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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In a long and thoughtful Washington City Paper profile last week, veteran journalist Courtland Milloy was hailed as the "crotchety grandpa the city needs."

The writer, Rend Smith, gave the Washington Post columnist credit for being among the few mainstream writers tuned in to the racially polarized passions that toppled 39-year-old incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty in September's primary elections. Milloy's columns consistently bucked conventional wisdom about the mood of the city prior to Mayor-elect Vincent Gray's primary victory, which inspired more "WTF?" national news stories about D.C. than we've seen since Marion Barry was re-elected after his prison stint.

That their (smiling?) black neighbors were plotting an electoral revolt was apparently big news to some white residents of the District. So it probably felt like a sucker punch when Milloy did a little post-election grave dancing on "Fenty's hip, newly arrived 'creative class' firing up their 'social media' " to defend him. Milloy derided them as "myopic little twits."

Of course, this put-down was addressed in the climax of the City Paper profile, when Smith finally mustered up the courage to ask Milloy a burning question: "As he's feeling so loose, this seems the opportunity to spring my blunt question on him, the one many of those who took the 'myopic twits' column to heart might be aching to ask. 'Do you like white people?' "

Deep, deep sigh.

This is the color-coded reality of life in the District. White median income is $92,000; black median income is $34,000. The boom in cafés and farmers markets has done nothing to stem a stunning slide into poverty in recent years. In 2007 the black child poverty rate was 31 percent; in 2008 it was 36 percent, and the latest figures show that the figure has shot up to an appalling 43 percent. Forty-three percent. The poverty rate for white children is 3 percent. Unemployment doubled, and black people disproportionately lost their jobs and homes. 

This is what they mean when they talk about class warfare: two trains -- one privileged, one not -- running in opposite directions at a dizzying speed, each with divergent needs and expectations from government. No need to invent it or "inject race" into it; this is the objective reality of life in the District. Yet somehow the narrative about change becomes "Courtland Milloy doesn't care about white people!"

"I don't know why people think I have a problem with the [white] influx itself," Milloy told Smith. "Not to be deliberately provocative, but that is the white view; it's white-centered. 'Why are you opposed to us moving in?' But nothing about, 'Why are you concerned about the way black people are being kicked out?' People are being displaced, and sometimes run over roughshod. To me that's the issue. But depending on who gets to frame the issue -- who gets to pose the question, set the framework -- it becomes, you know, what's wrong with white people moving in?"

Even in places like D.C. that are decreasingly but still majority black, the sense of white entitlement grows, while black views are increasingly de-legitimized. Those people don't know what's good for them! A few years ago, when I was a Washington Post Style reporter, I was chastised by the Post's ombudsman for writing an article about a dispute between an organization of local black designers and their Korean-born manufacturer. The Post's readers' representative criticized me for telling the story "almost exclusively from the perspective of the black community."

To this day, I'm scratching my head at that one. In a month of my reporting the story in the racially segregated neighborhoods in the District, the sightings of non-black people added up roughly to, um, zero. For a newspaper published in the Chocolate City, I found it highly incongruous not to see stories from a black perspective.

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