The New Milk Chocolate City

DC's demographic shifts can be a politician's dream, or worst nightmare.

Longtime DC residents can now reminisce on what was once known as Chocolate City. Recent Census Bureau data shows dramatic shifts in the city’s demographics, and with African Americans now being just barely the majority, how long will it take for local politics to catch up?

A fellow journo-friend of mine at Westwood One, John Domen, was able to pluck a particularly interesting chord out of the story when he interviewed American University political scientist Steven Taylor. Taylor believes the changing demographics have long had an impact on DC politics. It has meant good things for some of our elected officials, others not so much. 

What some may not realize is that the shift in populations may also force the redrawing of wards. For DC residents, this could result in a royal pain in the butt as they’ll be moved into new wards and get different Council members in the process.

In the first decade of this new century, the District of Columbia saw some major changes. Those changes were perhaps no more evident than under the Anthony Williams administration. He saw the trend of a major African American exodus in some neighborhoods (or helped make it happen with his economic policies).

He was responsible for bringing Target to Columbia Heights. He was responsible for bringing baseball back to Washington, and if there weren’t enough Starbucks to satisfy the droves of young white professionals moving into the city, well, he took care of that, too. 

Adrian Fenty continued the policies of Tony Williams, and the gentrification continued in areas like Petworth and “H” Street. American University’s Steven Taylor says what Williams and Fenty were trying to do was as plain as day.

“Mayors Williams and Fenty reached out to the growing white population in the District of Columbia. You could tell by some of their policies, particularly in regards to education and to the people they appointed to high level office.”

Williams and Fenty made no bones about their mission. They wanted to lure people back into the city. They were successful. In the case of Adrian Fenty, he was perhaps too successful for his own good.

During last year’s mayoral race, Fenty suffered from the perception that he only cared about the wealthier neighborhoods of the District. This perception may have not been a valid one, but Vincent Gray benefited from it nonetheless. Taylor says Gray never enjoyed support in those wealthier neighborhoods anyway, so he concentrated on what were still traditional African American areas. 

It’s interesting, because despite the vanishing populations in places like Wards 7 and 8, Gray won the election, meaning his victory may have been just a symbolic one. “If the demographic trends keep moving as quickly as they have in the past decade, he’s going to have a difficult time probably for reelection,” says Taylor.

So who has the most to gain, and lose, over the next ten years? For that we have to look at areas like Wards 2 and 6, which have seen the most population gains in recent years. Perhaps the only reason why we haven’t seen players like Jack Evans run for mayor was because of this notion of “Chocolate City.” As we now know, that notion is becoming antiquated.

One also has to consider the massive influx of Hispanics into the District, not just over the last ten years, but over the last several decades. Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and Mt. Pleasant are still the heart of D.C.’s Latino population, and Jim Graham has somehow successfully represented the population for a while now. The DC Latino Caucus did not support Graham in the last Council race, begging the question of how long it’s going to take for a Latino star to rise to the local political scene.

No matter which way you slice it, demographics matter, especially in politics. You can cling to old ideas of identity for only so long, but eventually, one must give in to the numbers. Numbers don’t lie.

Jonathan Cohen April 04, 2011 at 06:16 PM
Thanks for the response. If you're just posing these questions without offering analysis as to what the future might hold, I suppose that's fine, but I don't know what I'm supposed to learn from reading your piece. If your point is "the City Council will eventually change to reflect the demographic makeup of the city," that seems self-evident. On second read, I am puzzled by your assertion that Graham has "somehow successfully" represented his Hispanic/Latino constituents. Why would Graham, or any other politician, be unable to successfully listen to his constituents, take their views to heart, and represent them? Is it also surprising that he is able to successfully represent me as a straight constituent, even though he is gay? I don't think so. Graham's experience on the city council makes him well-suited to represent ALL of his constituents, and it belittles both him and the residents of Ward 1 to suggest that his race bears an important relationship with his ability to do good work on his constituents' behalf.
Doug Parrish April 04, 2011 at 06:49 PM
It's not about race. It's about representation. And when the DC Latino Caucus no longer supports its representative, it matters. In fact, the group threw its support behind another white guy (Bryan Weaver) during the last Council race. Jim Graham is no doubt an experienced politician, but he can only last so long when one of the largest groups he represents no longer supports him. I'm loving the comments! Hopefully other readers will want to weigh in...
Jonathan Cohen April 04, 2011 at 07:11 PM
Whether that Caucus supports him might bear on his ability to win reelection. However, you haven't explained why it bears on his ability to do his job now that he has won, which is what you asserted without explanation in your article.
raza April 04, 2011 at 08:48 PM
to the last poster, do more research. i'm a latina living in ward 1. there are a number of areas where jim graham has fallen way short, like failing to crack down on slum lords and work to improve living conditions. grahm will talk tough when a tragedy hits (like when an entire apartment complex burns to the ground, or when an innocent child is killed in his building b/c of lack of secure doors), but the reality is very different
Jonathan Cohen April 04, 2011 at 09:00 PM
That's a very valid opinion, but it's not relevant to my point. I'm not going to debate the merits of Graham's abilities or effectiveness. As my previous comments indicate, I am concerned more with the original article's suggestion that Graham cannot effectively represent his constituents because he is not Latino/Hispanic. Do you disagree?


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »