What DC can teach us about multiculturalism

Sam Smith – Despite all the talk about the historic injustice towards blacks in America, there is something often missing from the story: how blacks have contributed to America. As someone who was part of a white minority in Washington DC for more than half of my life and who has four Puerto Rican nephews and nieces, along with their mother, this strikes me as a great flaw when considering multiculturalism. After all, for it to work you need something more than guilt and sorrow on the part of whites. Rather you need a culture in which each part can have a positive effect on the whole.

As a white guy starting to play jazz as a teenager, taught drumming by a black musician in the 1950s, majoring in anthropology in college and doing media work for Marion Barry before he became mayor, enjoying and respecting black culture has never been hard for me. But I have also come to realize that living in a black majority DC has also been a major factor in this. DC has a different story

Black historian Marya Annette McQuirter, the author of several award-winning books wrote about this local history in A Brief History of African Americans in Washington, DC. Here are some of her notes:

“African Americans were 25 percent of the population in 1800, and the majority of them were enslaved. By 1830, however, most were free people. Yet slavery remained. African Americans, of course, resisted slavery and injustice by organizing churches, private schools, aid societies, and businesses; by amassing wealth and property; by leaving the city; and by demanding abolition.

“On April 16, 1862, Congress passed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, making Washingtonians the first freed in the nation, nine months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863

“By 1900 Washington had the largest percentage of African Americans of any city in the nation. Many came because of opportunities for federal jobs. Others were attracted to the myriad educational institutions

“As far back as 1814, churches had operated and supported schools and housed literary and historical societies that promoted critical thinking, reading, lecturing, and social justice. African Americans also created hundreds of black-owned businesses and numerous business districts.

“At the dawn of the 20th century, African Americans had created a cultural and intellectual capital. Washington had relatively few “Jim Crow” laws. However, segregation and racism were endemic.

“In 1957 Washington’s African American population surpassed the 50 percent mark, making it the first predominantly black major city in the nation.

“In 1974 residents chose Washington as the city’s first elected black mayor.

“By 1975 African Americans were politically and culturally leading the city with more than 70 percent of the population. The Black Arts, Black Power, Women’s, and Statehood movements flowered here. Indeed, Marion Barry, who succeeded Washington as mayor, began his public life here as a leader of local justice movements

“There were independent think tanks, schools, bookstores, and repertory companies. Go-go (DC’s home-grown version of funk) as well as jazz, blues, and salsa, resonated from clubs, parks, recreation centers, and car radios. With the uniting of political activism and creativity, African Americans were transforming the city once again.”

In short, Washington has had a strikingly different ethnic history than many places elsewhere in the country, yet like its lack of electoral equality (that could be easily solved by statehood), this different story remains largely ignored. As I noted some years ago: “Our approach to prejudice and discrimination is not unlike our approach to drugs: We plan to simply rule them out of existence. In so doing, we have implicitly defined the limits of virtue as merely the absence of malice.”