Washington, D.C., is a “chocolate city.” The mayor is black. The city council is majority black. A majority of the constituents are black. But as soon as 2014 the city Marion Barry built might look more like Mayberry-by-the-way-of-Metropolis.
A recent Brookings report says D.C. is getting a little cream in its coffee, all part of decade-long trend of “reverse” white flight, where the suburbs are getting older, poorer and browner, while metropolitan areas are getting younger, whiter and more affluent. It’s happening to a lot of American cities, but why is it happening in D.C. — a city awash in political power and high poverty rate — that’s now home to the Washington Nationals, young white professionals and gentrification? How is it that the minute the White House is occupied by a black man, the town goes white?
The Brookings study shows Washington, D.C., has literally flip-flopped race and class wise over the last decade. More than 39,000 new households making over 75K entered the city while over 37,000 households making less than 50K left the city. The black population dropped from 59 to 52 percent and the white population grew from 27 to 33 percent. The numbers are staggeringly congruent and seemed to have happened overnight, but I saw this one coming years ago.
Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s and early ’90s was a public safety and public relations mess. The mayor was caught on national T.V. smoking crack with his mistress, the schools were abysmal and the crack epidemic was so bad that the murder rate was through the roof. I remember as a kid in the Northern Virginia D.C. suburbs seeing a year end issue of the Washington Post where they listed the names of everyone who had been murdered in the city that year and it took up four full pages.
In the 1990s gas was cheap, and the crime rate in D.C. was high so white folks and black people with means did everything they could to get out of the city. Even if that meant horrible two-hour commutes to travel 33 miles, like my parents did every evening, to get from the Pentagon to Centreville Virginia. It seemed like a small price to pay for better schools, better services and less bloodshed.
Politically the city was also an impenetrable mess that warded off outsiders like Gandalf. Marion Barry was a man of his era and of his city. D.C. politics were so rife with cronyism that no one wanted to move into a city where the only way you could get a street light fixed was if you were related to the mayor or went to high school with someone on city council.
But over the last decade political and economic forces have conspired to turn Washington, D.C., along with a lot of other American cities, into havens for “reverse” white flight.
In D.C. in particular the explosive combination of increasing traffic, gas prices and the influx of immigrants and young people have led the city toward its current path.
Mayor Anthony Williams, who served from 1999 to 2007 cleared the way for these kinds of demographic changes by encouraging residents from the suburbs — tacitly whites with money — to move back into the city. With the ouster of Marion Barry many white suburbanites felt it was finally ‘safe’ to come back to D.C.
Combine this with the housing boom of the early 2000s and Washington became a new hot spot for young white professionals to gentrify. At the same time, public services to the poor and working class were curtailed or limited, pushing more poor and brown residents from the city into Maryland suburbs like Prince George’s or Virginia suburban counties like Fairfax. The district is just one place where this is happening. Across the nation major cities across the south and southeast like Atlanta, Ga. and Raleigh, N.C. have seen rapid increases in young whites moving into the cities while minorities are moving further into the dissected suburbs.
Whereas at one point minority movement to the suburbs was a sign of upward mobility, increasingly the suburbs are simply a cultural and social services outhouse for poor minorities who can no longer afford to live near their city jobs and now have retreated to the abandoned far flung homes of their bosses.
Urban living, with shorter commutes and access to cultural and social events, not to mention the post modern value of lowering ones’ carbon imprint, have made places like Washington, D.C., trendy for white Generation X education hipsters.
But even if Washington, D.C., is a majority white city by 2014 as some of the Brookings analysts suggest it won’t necessarily lead to massive political upheaval, but subtle changes are already taking place. In the past, pandering to whites was a political boogeyman that the Marion Barry generation used to scare up black votes during contested Democratic primaries, the de-facto election in the city. Now it may not be an issue of pandering, but actual political necessity to court white voters in a city where they may speak with a recognizable voice for the first time in decades. Mayor Adrian Fenty was kicked out of office after only one term in large part due to these demographic changes in the city. Fenty carried 53 percent of majority white districts in the city, but only 10 percent of majority black districts after having been swept into office in a tide of multi-racial support just years before.
Fenty was viewed by many as catering to the needs and concerns of new white voters over black constituents. No where was this more evident than in his support of Michelle Rhee, the controversial school superintendent who slashed hundreds of jobs in education. While incoming white and conservative voters might see this as a move to more efficient smaller government, many long term minority residents saw the school system as a major employer being sacrificed at the altar of white swing voters.
Is a white mayor around the corner? Unlikely. The African American political machine in Washington is too powerful to be broken by a newcomer population that is not yet adept at the inner workings of city politics. But broader issues like school reform, D.C. Statehood and home rule might all be affected in the coming years. D.C. will likely always be the “chocolate city” but that chocolate may have some streaks of cream added during the coming years.
This article originally appeared in TheLoop21.com under the title “Washington, DC’s ‘Chocolate City’ Turning to a White Mocha Blend.”