White Like Me

Frank Rich – The New York Times

Frank describes very well the Washington of my childhood, along with many of its implications. The only difference in perspective is that I grew up very much of the black Washington that was invisible to the people of his world.
Copyright The New York Times
I cannot testify to what black Americans feel as our nation celebrates the inauguration of our first African-American president. But I can speak for myself, as a white American who grew up in the segregated nation’s capital of the 1960s. Barack Obama’s day is one that I never thought would come, and one that I still can’t quite believe is here.
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Last week I joined a group of journalists at an off-the-record conversation with the president-elect, a sort of preview of the administration’s coming attractions. But as I walked some desolate downtown blocks to the standard-issue federal office building serving as transition headquarters, ghosts of the past mingled with hopes for the future. The contrast between the unemployed men on Washington’s frigid streets and the buzzing executive-branch bees inside was, for me, as old as time.
My particular historical vantage point is a product of my upbringing as that odd duck, a native Washingtonian whose parents were not in government. The first presidential transition of my sentient lifetime, Kennedy’s, I remember vividly. Even an 11-year-old could see that the sleepy Southern town of the Eisenhower era was waking up, electrified by youth, glamour and the prospect of change.
But some of that change I didn’t then understand. J.F.K.’s arrival coincided with Washington’s emergence as the first American city with a black majority. Many whites responded by fleeing to the suburbs. My parents did the opposite, moving our family from the enclave of Montgomery County, Md., into the city as I was about to enter the fifth grade.
Our new neighborhood included the Sidwell Friends School. My mother, a public school teacher, decreed that her children would instead enroll in the public system that had been desegregated a half-dozen years earlier, after Brown v. Board of Education. In reality de facto segregation remained in place. Though a few African-Americans and embassy Africans provided the window dressing of “integration,” my mostly white elementary, junior high and high schools had roughly the same diversity as, say, today’s G.O.P.
I wish I could say we were all outraged at this apartheid. But we were kids — privileged kids at that — and out of sight was out of mind. Except as household help, black Washington was generally as invisible to us as it was to the tourists who were rigidly segregated from the real Washington while visiting its many ivory marble shrines to democratic ideals.
Gradually we would learn more — from our parents and teachers, from televised incidents of violent racial confrontations far away, and from odd cultural phenomena like the 1961 best seller “Black Like Me.” In that book, a white novelist darkened his skin for undercover travels through deepest Dixie, whose bigotry he then described in morbid firsthand detail to shocked adolescents like me.
Surely such horrific injustices could not occur in our nation’s capital.
But as an unintended consequence of Washington’s particular brand of Jim Crow, white public school students got a tiny taste of what racially mandated second-class citizenship could mean. In those days, the city didn’t even have the bastardized form of “self-government” it has now; it was run as a plantation by Congressional District panels led by racist white Southerners (then Democrats). These overseers didn’t want to lavish money on an overwhelmingly black school system, and they didn’t. By the early 1960s, per-student spending in Washington was less than that of any state, impoverished West Virginia and Mississippi included.
If Washington’s white schools received a larger share of that meager budget, as they no doubt did, it was still obvious that our teachers had far fewer resources than their suburban and private school counterparts. Extracurricular activities could be curtailed by the costs of light and heat. The curriculum was also abridged, lest anyone get too agitated by America’s racial inequities. In my history class, the Civil War was downsized to a passing speed bump. In English, we read “Tom Sawyer,” not “Huckleberry Finn.”
Now that we were teenagers, we had both the curiosity and mobility to investigate the strangely undemocratic city that dealt us this hand. In the words of Constance McLaughlin Green, a Pulitzer Prize-winning urban historian, the District’s black population had long occupied “a secret city all but unknown to the white world round about.” We wanted in on the secrets.
There was so much we didn’t know, so much Americans still don’t know. Take the Lincoln Memorial, to which the Obama family paid so poignant a nocturnal visit this month. If you look up coverage of the memorial’s 1922 dedication ceremonies in The Times, you can read of President Harding’s forceful oration commemorating the demise of slavery. You also learn that Dr. Robert R. Moton, the president of the Tuskegee Institute, was invited to pay tribute to Lincoln “in the name of 12,000,000 Negroes.”
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