The Great Urban Communication Divide

Whites don't need a cranky columnist to tell them what their black neighbors think. They just have to ask.

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It has been no secret that the default mainstream-media perspective has always been "white," or some mythical mass that does not look like us. In his book Black Journalists in Paradox, Clint C. Wilson wrote that black journalists who go against the grain are often trapped, forced "to either ignore the application of news values as they related to African-American cultural experience or assume a conflict posture with newsroom colleagues and superiors in pursuit of changing traditional policy."

As the Manhattanization of previously black neighborhoods continues all around the country, the transition requires a psychological adjustment from newcomers and old-timers alike. The downside of social networks is that they rarely allow you to encounter people and ideas across racial, socioeconomic and cultural divides. Instead, whining retweets about Milloy's column reinforced people's own (statistically false) assumptions that progress is happening for everyone in the city. Smith nailed many of the nuances in his piece, but he and many of those he quoted described Milloy as a relic, a throwback, passé.

I overtweet as much as the rest of them. But I can't disagree more. As a resident of the District, I see the effects of joblessness, poverty and mental illness each time I walk out my door. I struggle to explain it to my children in ways that don't desensitize them to people's basic humanity and pain.

In the fanfare over the "new D.C." and drooling over retail, it's almost as if poor people and their grievances have been put on mute. That was the problem with Fenty and some of his more strident "creative class" supporters; many of them went about their business as though the poor were invisible or, worse, already gone. In a city like D.C., these tensions cannot be waved away as mostly socioeconomic. The city's sizable black middle class could have rescued Fenty's campaign, but it didn't. I don't like it either, but racial polarization is just a fact.

That doesn't mean this is the way it will always be. But getting past the polarization does require some brutally honest people to bridge the worlds. Milloy has done this by leaning on decades of institutional memory and contacts, old-school shoe-leather reporting, and a clear and passionate voice. (Ditto for unsung reporters like Hamil R. Harris -- they just don't make 'em like that anymore.)

Compared with the rest of the mainstream media covering D.C. (the supposedly alternative Washington City Paper included), Milloy's columns sometimes feel like foreign dispatches, but the reality is that for much of myopic Twitteronia, these perspectives can be found on the other side of the adjoining row house. "Bridging those sorts of perceptual divides becomes very challenging," Milloy said in the City Paper profile.

But crossing over is not as hard as you think. It is as simple as walking out your front door and onto the sidewalk. Perched on front porches all over the city, you'll find any number of black grandpas (or, more likely, grandmas) 100 times more straight shooting than Milloy. They may be on fixed income. They may be raising grandchildren. Put down the leash and iPhone for a minute. Say hello. Ask how they're doing -- they'll give you an earful.

Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.

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