A study by graduate students at American University’s School of Communications reveals that when Mayor-elect Vincent Gray assumes office Jan. 2, he will do so amid a city that appears to have come undone.
The study titled, “A Divided City” was a recent feature of the university’s online publication, American Observer and included a three-part podcast discussion with AO editor Jeremy Borden, AU assistant professor Angie Chuang, local filmmaker Tendani Mpulubusi and Washington Post reporter Jonathan O’Connell. Their conversation focused on prevailing racial and socioeconomic issues that emerged during the 2010 mayoral election – particularly the emergence of a Black-White narrative during the primary election and the effect Michelle Rhee, former District of Columbia Public Schools chancellor had on the system.
The report also considers longtime Columbia Heights residents’ fear of rising rents in neighborhoods that bear little resemblance to their past, an influx of new residents in the historically African-American U Street community that has spawned tensions, and efforts of Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia to improve the community through education programs while trying to stave off gentrification.
Borden said during the podcast that in putting together the report, researchers sought to “analyze and tackle” issues that had divided the city – such as those that proliferated during the mayoral election.
According to Chuang, during the election period she saw a racial undertone in the fact that wealthy professional, gentrifying Whites supported Mayor Adrian Fenty, while working -class Blacks stood behind Gray. Rhee had some impact on that dynamic, she continued, though people didn’t talk about it.
“But what was a huge part of the equation was that she was neither Black nor White.”
Chuang said she believed that overall, Rhee was “symbolic of a new force that was emerging in the city in terms of immigrant minorities” and that she was presented as a polarizing figure that neither community knew what to do with because she didn’t fit into either racial category.
Mpulubusi , who grew up in Southeast Washington and whose latest documentary is Barry Farms Past and Present, said throughout Fenty’s career he had been known for “disappearing and not being present when people felt they needed his leadership.” According to Mpulubisi, that behavior played a vital role in Fenty’s defeat.
O’Connell commented on how division within city schools affected neighborhoods during election time.
“You could take Michelle Rhee’s face and place it on a flyer during the elections and half of the city would be for Fenty and the other half for Gray,” said O’Connell.
He added however, that putting the racial aspect aside, Fenty came across as a “go-it-alone leader,” who put into place a lot of people who were profusely loyal to him.
“He was late to acknowledge that and by the time he began apologizing, a lot of people had already decided that they were done with him,” said O’Connell.
He further noted that when Fenty won the election in 2006 the city’s economy was in good shape, more residents were employed and earning bigger pay checks and that the number of home foreclosures was smaller.
“So now there are a lot of people in the city who are really hurting,” Connelly said. “Even though the Washington area economy is still one of the best in the country, the District’s unemployment is still higher than the rest of the country.”