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.
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.
In the fanfare over the "new D.C." and drooling over retail, it's almost as if poor people and their grievances have been put on mute. That was the problem with Fenty and some of his more strident "creative class" supporters; many of them went about their business as though the poor were invisible or, worse, already gone. In a city like D.C., these tensions cannot be waved away as mostly socioeconomic. The city's sizable black middle class could have rescued Fenty's campaign, but it didn't. I don't like it either, but racial polarization is just a fact.
That doesn't mean this is the way it will always be. But getting past the polarization does require some brutally honest people to bridge the worlds. Milloy has done this by leaning on decades of institutional memory and contacts, old-school shoe-leather reporting, and a clear and passionate voice. (Ditto for unsung reporters like Hamil R. Harris — they just don't make 'em like that anymore.)
Compared with the rest of the mainstream media covering D.C. (the supposedly alternative Washington City Paper included), Milloy's columns sometimes feel like foreign dispatches, but the reality is that for much of myopic Twitteronia, these perspectives can be found on the other side of the adjoining row house. "Bridging those sorts of perceptual divides becomes very challenging," Milloy said in the City Paper profile.
But crossing over is not as hard as you think. It is as simple as walking out your front door and onto the sidewalk. Perched on front porches all over the city, you'll find any number of black grandpas (or, more likely, grandmas) 100 times more straight shooting than Milloy. They may be on fixed income. They may be raising grandchildren. Put down the leash and iPhone for a minute. Say hello. Ask how they're doing — they'll give you an earful.
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.