White Like Me
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.
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."
Here's what The Times did not report about Moton: "Instead of being placed on the speaker's platform, he was relegated along with other distinguished colored people to an all-Negro section separated by a road from the rest of the audience." So wrote Green in "The Secret City," her landmark history of race relations in Washington. This was no anomaly. A local Ku Klux Klan had been formed months earlier, with no protests from either Congress or the white press, and the young Harding administration had toughened the exclusion of blacks from the city's public recreation facilities.
The eye-opening "Secret City" recounting this secret history was not published until 1967, some four years after the Lincoln Memorial served as a backdrop for "I Have a Dream." It was also in 1967 that I graduated from Woodrow Wilson High. As a valedictory, a bunch of us on the school paper voted to publish an editorial in favor of home rule for D.C. "Washingtonians have to beg, plead and cajole members of Congress for funds to renovate slums and slum schools," it read. That was putting it mildly; we still had much to learn. But the editorial was enough of an irritant that our principal tried to censor it, which prompted a brief civic kerfuffle ("Student Editorial Banned at Wilson" read the headline in The Washington Post) and jump-started a few starry-eyed careers in journalism and political activism.
It was one year later that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and Washington's secret city exploded. The fires and riotscame within a block of the building where the Obama transition set up shop.
One would like to say in the aftermath of the 2008 election that everyone lived happily ever after. But the American drama, especially when it involves race, is always more complicated than that.
Looking back at my high school years, I'm struck by how slowly history can move. The great civil rights legislation of the Johnson administration had been accomplished in 1964 and 1965, but by the time of my graduation the impact was minimal - even in the city where the laws were written and passed. Today the nation's capital still has no voting representation in Congress and is still a ward of the federal government, reduced to begging, pleading and cajoling for basic needs. Some 19 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and that 19 percent remains a secret city to many who work within the Beltway.
Washington is its own special American case, but only up to a point. For all our huge progress, we are not "post-racial," whatever that means. The world doesn't change in a day, and the racial frictions that emerged in both the Democratic primary campaign and the general election didn't end on Nov. 4. As Obama himself said in his great speech on race, liberals couldn't "purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap" simply by voting for him. And conservatives? The so-called party of Lincoln has spent much of the past month in spirited debate about whether a white candidate for the party's chairmanship did the right thing by sending out a "humorous" recording of "Barack the Magic Negro" as a holiday gift.
Next to much of our history, this is small stuff. And yet: Of all the coverage of Obama's victory, the most accurate take may still be the piquant morning-after summation of the satirical newspaper The Onion. Under the headline "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job," it reported that our new president will have "to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind."
Those messes are enormous, bigger than Washington, bigger than race, bigger than anything most of us have ever seen. Nearly three months after Election Day, it remains astonishing that the American people have entrusted the job to a young black man who seemed to come out of nowhere looking for that kind of work just as we most needed him.
"In no other country on earth is my story even possible," Obama is fond of saying. That is true, and that is what the country celebrates this week. But it is all the tragic American stories that came before him, some of them still playing out in chilly streets just blocks from the White House, that throw both his remarkable triumph and the huge challenge ahead of him into such heart-stopping relief.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company