Stop Picking on the Black Middle Class

It didn't abandon urban communities, despite what some say.

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One of many D.C. black professionals working to improve their
neighborhoods. (Washington Post)

Being pregnant is the perfect cover for all kinds of outrageous behavior. Bark unreasonable late-night demands to your husband, scarf down enough food to feed three starving men, go off on your boss ... just blame it on the hormones. So when, just weeks away from giving birth to my daughter, I found out that my next-door neighbor had decided to open up a crack business, my mama-bear and nesting instincts and hormones went into overdrive.

I cursed out the neighbor-turned-drug dealer, who'd been a friend. I called out his "customers" when they knocked on his door, chasing them away. When that didn't work, I stood outside on my front stoop, belly bulging, and called the cops in broad daylight. When I finally reached someone on Washington, D.C.'s nonemergency line to report drug activity, an older black gentleman on the other end gave me some advice. "Now, listen; this is what you have to do," he said, then dropped his voice to a low, conspiratorial register. "This what the white folks do ... "

I was too furious to hear the rest. What in the Tiger Mom hell did my being white, black or purple have to do with the fact that this man was selling crack? "Just get someone over here!" I barked, and hung up the phone. Still, crickets.

Sadly, this attitude is par for the course in D.C. When you're white -- maybe especially in a very black city like Washington, D.C. -- people pay attention. Some of it is the sheer novelty of whites living in previously all-black neighborhoods. Some of it is historical, and the socioeconomic position of whites in relation to blacks.

Whatever the reasons, as the city continues to gentrify, getting whiter and richer, progress is credited to white folks. It's as if they deserve gold stars for consenting to live among the Negroes and cleaning up the Negro mess. Never mind the complicated cocktail of race, class and history that has shaped the city's fortunes over the years. If you're black, well ... just try to be more like white people!

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This is the premise of Jonetta Rose Barras' cover article in the Washington City Paper. The piece profiles a white woman who was a change agent in her neighborhood public schools on Capitol Hill. This is easier to do when you live in a wealthy, mostly white part of the city, as she did. But she still deserves kudos for having the drive, focus and energy needed to create an island of success in a very dysfunctional school system.

But Barras goes off track when she tries to argue that black neighborhood schools have not seen a similar transformation because the black middle class has abandoned them. Part of the blame, Barras writes, goes to black culture itself: "In many black communities, schools are considered sacred institutions; reverence for teachers is similar to that for pastors  … Consequently, many have been reluctant to question administrators or alter the infrastructure of schools."

Also: Black families "rely" on government to improve District public schools. This is exactly "backwards," Barras writes. She singles out some black D.C. Council members who sent their kids to public schools in predominantly white neighborhoods. "The real culprit is the flight-not-fight mentality prevalent in the black middle class," Barras concludes.

I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect teachers and administrators to do what we pay them to do. That's the way public education is supposed to work in a democracy. And ask my public school teacher-friend who just got cursed out by a parent if the hood greets them like the pope! As for "flight-not-fight"? I believe that white people invented that in inner cities sometime after World War II.

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