Washington, D.C., is a city of divides. There are racial divides, most notably a black D.C. and a white D.C. There are ethnic enclaves, with a Salvadoran D.C. sharing space with the Ethiopian D.C. There are the geographic boundaries that came to represent economic boundaries, like “east of the river” and “west of the park,” or the image divides between the tony Northwest section of the city and the formerly gritty Southeastern quadrant.
But to me, the most telling divide is a verbal one — does one live in D.C. or Washington?
Calling the city “Washington” reveals a certain experience. There are thousands of people who live and work in Washington — people with high-powered jobs, the transient class, the chattering class, the politicos, the folks who watch (or are guests on) “Meet the Press.” They rotate in and out of the White House or spend years bouncing through various continents before settling into an N.G.O. or nonprofit. Often, these are the people who refer to the city as a revolving door. Many have told me they’ve never met anyone “from here” before. (See aforementioned racial divide.)
Seemingly a world away are the lifelong residents, the multigenerational city dwellers, the folks who staff federal offices. This is D.C.: the city and surrounding suburbs are the site of the nation’s most visible and vocal black middle class. In D.C., people listen to go-go and jazz and look for long-term stability in a government job that will not change with administrations. This D.C. is where I grew up.
These two cities exist in the same space, but often hold completely different lives.
Intrepid Racialicious leader Latoya Peterson makes her debut on NYT.com!!! This is her great thought-piece on the ever-changing lines that still divide Washington, DC.
However, most analysis of Uber’s costs and benefits leave out one huge piece of the appeal: the premium car service removes the racism factor when you need a ride.
In 1999, actor Danny Glover made headlines by filing a taxi discrimination claim in New York City, noting that cabs failed to stop for him due to the color of his skin. Good Morning America experimented with having a black man and a white man hail cabs again in 2009 and found that the racial profiling still continued. In 2010, Fernando Mateo, head of the New York State Federation of Cab Drivers, encouraged racial profiling in the name of safety. Though it has been over a decade since Danny Glover made the issue a national conversation, the landscape hasn’t changed much.
As a black woman, I am generally seen as less of a threat than my black male peers. But that doesn’t mean my business is encouraged or wanted.I stopped using DC cabs back in 2003, when they were using zoning practices that ensured every time I stepped into a cab I wouldn’t get out for less than $25.00, even if I was just going ten minutes down the street. As I learned DC better, I figured out all the routes serviced by buses and trains and committed to walking the rest. The addition of a bike share program to DC has almost completely eliminated my need for a cab rides. A few years later, I repeated the process in New York and Boston, having learned the hard way that I could not count on getting a cab if I needed one, no matter how I was dressed or where I was going.
I had dismissed Uber outright, until a friend convinced me to take a second look. My friend is young and white and, when I asked her why she chose to use the expensive black car service as opposed to any other DC cab, she informed me that her neighborhood isn’t well-liked by cab drivers. As it turns out, while my friend could normally get a cab to stop for her, she suffered the same issues with cabs that black urbanities usually face. Though it is technically illegal for drivers to ask where you are going before allowing you in the cab (New York has clear rules about this; DC has similar rules that are not on any governmental site), it is a common practice. So, my friend noted with a shrug, she’d rather pay the extra five bucks for a fuss-free experience than hail cab after cab, hoping to find a driver to take her to her next destination.
Look. I get it. The Chocolate City has changed. It isn’t what it used to be, and I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that D.C. was once so marred by murder that it was nicknamed Dodge City or that there is now a hipster bar on U St. that holds the same name. Point is, there is a certain cultural vulturalism, an African American historical “swagger-jacking,” going on on U Street. It’s an inappropriate tradition of sorts that has rent increasing, black folks moving further out—sometimes by choice, sometimes not—while a faux black ethos remains.
In a six-block stretch, we have Brixton, Busboys and Poets, Eatonville, Patty Boom Boom, Blackbyrd and Marvin. All are based on some facet of black history, some memory of blackness that feels artificially done and palatable. Does it matter that the owners aren’t black? Maybe. Does it matter that these places slid in around the time that black folks slid out? Maybe. Indeed, some might argue that these hip spots are actually preserving black culture, not stealing it.
Here’s a news flash to those who don’t know: This place was a place well before you. You didn’t discover us. We aren’t Indians. You didn’t make Ben’s; we did. This city was pig intestines after so many left, and we made it into chitterlings. And these places, these fancy places with “authentic” food, aren’t homes. They’re just rentals.
The bigger question is: Is it possible for a once-black city to experience gentrification while opening businesses that exploit black culture? Yes. Culture is weird in the way that air is weird: You need it, you breathe it, but you don’t own air.
You can connect through culture, embrace culture, dance culture, but in the end, you can’t be the culture police. Maybe I want to sit at the doors of D.C.’s black culture and check IDs, making sure you deserve to appreciate what Marvin Gaye and Donald Byrd meant to a city that really didn’t have much to be proud of when these cats came up.
I am troubled that Rhee thinks that teachers are the biggest problem facing American education. Attacking teachers seems to be her hallmark. I was at an event on Martha’s Vineyard last August when Rhee repeated a story she has often told: three “great teachers in a row” closes the achievement gap. I was waiting for her to say it, and I quickly chimed in to say that it is an urban myth. While writing my last book, I tried to discover if there was any district or any school that had actually closed the achievement gap by providing “three great teachers in a row.” Certainly teachers make a difference, and no one would dispute that it is wonderful to have three great teachers in a row. But no one has ever figured out how to achieve this feat in an entire district. Certainly Rhee didn’t when she was chancellor in the District of Columbia.
Rhee has turned this urban myth into a national crusade against teachers. If scores are low, she suggests, it is because the students have lazy, incompetent teachers who should be fired. She achieved national notoriety in Washington, D.C., for her readiness to fire teachers and principals whom she judged to be unworthy. You may recall the infamous cover of Time magazine, where she posed sternly with a broom, ready to sweep clean the District of Columbia’s public schools. She did clear out a large proportion of the professional staff in the D.C. schools, and she did impose a new teacher evaluation system called IMPACT.
However, the benefits of her innovations are questionable. For one thing, the federal NAEP tests in 2011 showed that the D.C. public schools have the largest achievement gap of any city tested by that program; the D.C. black-white achievement gap is fully double the gap in the typical urban district. For another, USA Today documented a major cheating scandal in the D.C. public schools during her tenure. At the center of the scandal was a principal Rhee had repeatedly singled out, honored, given bonuses, and promoted. He resigned.
It’s the same old story: Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens. And therein lies the problem of being a professional black storyteller– writer, musician, filmmaker. Being black is like serving as Hoke, the driver in “Driving Miss Daisy,” except it’s a kind of TV series lasts the rest of your life: You get to drive the well-meaning boss to and fro, you love that boss, your lives are stitched together, but only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid. Because you’re a kind of cultural maid. You serve up the music, the life, the pain, the spirituality. You clean house. Take the kids to school. You serve the eggs and pour the coffee. And for your efforts the white folks thank you. They pay you a little. They ask about your kids. Then they jump into the swimming pool and you go home to your life on the outside, whatever it is. And if lucky you get to be the wise old black sage that drops pearls of wisdom, the wise old poet or bluesman who says ‘I been buked and scorned,’ and you heal the white folks, when in fact you can’t heal anybody. Robbing a character of their full dimension, be it in fiction or non fiction, hurts everyone the world over. Need proof? Ask any Native American, Asian, Latino, Gay American, or so called white “hillbilly.” As if hillbillies don’t read books, and Asians don’t rap, and Muslims don’t argue about the cost of a brake job.
There’s nothing wrong with being white. I’m half white myself and proud of it. There isn’t a day passes that I don’t think about my late white Jewish mother and the lessons she taught me about humanity. But bearing witness to this kind of cultural war over the course of a lifetime will grind a man or woman down in horrible ways, and that’s my fear.