November 28, 2022

The different ethnic tales of Washington DC

Sam Smith – I was born and lived most of my life in Washington DC. In recent years I have been repeatedly reminded of how little non-residents know of the non-federal aspects of the capital city. For some five recent decades the city was majority black yet whites like myself were quite content to live there. Given the current ethnic controversies across this land, these random notes from DC over the years may be instructive.

During the 1968 riots, black mayor Walter Washington was called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Washington refused, saying that "you can replace material goods, but you can't replace human beings." Hoover then said, "Well, this conversation is over." Replied Washington, "That's all right, I was leaving anyway."

Between 1960 and 1964, black activist Julius Hobson ran more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. He initiated a campaign that resulted in the first hiring of black bus drivers by DC Transit. Hobson and CORE forced the hiring of the first black auto salesmen and dairy employees. He also directed campaigns against private apartment buildings that discriminated against blacks and led a demonstration by 4,500 people to the District Building that encouraged the District to end housing segregation. He conducted a lie-in at the Washington Hospital Center that produced a jail term for himself and helped to end segregation in the hospitals. In 1967, Julius Hobson won, after a long and very lonely court battle that left him deeply in debt, a suit that outlawed the existing rigid track system, teacher segregation, and differential distribution of books and supplies. It also led, indirectly, to the resignation of the school 'superintendent and first elections of a city school board. Beyond all this, Hobson was repeatedly involved in peace, police, and transportation issues; he filed a major suit in 1969 accusing the federal government of bias against blacks, women, and Mexican~Americans.

One of the advantages – indeed pleasures – of having lived most of my life in Washington DC is that you experience, absorb, enjoy and comprehend the complexities of ethnicity.

As I wrote in The Great American Political Repair Manual:

And so we come to the Catch-22 of ethnicity. It is hard to imagine a non-discriminatory, unprejudiced society in which race and sex matter much. Yet in our efforts to reach that goal, our society and its institutions constantly send the conflicting message that they are extremely important.

For example, our laws against discriminatory practices inevitably heighten general consciousness of race and sex. The media, drawn inexorably to conflict, plays up the issue. And the very groups that have suffered under racial or sexual stereotypes consciously foster countering stereotypes -- "you wouldn't understand, it's a black thing" -- as a form of protection. Thus, we find ourselves in the odd position of attempting to create a society that shuns invidious distinctions while at the same time -- often with fundamentalist or regulatory fervor -- accentuating those distinctions.

In the process we reduce our ethnic problems to a matter of regulation and power, and reduce our ambitions to the achievement of a tolerable stalemate rather than the creation of a truly better society. The positive aspects of diversity remain largely ignored and non-discrimination becomes merely another symbol of virtuous citizenship -- like not double-parking or paying your taxes.

In 1949 – five years before Brown v. Board of Education, Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle integrated the city’s Catholic schools. One of my friends with Irish roots remembers that while he was there, his basketball team could  only play Catholic schools or black public schools.

That’s just one example of how Washington’s history doesn’t favor ethnic cliches. Consider for example, the fact that the city had a significant number of free blacks going back to the early 19th  century. Their descendants are sharing a town with those whose ancestors were slaves or who came to the city from the South in the the 1950s and 1960s. As early as the 1960s, working with SNCC, I became aware of the hostility of some black residents towards young black activists who were threatening the quid pro quo they had established with the white government and establishment.

Or consider that black and white middle class homeowners came together to begin an ultimately successful fight against a proposed freeways system that would have turned DC into an east coast LA. Or that just a a few years after I sat in a room at SNCC hearing Stokely Carmichael declare that whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement, I found myself working with others to create a biracial third party that would hold a seat on the city council and/or the school board for a quarter century.

If  such  tales seem a  little odd – even  irrelevant – in today’s environment it’s because our discussions of ethnicity have little room for complexity or even for interesting accounts of progress. We prefer to stick to grand issues and principles and grim prognostications.

But it is in true stories and relationships that we actually find what we have in common with others. Part of the story of places like DC is that blacks and whites – even under segregation – lived close enough physically to learn each other’s real sins  and virtues. One small symbol of this was Odessa Madre – the closest DC ever came to a mob boss, who controlled drugs, prostitution and numbers. Part of her success was that she had grown up near Irish kids some of whom became the city’s cops.

If we want to get along better with others, it would also help if we celebrated the multicultural experience more than we lecture or scold others about it.

In The Great Political Repair Manual I tried to do this:

 I am a native Washingtonian and have lived in DC most of my life. DC is two-thirds black. When someone asks me where I live and I tell them, they sometimes look at my fifty-something white face and say, "You mean in the city?" What they mean is: with all those blacks?

 I don't live in DC out of any moral imperative. I'm not doing anybody except myself a favor. I live here because I enjoy it. Beside, I'd rather be in the minority in DC than in the majority in a lot of places. Here are a few reasons why:

I've found black Washingtonians exceptionally friendly, decent, hospitable, and morally rooted. They're nice folks to be around.

Black Washingtonians will talk to strangers without knowing "who are you with?" White Washingtonians, especially in the political city, are often far more formal and distant. -- and more likely to treat you based on your utility to themselves. Not knowing anyone at an all-white event in DC can be pretty lonely; not knowing anyone at an all-black event in DC means you soon will.

Black Washingtonians understand loss, pain, suffering and disappointment. They have helped me become better at handling these things.

Black Washingtonians value humor; many white Washingtonians try (as Russell Baker once noted) to be somber under the illusion that it makes them serious. I like to laugh.

Black Washingtonians value achievement as well as power. Teachers, artists, writers and poets are respected in the black community. As a writer, I like that.

Living in close proximity with another culture provides a useful gauge by which to judge one's own.

The imagery, rhythm and style of black speech appeals to me far more than the jargon-ridden circumlocution of the white city.

 Many black Washingtonians are actively concerned about social and political change; much of white Washington is seeking to maintain the status quo.

 White Washington always seems to want me to conform to it; black Washington has always accepted me for who I am.


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