Long after whites had fled to white-only suburbs, the black middle class remained in black neighborhoods, quietly doing the job without fanfare. Its members worked quietly and without recognition to set up beautification committees. They organized safety walks. My late LeDroit Park neighbor Barbara Best used to say that when she and the old-timers would hear about all these “new” ideas for cleaning up the neighborhood, they’d just laugh: “Everything they are doing, we already did.”
Long before teachers were lionized in documentaries, or D.C. superintendents were hailed as heroes on Oprah, it was black middle-class teachers and administrators who were doing the unsung work of educating society’s most vulnerable students. It was black middle-class parents who accepted the burden of integrating schools by sending their children across town to white neighborhood schools because they valued diversity. It is almost unheard of for white families to do the same.
During D.C.’s murder-capital days especially, when white faces were scarce, black administrators kept the doors to raggedy school buildings open all over the city. All of this while knowing that whatever privilege they might have earned for their children could collapse at any moment in a hail of gunfire. Where is their gold star?
When I think of D.C.’s fortunes, I think of my 116-year-old row house. When my husband and I bought it more than a decade ago, we were broke and just out of grad school. Thanks to gentrification, our property values have risen and we have become more established in our careers.
So we now have the means to do infrastructure work and a few upgrades. But all of those years when we made do without the benefit of granite countertops do not reflect poorly on our moral values. We did not have a pathological predilection for cheap Formica. We were broke!
For decades, that’s exactly what countless black families who remained in the city have done: made do. The city’s positive transformation does not reflect some inherent white-people goodness trumping black pathology. The difference is that now the city has the right policies and public and private investments to reach critical mass.
We all — rich, poor, black, white — want better for our kids. We all have a lot more work to do. You just don’t get extra points if you happen to be white.
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.