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Washington, D.C.'s Racial Polarization Is Not That Bad

It’s still a close race, but the odds are that Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty will lose to D.C. Council chairman Vincent Gray in the dispositive Democratic primary next Tuesday. And many observers are already deploring the racial polarization of our nation’s capital that may be evident in the results, with Gray winning mainly because of overwhelming support among African Americans.

The storyline, written many times, is that Fenty has focused on tough reforms, most especially of D.C.’s horrid public school system, that are mainly of interest to the upscale white gentrifiers who have been colonizing the District in recent years. He has meanwhile ignored, critics say, the economic concerns of the suffering black voters who live outside of, or are being pushed out of Washington's boom areas by rising rents.

If Gray wins, there’s no doubt that national pundits will immediately associate Fenty’s demise with the political prospects of Washington’s most famous resident, Barack Obama, who has also, it’s often said, forgotten his base.

But as a former resident of the District, who lived in Washington back in the days when Marion Barry dominated local politics, I have to say that the racial polarization present in the Fenty-Gray race seems comparatively benign.

In his later mayoral campaigns, Barry stood forthrightly for the proposition that District government existed to provide jobs for middle-class African Americans (many of them non-District residents), not to deliver services. He depended on what was then called the “Lorton vote,” the families of prisoners in D.C.’s jail. And every issue was polarized on racial lines, with Barry, deploying an argument familiar to ethnic politics of every variety, constantly suggesting that any reform idea was intended to reduce Chocolate City’s self-government.

Then came the mayoral reign of Anthony Williams, who rendered the idea of competent government services non-racial, if not entirely non-controversial.

Adrian Fenty rode into office on Williams’s legacy, and the long-awaited backlash against coldly rational government reforms is manifesting itself. But let’s not treat this as an overwhelmingly racial issue. Vincent Gray is not Marion Barry, and his victory, if it happens, would mainly be a matter of making District government more sensitive to the needs of citizens, mostly African Amercians, who are not doing well economically. Gray’s constituency includes public employees hostile to needed reforms. But he’s hardly promising a wholesale gutting of Fenty’s initiatives.

The bottom line is that racial polarization in voting can be toxic or healthy. The presidential competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 became extraordinarily predictable on racial and ethnic grounds even though, or perhaps because, they differed little on policies. Either one of them would have pursued a similar agenda in the White House. That may be the case in the D.C. mayoral primary too, if Vincent Gray wins and understands his victory as mandating a modification rather than a reversal of Adrian Fenty’s policies.