or working class to which they can remain connecteda permanent black underclass that is maintained by continuation of the status quo. In other words, middle-class blacks lobby for improvements in their old communities but serve as barriers to any significant advancements in those neighborhoods.
On the other hand, “the community” for whites in the District is not a physical reality. It is more a philosophical concept, attached to the liberalism that was alive during the administrations of former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, in which many of them or their parents proudly worked. They tout their associations with this era in the federal government as proudly as they do their support for the bygone civil rights movement. Their authenticity as liberals and progressives requires that they maintain an express interest in uplifting the less fortunate. To be accused of anything to the contrary is like being labeled a racist. And there is nothing worse than the Scarlet R, an indelible mark that forever troubles the souls of liberal whites.
Authenticity is a centuries-old political, cultural, and economic narrative written by every minority group, from Jews to Italians to African-Americans. To speak or take action against anything that has been defined as being good for the community is to jeopardize one’s membership in the group.
In a city like the District, which is sharply divided by race and class, authenticity is a valuable commodity. It provides dependable support from the solid 15 percent of the voting population that equates viability with color, civil rights bona fides, or liberalism. But authenticity must be maintained and protected at all costs. Most often this umbilical connection is achieved through rhetoric and associations with indisputably authentic personalities, such as Alcatel’s appropriation of King, to provide an illusion of sensitivity and being “down” with the folks in the ‘hood. Former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. was the consummate practitioner of this method and the ultimate authentic black politician. Yet any objective evaluation of the services provided to poor and working-class residents of the District during his tenure would reveal that few benefits went to them. The middle class ruled, sucking up contracts and jobs at the expense of the safety net for the poor. Barry talked a good game but leveled assaults against the District’s most vulnerable, resulting in nearly half of the government operating under some kind of court order or court-appointed receiver.
When Sharon Pratt Kelly was elected mayor, in 1990, her authenticity frequently was challenged. The city’s first native Washingtonian to serve as chief executive, Kelly was considered a traitor to her own class when she attempted to reduce the size of government by cutting middle managementwhich translated into pushing some middle-class blacks into the unemployment line. Kelly didn’t fare much better with poor African- Americans, who considered her too elite to ever understand their suffering. As Kelly’s poll numbers began to plunge, she abandoned her reform agenda and turned her attention to the colonials on Capitol Hill, rhetorically slaying congressional representatives, some of whom had regarded her as the city’s savior, come to restore order and deliver quality municipal services. But for Kelly, the greater damage wasn’t in disappointing a bunch of mostly white men. It was in being forever pegged as inauthentican elitist, high-yella woman out of touch with her own people.
Unfortunately, the need of black middle-class elected officials and white liberals to be perceived as authentic too often conspires to deny opportunities to the poor and working class. Consider the fight over school choice: Although low-income African-Americans have said consistently that they support school vouchers, elected officialsblack and whitehave prevented the introduction of what some perceive as a conservative public policy. (How could anything conservative possibly be authentic?)
Then there was the health-care fight of 1999, when Williams wanted to provide health coverage to the city’s uninsured. The council spurned his proposal, opting to fund a pilot program that included only 2,500 of the more than 65,000 residents without insurance. Instead, the councilmembers, expressing their duality neurosis, chose to continue funding D.C. General in the face of chronic overspending by the hospital, keeping their middle-class friends employed but providing only lip service to the city’s vulnerable. Now, once again, the council proposes to use precious fundsthis time $21 millionto keep the public hospital open and stall the implementation of a major reform of the city’s health-care-delivery system that stands to substantially improve the health-care choices available to the poor.
Cropp naturally challenges LL’s perspective on the issue. She says that the councilmembers are not interested in their own mortality and authenticity. She says that “the mayor’s plan is going to be a better plan because of the council.
“We do care about the poor, but not [just] for this year but also for next year,” Cropp says, adding that she and her colleagues believe that at the center of any plan should be a public hospital. She ignores all evidence suggesting that the particular public hospital she supports has been mismanaged and consistently is serving fewer and fewer people.
Kathy Patterson, who represents Ward 3, an area with one of the greatest concentrations of white residents, salutes Cropp and her colleagues for their recent rebellion. She says that in a town-hall meeting held earlier this year in her ward, the overwhelming sentiment was that her constituents “wanted decent health care with the most access” for poor residents.
“There is a progressive strain in the folks I represent,” continues Patterson, adding that she didn’t serve nine years at the American Public Welfare Association “for nothing.”
But some council critics, including LL, say that the lawmakers’ desire to be seen on the side of the poor, as authentic blacks and progressives, is doing more harm than good.
“Their action is having an adverse impact on the very population they are trying to protect,” says Francis Smith, the control board’s executive director. Low-income residents should be able to choose from a variety of health-care providers beyond just D.C. General. Middle-class blacks and progressives get to choosewhy can’t the poor be trusted to do the same? Isn’t that a method of empowering a community? Isn’t the denial of choice a method for perpetuating victimhood?
“Isn’t it time we stop forcing those who are less fortunate to remain second-class citizens?” Smith asks. The council’s answer seems to be “Not yet.” Jonetta Rose Barras
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