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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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.

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.