A room with a view … point

Several weeks ago, I attended a presentation held at a private club in Washington, DC. I was looking forward to the topic, “Alleviating Poverty: The Universal Basic Income Approach.” One of the speakers was a colleague from a monthly breakfast group that I’ve been a part of for over a decade. In fact, I was so looking forward to the presentation that I hadn’t paid much attention to the location.

That changed as soon as I walked into the room. I had been to this club before, but for some reason, I saw it differently this time. I was struck immediately by its grandeur. Versailles came to mind. It was ornate, replete with goldleaf, lots of mirrors, and corner cherubs. The place settings sparkled, ready for us to enjoy dinner before the presentation.

It was breathtaking and it made me uncomfortable.

Was this where we should be discussing alleviating poverty?

My discomfort wasn’t just about the physical setting. It was the combination of the setting and the attendees.

The people in this room were members of the club, literally and figuratively, and their guests. There was lots of chatting during the cocktail hour before the event. One person commented to me that she had been married in this room.  The venue was familiar and comfortable for them. They were proud of it. They repeatedly celebrated the quality of the food, the comfort of the club’s library, and the proficiency and long tenures of the staff. This was their place. They were at home.

I had expected the attendees to be older and white. I just hadn’t thought I’d be the only Black participant. I’m pretty sure that everyone was white except for three of the five presenters, a staffer accompanying one of the speakers, and me. So, was that why I was uncomfortable? Was this about race?  I don’t think so. The dissonance I felt was more about class and understanding/frame of reference.

To me, these were wealthy people. Their conversation, however, suggested they thought of themselves as being in the middle class. Educated? Yes, but other than that, I think they thought of themselves as Joe and Susie Average. Frame of reference is everything, right? Had anyone in the room ever been poor or had direct familial relationships or contact via deep friendship with people who were poor? Could they understand poverty?

Several people commented that many in the club were liberals and that all were knowledge seekers.  Liberals? Was this said so I’d think they were proponents of racial justice and knowledgeable about racial injustice? Was it code? Knowledge seekers? I knew that learning was one of the founding principles of the club. Was this presentation primarily an intellectual opportunity to understand the concept of universal basic income? Did they think that a universal basic income would level the racial playing field, not taking into account the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism? Was I overthinking this? So much swirled through my head as I sat in that room. Did anyone else feel the disconnect?

For those of us who see ourselves as change agents, we are the bridge between the community that is most impacted by the problem to be addressed and the community, that, by their positions and power, hold some of the keys to addressing those problems. We must be comfortable in both places, going to both to gain and provide information, and to discuss strategy. We – the change agents – must be able to navigate very wealthy/powerful/white spaces and translate the realities of poverty to people with none, or little, experience with it (which the panel of presenters did brilliantly).

My concerns about what people did and didn’t know about race, racism, poverty, and class didn’t need to be addressed in one evening. I needed to move beyond the setting and focus on the potential. Because of the inequities of our society, the people in this room had the needed financial, social, and political resources to respond.

Was this private club in Washington, DC the right setting for a conversation on universal basic income? I think it was one of many “right” venues. The club’s program committee had recommended the topic. The attendees were a ready, willing, and able group; so, let the education begin. Plus, the right people are always the ones in the room, right?  Still, what a room …



Will we ever really live as neighbors?

Last weekend, I drove through my childhood neighborhood, Northside, in Richmond, Virginia. It was a pretty, spring-like afternoon. Battery Park, the neighborhood park two blocks from my house, was full of activity. All the tennis courts were being used and kids were playing on the basketball courts.*  I saw adults, old and young, out walking or sitting on their porches enjoying the day.

It is as lovely a neighborhood today as I remember from growing up there over 50 years ago or visiting my dad twenty years ago. There was just one thing that was different. Everyone I saw was white. Everyone. My neighborhood had been Black.

Gentrification? Not exactly.

This wasn’t a neighborhood that declined, and then wealthier people moved in. Surprisingly, this little enclave stayed pretty much middle-class for decades. People kept up their property, the lawns were tended to, and there was never trash on the sidewalks or in the streets. This neighborhood simply moved from a stable, white neighborhood in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s to a Black, middle-class neighborhood in the ’50s and well into the early 2000s when white families started to trickle back in. Now, it’s a white neighborhood. Why?

Why aren’t young Black families moving into this community?

The homes seem desirable to me. The neighborhood is walkable.  The park is an asset.  What is missing?

I asked a Richmonder for an opinion. Here’s the gist of that response.

When buying a home, Black families may be making more permanent housing decisions than their white counterparts.  They can’t move into a neighborhood in which the schools aren’t good because they may not be able to afford private schools. They need to know that the amenities in the neighborhood will grow, not falter, and close. Unlike their white counterparts, Black young people may not have family resources to fall back on should their housing decision in the city not work out. Black families are more likely purchasing a forever home. White families may see it as a starter house. And while Northside has generally withstood that test of time as far as maintenance of the housing stock, it still doesn’t have those cultural markers of a stable, middle class, white neighborhood – a Starbucks or a Whole Foods.  The neighborhood is seen by some as risky. Seemingly, white families can take the risk.  Black families can’t.

Hmmm…. this theory makes sense to me.  Once again, the racial wealth gap is a critical factor.

As I was reflecting on that, I had another shock when I went out to dinner in Churchill, a historically Black section of Richmond. Churchill was the area in which my mother had been born and raised. For most of my young life, Churchill had been an all-Black community.  In the ‘60s, my grandmother was forced to move when a transit improvement – the building of a bridge – wiped out her immediate neighborhood. Even with that, Black folks stayed in the community. In the late 1970s, white families started to drift back into this neighborhood. At that time, it was just a few people here and there. Last weekend as I drove through historic Churchill  and dined in a Churchill restaurant, just like in Northside, I only saw white people.

I was reminded of a phrase that James Baldwin made popular, “Urban renewal means Negro removal.” The transit decision that affected my maternal grandmother’s home was mirrored in my paternal grandparents’ reality. The building of a new highway in the ’50s decimated their all-Black neighborhood of Jackson Ward. The financial and social status of the residents of Churchill and Jackson Ward made them of little concern to the powerbrokers in Richmond. Just as the wealth gap is a factor today in housing decisions, it also was decades ago when my grandparents were being impacted by racism.

I reminded myself that I am fortunate. Unlike my parents’ experience, my childhood house is still there and the neighborhood is very much the same even though the residents have changed. I was sad not to see young Black families enjoying the neighborhood as I had.  I began to wonder if we will ever see really integrated communities. Not ones with a few of that kind of person, or this kind, but neighborhoods that don’t tip to one race or ethnicity, one religion, or one sexual orientation which seems to be the pattern. I’m talking about a residential equilibrium where all are welcome like those signs say and have the resources. Is that even possible?


*The Battery Park amenities were left from when the community was all white.

Apologies are good, but what about redress? What about reparations?

A few weeks ago, I visited the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian complex here in Washington, DC where I live. I’m not sure what drew me to the museum that day, but while there, I happened upon ‘Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II.’ The exhibit had opened last year on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by FDR two months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By this act, over 100,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans living in the United States were placed in prison camps across the country. Hard stop. Reflect.

Another piece of American history about people of color seldom explored at any depth in our American history classes. If it were, maybe fewer of my friends would have almost gasped when I mentioned reparations for the Japanese. I knew about the internment camps, but I had never heard about reparations. In 1988 President Reagan signed legislation offering a formal apology (one for slavery wasn’t issued until 2008) to those who were interned along with a $20,000/person payment of compensation.

unbalanced --

Forty acres and a mule,” the promise made to slaves following the end of the Civil War immediately came to mind as I read the exhibit materials on reparations. I had heard about that promise all of my life. I knew it didn’t happen, but didn’t know what HAD happened.

It started when Union General William T. Sherman met with African-American leaders following the end of the Civil War. Those newly freed men said land ownership was crucial to sustainability in their new freedom. Sherman agreed. Via Special Field Order No. 15, on behalf of the federal government, he promised the freed blacks forty acres from land confiscated from the Confederacy, particularly in Georgia and South Carolina. The settlers also were offered Army mules. One year later, even though families had settled this land, President Andrew Johnson returned all the property to the former landowners.  Again — Hard stop. Reflect.

That’s where it all began. The racial wealth gap… and so much more.

Not only had the slaves built the wealth of those landowners—of the country—they were now denied a fundamental means – land ownership – to establish their own wealth.

I can remember my father, the owner of a small real estate company, repeatedly telling me about owning property. He saw the value of land ownership, its importance. He would say, “You can live on it, borrow against it or rent it out.” In reality, home ownership has been the manner in which most Americans have gained assets—wealth — as the value of their property rose and as they handed it down, generation to generation. When you look at the failure of the US government to provide the promised forty acres against the fact that according to the US Census Bureau, black families are more likely than any other race to live in poverty, you see a correlation. At least I do.

That decision not to honor forty acres and a mule set the stage for the wealth divide.

A report that came out a couple of years ago noted that it will take 228 years for African-American families to amass the wealth that white families have today. Just a few years less than the number of years that Africans were enslaved (1619 to 1864). I had read that report and tried to digest the weightiness of knowing—228 years to gain parity with a current statistic— while the wealth disparity continues to rise out of reach.

So, when I learned the Japanese, a much smaller community in America than African-Americans, with the length of internment much shorter than slavery, had received amends, my first thought was “What about us?” I do not begrudge those who were interned compensation for what they had lost in revenue, possessions, their sense of self-worth and faith in America. They were due.

So are we.

Are black families due reparations?