City on a Hill: Things done changed

April 24, 2014

To paraphrase The Notorious B.I.G., It was all a dream. You used to read my words up in this magazine.

After five semesters of writing City on a Hill and close to four years of involvement with this fine publication, it’s time to turn the page, so to speak. This column will be my last piece as an undergraduate for the Voice, and the occasion presents an opportunity to reflect on my observations of D.C. politics over the past few years.

Like many other cities, the District of Columbia is in the midst of a profound demographic transformation. Wealthy professionals are flooding into the city, bringing with them the potential for economic development. The gains from this trend, however, have been remarkably concentrated among the city’s white, affluent residents.

Even with the local economic boom and the federal government providing an economic anchor for residents, the National Urban League says black unemployment in the D.C. metro area is 12 percent, compared with just 4.6 percent for whites. More startling are the income disparities. According to a report from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the District ranks fourth among American cities in income inequality.

This influx of capital begets more than dreary statistics. As I’ve addressed previously, the skyrocketinag cost of rent and other living expenses is pushing thousands of D.C. residents out of their homes each year, leaving them to scramble for cheaper housing outside the ocity or fall into decrepit homeless shelters. If nothing else, it’s clear the new wealth isn’t trickling down fast enough to those who need it most.

These economic developments should shock no one. The racial wealth gap is not a new phenomenon and other cities are dealing with increased inequality and gentrification as well. The question is how government will adapt to this new age of economic redevelopment. Will it be one that actively works to combat the root causes of inequality, or one content to step back and hope that a rising tide of growth will lift all boats?

On one hand, D.C. has always had a strong liberal coalition. Since home rule began in 1975 the city has always elected black Democratic mayors, buoyed by a largely minority, working class electorate with a relatively high unionization rate. These leaders contributed their share of disappointment and depravity but they have, at least in theory, been accountable to this coalition.

But in the last two decades or so, as the white tide rose up from west to east, the city’s politics began to look quite different. Even in many neighborhoods east of North Capitol Street, the once-reliable voting base has already been broken, replaced with a wealthier, whiter electorate. These newer residents may be sympathetic to the struggles of marginalized Washingtonians, but by virtue of their social position are less likely to support populist policies aimed at boosting up the poor and working classes. Put simply, as the demographics change, the politics are changing, too. Already, every major city-wide election divides the city, with the whiter, more affluent wards voting one way, and the poorer ones another.

Perhaps a shakeup is good. The local political scene has long been corrupt enough to warrant a change and precious few of the city’s self-proclaimed progressive leaders have succeeded in delivering transformative reforms. The worry is not that the status quo is being disrupted, but rather whether or not the most marginalized residents in the District will be able to find a voice in a city that better resembles the Gilded Age each day.

It’s a rule in this country that political influence tends to follow wealth, and the District is no different. Unless the city’s progressive leaders can find a way to link the interests and destinies of poor and rich, black and white within the District, they will face an electorate that each year falls more out of touch with the struggles of the city’s least fortunate. That will mean our city will likely go down the path toward corporate liberalism, electing politicians like Rahm Emanuel or Michael Bloomberg more concerned with big business growth than rethinking the social contract for the city’s poorest. It will also likely mean that our city falls into the same sort of divisive, racialized politics that have poisoned the Obama era and have already shown signs of surfacing this election cycle.

There is another option. The best mayors throughout history have always understood one thing—a city does best when it takes care of its worst off. If we are ever to see the day of victory over the pernicious, entrenched injustices our residents face every day, it will mean putting the most vulnerable voices front and center. Those shut out of the American promise of a good education, housing, and employment, they are the ones our policymakers must listen to first—not the denizens of luxury popups on 14th street. No matter the cost, District politicos need to learn to cope with the transformation of the local electorate, because there is no going back. As Biggie might say, things done changed.

Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is Managing Editor of The Georgetown Voice

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