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Last week, the paper that landed on the doorsteps of most Washingtonians was etched in black and white. A cursory glance and you’d think the Washington Post’s historical queasiness around race was going the way of the lawn jockey. In the span of seven days, the paper published five very different stories of which race lay at the core.
In four of them, the paper surveyed a dynamic landscape of changing racial demographics: of white areas getting blacker, black areas getting browner—and the whole salad bowl getting more mixed up. Those stories went off in suburban Maryland, and reporters used the changing landscape to find new angles, suss out emerging sources, and reconfigure traditional assumptions.
The fifth story also took the paper of record into a racially dynamic place—D.C. But the story, about an embattled elementary school playground, demonstrated that the paper hasn’t figured out a new way to talk about conflict in the new D.C. without simply re-dealing the same old race card that former Mayor Marion Barry put in play. It stood out as a tired cliche in a suite of stories that were bracing for their racial candor:
* Dec. 12: In the wake of a judge’s acquittal of a P.G. County black man who was one of three accused of killing a Salvadoran immigrant in 1998, the Post effectively transmitted the outrage of the county’s burgeoning Latino community.
* Dec. 11: The paper used a conflict over a program for elite students at a Montgomery County high school to explain what happens when a school reaches the magical tipping point from majority-white to majority-minority.
* Dec. 10: The Post reported that two white men on the Eastern Shore, supposedly angered by a woman’s slow driving, allegedly tracked the car for 20 miles and shot a 73-year-old black passenger. The FBI confirmed that it was investigating whether the killing was racially motivated.
* Dec. 5: The paper wrote about a planned riverfront development in P.G. County that has stalled. “Racism Impels Va. Critics, Backers Say” reads the Post’s subhed.
* Dec. 7: The Post reported on a powerful D.C. church that uses the playground of a neighboring school as a parking lot, leaving the play area unusable and neighbors in high dudgeon.
The Maryland stories were complicated pieces that changed perceptions about the state of race relations in suburbia. But Patrice Gaines’ story about Metropolitan Baptist Church’s use of the playground at Garrison Elementary School in Shaw was written to satisfy preconceived, simplistic notions. She relied on hacks and racialists to render a story about unaccountable bureaucracies as a parable of black-white conflict. In Ruben Castenada’s story about an incompletely prosecuted murder of a Salvadoran in P.G. County, he and his sources began with the racial dynamics of the debate then drilled into exactly how the process had gone awry. But the underlying story in Shaw, the impetus for all of the overheated racial rhetoric, never emerged. (Gaines did not return a call for comment.)
“The battle made public the sort of racial tensions that exist throughout the city but perhaps are seldom acknowledged,” Gaines wrote, by way of framing. And race was writ large in her narrative. She suggested throughout that white arrivistes and buttinskys were disregarding the legitimate needs of a reputable, old-line black congregation. Gaines bought in big time to the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., who leads Metropolitan’s monied and influential flock—most of whom left the District behind when they hit the jackpot.
Who, might we ask, is interloping on whom?
“‘While the influx of well-off, mostly white urban pioneers and carpetbaggers into inner-city communities might improve their socioeconomic status and raise property values, there is danger in the notion that these new residents share the values, interests and concerns of their older, mostly African American neighbors,’” Gaines quoted Hicks as saying.
Gaines never confronted the pastor, or her readers, with the cold facts of the underlying case: A judge had ruled that, as a matter of law, the congregants should not be parking on the playground. Gaines and the cohort she quoted stuck with the canard that race and only race was driving the conflict.
Rodney Foxworth, who has lived in Shaw for less than four years and serves as an advisory neighborhood commissioner there, cited the fight as “just one example” of racial prerogative. Gaines allowed him to make that assertion because the person leading the charge to get the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) bureaucracy to stop leasing the playground to the church—Glenn Melcher, another commissioner for the area that hosts most Garrison students—is white.
Foxworth’s posture in Gaines’ story was as a guy who speaks for the people. But past experience has shown that he is a reliable caddy for elites. Back during the fight over the convention center now being constructed in the neighborhood, he voted in favor of the project after he accepted a $4,000 subcontract from an economic development contractor.
B. Warren “Budd” Lane is black, has lived near Shaw for 40 years, and chairs the Ward 2 Democrats. He blames the church—and the paper that carries its water—for using race to obscure unholy prerogative. “I thought it was a cheap shot for the Post to buy into that,” Lane says. “They should have gone back to the story of the playground itself, and that is not a story about race.”
“It’s about a church, with the support of the school system, using a playground as a parking lot and making it unusable. Some of the people who came to the aid of our neighborhood school may be white, but this community has enough racial issues that need to be solved without manufacturing them,” Lane says.
The story was also a little short on white interlopers. Melcher has been in the neighborhood for 11 years. And never mind that not a single white child is among the kids who attend the school and would use the playground—which Gaines insists on calling an “empty lot.” Or that it was DCPS that displayed bad faith in negotiations. None of that fits neatly into Gaines’ paradigm of “White Recapture.”
Gaines allowed Maudine Cooper, chair of the appointed Emergency Transitional Educational Board of Trustees and executive director of the Greater Washington Urban League, to use identity as a credential. “‘To those of us who have been black a long time, it does look like race,’” Cooper was quoted as saying, referring to Melcher’s effort. The story noted that Cooper talked daily with DCPS Superintendent Arlene Ackerman about the Garrison dispute. Both Cooper and Ackerman inexplicably sided with Metropolitan over the small neighborhood school. But that irony went unobserved.
In an interview, Cooper says that by acknowledging the racial dynamics of the conflict, she was merely pointing out the elephant in the room. “When we pretend that race is not a factor in dealing with people who are not of our race, we are living in denial. We need to come to this debate honestly,” Cooper says.
Well, I’ve been white all my life, for what that’s worth, but I think the Garrison Elementary fight is about a lawless contract between large institutions—DCPS and Metropolitan—that refused to change until they were dragged into court. True, it’s also a story about a neighborhood where some neighbors—among them a healthy number of newer white homeowners—now have the time, inclination, and sense of the possible to challenge those entrenched institutions.
But instead of offering a portrait of the institutional coziness that was oblivious to the needs of a poor neighborhood—and that sparked the whole crisis—the Post used the fight at Garrison for all sorts of glittering generalizations about how the in-migration of white folk and all their money is bound to rend the texture of life in places like Shaw. (Irony alert: Two letters to the editor in this week’s Washington City Paper accuse us of exactly the same sin in our coverage of a conflict between Shiloh Baptist Church and its neighbors.)
Part of the problem stems from the Post’s clueless sourcing. The paper is drawn to demagogues because they are the loudest and most visible part of every debate. If you don’t do much reporting in Shaw—and the Post doesn’t—people like advisory neighborhood commissioner Leroy Thorpe—whom the paper quotes constantly—and Foxworth—who also gets frequent mentions—seem credible.
There is a fine line between providing a rigorous portrait of this city’s uneasy relationship with its diverse self and fueling racial enmity. As demographic shifts destroy old alignments and atomize the region in unexpected ways, people are bound to be edgy as hell. Activist Saul Alinsky’s paradigm of a racially integrated community as something that is “timed from the entrance of the first black family to the exit of the last white family” has given way to a more variegated vision of demographic change: Communities are constantly segregating and integrating based on the macro-influences of immigration and economics.
The Post maintains that it’s merely transmitting legitimate community concerns—black and white—but in the instance of the showdown in Shaw, it’s really just putting the megaphone up to the same old demagoguery and missing an important local story.
Everybody’s a Critic After an extensive national search, including bringing three finalists to town, the Post has found the person who will fill the well-worn shoes of the paper’s music critic, Richard Harrington. “Yeah, OK, so it was a bald guy in the business section,” says arts editor John Pancake, referring to David Segal, a writer who until now has covered the legal community. According to Pancake, Segal made a strong inside pitch for the job that he is happy to accommodate. “We wanted a really good writer, and I think his clips speak for themselves. He has an amazing sense of humor, and he does a tremendous job of analyzing trends.”
Segal has proven himself in a variety of capacities at the Post, including column writing, deadline work, profiles, and analysis. What his C.V. doesn’t include is criticism. Calling in from New York, where he’s schmoozing with record-label types, Segal doesn’t bother defending the gap. “Anything that I would say about that would sound like self-serving bullshit, so I’ll just say stay tuned. But I love, really love, all kinds of music and listen to a lot of it,” he says.
“I’m going to be working to introduce a news component to our coverage. There is massive consolidation in the industry…and I think there is a huge technological component to the story, and nobody knows how any of that is going to turn out,” says Segal.
Segal is not without rock chops. He played “enthusiastic” (a bandmate’s assessment, not mine) rock guitar in the Bremers (as in Arthur, as in assassin), an occasional combo that played a few times at the Grog and Tankard and the New Vegas Lounge. The band included Eli Attie, a Gore speech writer, and Dave McKenna, the Washington City Paper sportswriter. McKenna describes the now-defunct band as “deservedly underrated.”
Harrington, unceremoniously eased out over the course of many months, will be contributing part time to the paper’s Style and Weekend sections. He will join arts editor Alona Wartofsky—who is switching jobs to become a contract writer in New York for the Post—in filling out the paper’s music coverage. Pancake says that he’s confident that he found pay dirt in his own back yard, and Segal says he’s ready for a significant shift in beats.
“I’m going from covering Joel Klein [head of the anti-trust department at Justice] to Limp Bizkit,” Segal says.
Oh Baby In the Dec. 8 Food section, the ingredients in a recipe for a New Year’s Eve Beef Tenderloin with Stilton Cheese made it sound a lot more like instructions for a do-it-yourself medical procedure: “2 pounds baby, stems removed and discarded.”
God Bless the Web A headline in the Dec. 9 Post about a boy who kept his dead mother a secret for a month suggested: “Mother Died, But Boy Kept Mum.” After Scott Shuger of Slate’s “Today’s Papers” nominated it for most tasteless headline of the millennium, the Post changed the word “mum” to “silent” on the Web version of the paper.
Last Man Standing After extensive research and investigation, the Washington City Paper has finally found someone who is reading every single word of the Post’s massive biopic on Bill Bradley, the third in a series about the candidates for the presidency. An Ellicott City reader, Ima Nonesuch, says that downing day after day of Bradley hasn’t been as punishing as you might think: “I run the toy trains at the railroad museum here, and once you turn ’em on, there isn’t all that much to do. I have an awful lot of time on my hands, and after I finish the crossword, take a nap, and check for bad switches, I usually open up to the Bradley series. I just plop down and read it in spurts. It takes a while, but I like the parts about him playing basketball and all.”—David Carr
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