- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2000

What's all this talk about race? Some people are screaming about "racial division" and whining about the need for "healing" because many residents in predominantly white areas favored an amendment to the District's Home Rule Charter, which changed the school governance structure, clearly defined the roles and responsibilities of board members and created a new State Office of Education. A majority of blacks voted against the measure.
Some pundits and civic activists said the split proves that, despite recent propaganda to the contrary, racial divisions are not dead. No one said they were. What many people have said is that the days when the race card was used by elected officials are well behind the city. And, thankfully they are.
Still the naysayers want someone to "heal" the city, to bring people together, as if division in the District is a new thing. It isn't. Black and white residents in the nation's capital, like those in the rest of the nation, frequently read from different pages sometimes different books. Any student of local politics knows the racial and class fault lines have always presented themselves during citywide elections.
Let's go to the clips: In the 1978 mayoral election Marion Barry won by appealing to white voters and capitalizing on the class division within the black community a phenomenon that receives little attention, either from local leaders or the racial watchdogs in the media. In 1982 many of Mr. Barry's white supporters turned their attention to his opponent, Patricia Harris, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. So Mr. Barry, the cunning politico, consolidated his African-American base and cast himself as the Messiah come to protect their rights while cutting the government contract pie so that more blacks got a slice. Later, the savior became the demagogue.
The 1994 mayoral race pitted three African-Americans against each other D.C. Council member John Ray, former Mayor Barry resurrected from federal prison and a two-year stint in the legislature, and the current mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly. Class and color reared their heads again. The divisions within the black community were ignored. The media latched onto Mr. Barry's sensational "Get over it" assault on those white voters who overwhelmingly supported his opponents.
As recently as 1998, when Anthony Williams won with a coalition similar to the one that catapulted Mr. Barry into office in 1978, race and class divisions were still on duty. Council member Kevin Chavous clearly won more middle class black voters during that year's September primary. Typically, the gap between whites and blacks received major attention.
Then as now, some people plead for a healer. But who is the magician capable of erasing centuries of tension, without direct assistance from the affected? Who is the magician that can turn defeatism into hope?
Let's flip the script: Suppose Mr. Williams meets, as he has promised, with select civic leaders, mostly from Ward 8, to begin a "healing process." What happens next? Will voters east of the Anacostia River, many of whom have children in public schools, depend on a well-run government and effective social policies, begin to participate more aggressively in the democratic process? Will they come to understand more fully that their involvement can refocus the current agenda? Will they all explore the reason that after more than 20 years of black political rule, some African-Americans still don't understand the connection between politics and economic power? Will the sense of defeatism that far too many African-Americans express, suddenly morph into a belief and confidence in their government?
White voters can't be accused of committing some deadly sin because they consistently demonstrate their understanding of the link between political participation and economic power. They aren't ogres because they vote their self-interest. Most people, including African-Americans, make selections based on the information the receive and how they feel a candidate, social policy, or situation might affect their current lifestyle. Instead of screaming "dirty pool," African-Americans and other civic leaders should examine why some blacks, especially those east of the river, consistently opt out of the process. Why don't they vote?
If civic activists, pundits and others want to reduce the racial and class divide they had better get busy convincing blacks, Hispanics and Asians, especially those in poor and working-class communities that this is their city, too. They had better help turn off the soap operas, put down the basketballs, end the gripe session around the office cooler. They had better help blacks understand that pointing the all-accusing finger at the white man isn't going to improve the condition of their neighborhoods, increase the number of available jobs or improve the quality of education for their children.
The only real way to effect change in a democracy is to take risks, to get involved, to push your way to a seat at the table and to be ready to fight for what you need. When this happens more frequently in black and other minority communities, residents there will have demonstrated they understand power and are prepared to use it starting with the ballot. Until then, a year of meetings and a week of crying won't alter the state of affairs, and it certainly won't bring any real or lasting healing.


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