The 'End' Of Chocolate City

Marion Barry on Black people being "pushed out" of Washington D.C.:

"We're going to stop this trend -- gentrification," said D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). "We can't displace old-time Washingtonians....The key to keeping this city black is jobs, jobs, jobs for black people so they can have a better quality of life in neighborhoods in the city...

Barry, the four-term mayor who emerged from the civil rights movement, also faulted Congress for overturning a residency requirement for local government workers in 1988. That, he said, helped build up what he called "Ward 9," referring to Prince George's County. "We can't keep people from moving, but if we had a residency requirement, we could keep government workers from moving," Barry said.

The backdrop for Barry's hand-wringing, is the fact that Washington is apparently, now, barely a majority black city. Leaving aside the fact that African-Americans are still the largest ethnic group in Washington, Barry's logic encapsulates the problem inherent in the constant cries and lamentations over "displacement."

The vast majority of "Ward 9" migrants are black people. (I have a call into the census bureau at the moment. I'll replace this with detailed stats as soon as get them.)  And the ones Barry is talking about are employed black people. These are not the displaced poor. These are Americans exercising rights, which Barry, in his activist days, helped secure. Now, you can make a serious argument that city workers should have to live in the city that pays their salary. But that's not about preventing people from being involuntarily pushed out. That's about preventing people from voluntarily walking out.

In all these stories about Washington's shifting dynamics, I've yet to see anyone, in any rigorous way, demonstrate why this shift is--in and of itself--bad for African-Americans. There's this implicit assumption that most black people who departed the District would have stayed if not for the hipster influx. But how do we know this? How do we know they aren't, say, fleeing the District's much maligned school system? 

Has anyone seen any numbers on precisely how many African-Americans were "displaced" and how many of them left? How do we define the difference? If my job prospects are better in, say, Houston then in the District, have I been displaced? Or am I, like Americans everywhere, participating in a market economy? Wasn't that the whole point of the struggle?

I'm obviously sympathetic to the plight of the black urban poor. I'm sympathetic to arguments over the effects of drug laws. I'm sympathetic to arguments over the generational effects of red-lining and block-busting. I'm sympathetic to arguments over old-school racism and job discrimination.  But we seem to assume, that, all things being equal, most black people would rather live in big cities. Really? Certainly some would, but I'd see that assumption tested.

And then I'd see it compared with the rest of America. And then I'd see us stop speaking as though Hell's Kitchen didn't happen. As though Little Italy isn't--at this very moment--fading away. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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