Once called America’s Chocolate City, D.C. has lost some of that distinction over the past decade with the advent of gentrification across many of the city’s wards. Sheryll Cashin and Paul Butler, two professors of law specializing in the area of race relations at the Georgetown University Law Center, opine on the state of race in the District.

A Reversed White Flight?
Beginning with the “white flight” to the suburbs of D.C. after World War II, the District has been a predominantly black city, boasting a 70 percent black majority by 1970. However, the past two decades have witnessed a reversed white flight as wealthy white residents move into historically black neighborhoods, such as Brookland in Ward 5 and Petworth in Ward 4. As of 2012, the city’s black majority had diminished to 50.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I think gentrification is responsible for forcing many low-income Americans out of the city,” Butler said.

From 1990 to 2010, the average black population per ward decreased from 65 percent to 51 percent. This average, however, is computed from extremes in three of the city’s eight wards: Wards 7 and 8 have 95 percent and 94 percent black populations as of 2010, and Ward 2, which contains Georgetown, has a black population of just 9.8 percent.

The lack of affordable housing options in downtown D.C. has sent many lower-income residents across the Anacostia River to Wards 7 and 8 in search of less expensive housing, creating not only a geographic, but also racial and economic divide.

“I think there are a lot of neighborhoods east of the river that feel left out of the city’s bloom times, and there is a racial dimension to that, as those communities who are left out are almost exclusively African-American communities,” Butler said.

Cashin, author of the forthcoming book “Place, Not Race,” credited this polarization across wards to a recent rise in high-income development in downtown D.C.

“I think what’s happening in the District is that higher-income people are pricing out lower-income people, and it may have racial implications,” Cashin said. “People of color, on average, have less money than whites do, but that’s what’s happening. It’s getting more expensive to live in the District.”

Increasing Diversity in the District
The growth of the white population, Cashin noted, is a trend unique to the District, as white populations across the country continue to lose their majority status.

“The white people are experiencing a loss of majority status and it isn’t happening everywhere, but a lot of places, and white people have to adjust to that reality. Everybody has to adjust to that reality. In the future, nobody’s going to be the dominant group,” Cashin said.

“[Black people] experienced a loss of political dominance and maybe even cultural dominance. [D.C. is] no longer the Chocolate City; it’s the multiracial city, and black people have had to adjust. But the same thing is happening nationally,” Cashin said.

According to Cashin, with increasing levels of diversity, the District has emerged as a culturally vibrant location with an environment of tangible inclusivity.

“The city is more livable than it used to be, and it’s an exciting, multiracial, I would even say international, place, where a lot of people of all different types come, and there are people who are attracted to it because of that vibrancy and diversity,” Cashin said.

Institutional Polarization
This diversity, however, has yet to manifest itself in institutions such as the D.C. Court System or D.C. Public Schools.

“If you go to criminal court in D.C., you would think that white people don’t commit crimes … and we know that for drugs, for example, white residents of D.C. use drugs just as much as the black and Latino residents, so there’s clearly inequality in law enforcement for those kinds of crimes, and that’s a concern,” Butler said.

According to Butler, the high rates of black drug offenders could be due to a higher number of police deployed in predominantly black neighborhoods.

“If the police increased their drug law enforcement in Georgetown or Foggy Bottom or Cleveland Park, then there’d be more white drug offenders who are locked up, so there are racial dimensions to where the police enforce the drug laws,” Butler said.

Georgetown students who tutor in Wards 7 and 8 see that the D.C. Public School System exhibits similar levels of racial polarity across wards.

“I have never seen a student that was not African-American in the schools I’ve worked in,” D.C. Reads Coordinator Emilie Uhrhammer (SFS ’16) said.

Mellie Corrigan (COL’14), who has been a tutor and coordinator for D.C. Reads for four years, agreed.

“It’s always been predominantly black,” Corrigan said.

Moving Forward
Cashin stressed the need for more affordable housing to be built in the city in order to promote greater racial inclusivity.

“We have some policies in place that are designed to retain the affordable housing stock, but my fear is that the city is becoming more like Paris where, in Paris, lower-income people and communities of color can live out in the suburbs,” she said.

Cashin cited the District’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, a requirement that all new residential developments set aside a certain percentage of their units for affordable, lower income housing, as one way to increase the city’s diversity by ensuring that less wealthy families are afforded the same opportunity to live in the District as higher-income individuals.

“It’s weak. It’s not as robust as it could be,” Cashin said.

Butler agreed that the D.C. should prioritize lower-income housing to maintain its current levels of diversity.

“I always think it’s a problem when cities lose their diversity, including racial diversity, and class diversity, so I think the city should make a black warranty of establishing low-income quality housing,” Butler said.

Nevertheless, Cashin is hopeful that the District’s increasingly multiethnic identity will work to inform the diversity of its institutions.

“I do think that where the District is going with this can be a positive story and there are very positive aspects to it, but we have to have the right policies in place for making our neighborhoods and our institutions inclusive in the way that works for everybody,” Cashin said.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *