Stop Picking on the Black Middle Class

One of many D.C. black professionals working to improve theirneighborhoods. (Washington Post)
One of many D.C. black professionals working to improve theirneighborhoods. (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!

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.


But it's not productive or even fair for me or anyone else to sit around assigning racial blame for the state of urban education. These are not black or white problems but societywide problems. The schools are a reflection of larger problems facing the urban core left to rot by disinvestment and poor policy decisions.

Blame transportation policies that built great big highways to take striving families right out of the city. Point to the decline of high-paying industry jobs. Take a look at "business innovations" such as crack, which filled the power vacuum in inner cities and made them dangerous places to live.


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.

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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