A few things DC taught me abut ethnicity

Sam Smith – One of the advantages – and pleasures – of having lived most of my life in Washington DC is that you experienced, absorbed, enjoyed and comprehended the great complexities of ethnicity. As I listen to the current national debate on the matter – led by the neo-segregationists on one side and liberals taking selfies of their virtue on the other, I find myself wishing I was back in DC dealing with such matters in terms of specific people, communities and issues rather than as endless conflicting grand abstractions.

As I wrote in The Great American Political Repair Manual 18 years ago:

It is hard to imagine a non-discriminatory, unprejudiced society in which race and sex matter much. Yet in our efforts to reach that goal, our society and its institutions constantly send the conflicting message that they are extremely important.

For example, our laws against discriminatory practices inevitably heighten general consciousness of race and sex. The media, drawn inexorably to conflict, plays up the issue. And the very groups that have suffered under racial or sexual stereotypes consciously foster countering stereotypes — “you wouldn’t understand, it’s a black thing” — as a form of protection. Thus, we find ourselves in the odd position of attempting to create a society that shuns invidious distinctions while at the same time — often with fundamentalist or regulatory fervor — accentuating those distinctions.

In the process we reduce our ethnic problems to a matter of regulation and power, and reduce our ambitions to the achievement of a tolerable stalemate rather than the creation of a truly better society. The positive aspects of diversity remain largely ignored and non-discrimination becomes merely another symbol of virtuous citizenship — like not double-parking or paying your taxes.

In DC there was no way to talk about ethnicity without someone saying, “Yes, but. . .” I learned that over a half century ago when a black Howard University professor told me about integrating a bowling team. The problem was that now he felt he had to go bowling whether he wanted to or not. What he had really been fighting for, he realized, was the right to be as bad a bowler as everyone else. Seeking equality in unreliability.

Consider some little known ethnic facts such as that DC, along with Maryland and Louisiana, are among the few locales with significant numbers of black Catholics, the present mayor and her predecessor among them.

A group, DC Black Catholics, gives some of the history:

During the days of slavery in the United States, two slaveholding states, Maryland and Louisiana, both had a large contingent of Catholics… The Society of Jesus owned a large number of slaves who worked on the community’s farms. Realizing that their properties were more profitable if rented out to tenant farmers rather than worked by slaves, the Jesuits began selling off their slaves in 1837. In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued a Bull, entitled In Supremo. Its main focus was against slave trading, but it also clearly condemned racial slavery: “We, by apostolic authority, warn and strongly exhort in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or reduce to slavery Indians, Blacks or other such peoples.”

However, the American church continued in deeds, if not in public discourse, to support slaveholding interests. Some American bishops misinterpreted In Supremo as condemning only the slave trade and not slavery itself..  During the Civil War, American bishops continued to allow slave-owners to take communion. Pope Pius IX made no secret of his affinity for the Confederacy, and the American hierarchy was so fearful of local schisms that the bishops were reluctant to speak out on behalf of abolition. African-American Catholics eventually operated largely as segregated enclaves. They also founded separate religious orders for black nuns and priests since diocesan seminaries would not accept them.

At one church, however, the story was dramatically different:

Saint Augustine Parish traces its heritage to 1858 and the efforts of a group of dedicated emancipated Black Catholics.  Faced with a society that was not yet willing to put off the last vestiges of slavery and a Church that, at best, tolerated the presence of Black people in its congregation, these men and women founded a Catholic school and chapel on 15th Street under the patronage of Blessed Martin de Porres.  In what is perhaps a touch of historical irony, this school was operating four years before mandatory free public education of Black children became law in the Nation’s Capital.

And in 1949 – five years before Brown v. Board of Education Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle integrated the city’s Catholic schools. One of my friends with Irish roots remembers that while he was there, his basketball team could only play Catholic schools or black public schools.

This is just one example of how Washington’s history doesn’t favor ethnic cliches. Another is the fact that the city had a significant number of free blacks going back to the early 19th  century. Their descendants would share a town with those whose ancestors were slaves or who came to the city from the South in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1960s, working in  SNCC, I became aware of the hostility of some older black residents towards young black activists who were threatening the quid pro quo they had established with the white government and establishment. But if you studied this older subset you also found a remarkable heritage of cultural survival.

Or consider that in that in the 1960s black and white middle class homeowners came together to begin an ultimately successful fight against a proposed freeways system that would have turned DC into an east coast LA. Or that just a few years after I had sat in a room at SNCC as Stokely Carmichael declared that we whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement, I found myself working with others to create a biracial third party that would hold a seat on the city council and/or the school board for a quarter century.

If  such  tales seem a  little odd – even  irrelevant – in today’s environment it’s because our discussions of ethnicity have little room for complexity, or even for interesting accounts of progress. With the help of the corporate media, we prefer to stick to simple issues and grim prognostications.

But it is in true stories and real relationships that we actually find what we have in common with others. Part of the story of places like DC is that blacks and whites – even under segregation – lived close enough physically to learn each other’s real sins and virtues. One small symbol of this was Odessa Madre – the nearest DC ever had to a mob boss, who controlled drugs, prostitution and numbers. Part of her success was that she had grown up near Irish kids some of whom became the city’s cops.

If we want to get along better with others, it would also help if we celebrated the multicultural experience more than we lecture or scold others about it.

.In The Great Political Repair Manual I tried to suggest this

I’m a native Washingtonian and have lived in DC most of my life. DC is two-thirds black. When someone asks me where I live and I tell them, they sometimes look at my fifty-something white face and say, “You mean in the city?” What they mean is: with all those blacks?

 I don’t live in DC out of any moral imperative. I’m not doing anybody except myself a favor. I live here because I enjoy it. Beside, I’d rather be in the minority in DC than in the majority in a lot of places. Here are a few reasons why:

I’ve found black Washingtonians exceptionally friendly, decent, hospitable, and morally rooted. They’re nice folks to be around.

Black Washingtonians will talk to strangers without knowing “who are you with?” White Washingtonians, especially in the political city, are often far more formal and distant. – and more likely to treat you based on your utility to themselves.

Black Washingtonians understand loss, pain, suffering and disappointment. They have helped me become better at handling these things.

Black Washingtonians value humor; many white Washingtonians try (as Russell Baker once noted) to be somber under the illusion that it makes them serious. I like to laugh.

Black Washingtonians value achievement as well as power. Teachers, artists, writers and poets are respected in the black community. As a writer, I like that.

Living in close proximity with another culture provides a useful gauge by which to judge one’s own.

The imagery, rhythm and style of black speech appeals to me far more than the jargon-ridden circumlocution of the white city.

Many black Washingtonians are actively concerned about social and political change; much of white Washington is seeking to maintain the status quo.

White Washington always seems to want me to conform to it; black Washington has always accepted me for who I am.

This is not the way we have been taught to think about cross-cultural relations. But until we view them as an asset to be fostered rather than as an endless problem to be mitigated and regulated, we will continue to define them by their failures rather than their successes.

And we’ll miss out on a lot of fun

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