Photo by stu_spivack on Flickr.

A DC official says that “white liberals” don’t care about social services, while black folks “aren’t as passionate” about services like recreation centers. Is that right? More importantly, does it matter? Can’t we have both?

Former DC resident Matt Bevilacqua talks about DC’s black-white divide in a post for Next City. It’s leading up to an in-depth Forefront story on DC gentrification that could either penetrate difficult subjects or rehash old, cliché tropes. We’ll see!

That story includes a quotation by a “black city official who has worked on economic development policy”:

On a national political level, we’ve always been and always will be Democratic,” [the city official] told me. “But when you go down into the local landscape or subscribe to the policy of all politics are local, that liberalism has a divide. White liberals in D.C. don’t give a shit about social services because they’re not of that element. White liberals in D.C. are more about quality-of-life issues as it relates to the lifestyle they want to have.

It is bike lanes. It is dog parks. It is about state-of-the-art swimming facilities. It is about recreation centers. Capital Bikeshare. Car2Go. Streetcars. It’s about a way of life. Black folks want this stuff, they’re just not as passionate about it.”

"Liberals” may not be the right word here, as it’s not just liberals who want quality of life services. It’s true, though, that a lot of newer white residents do want bike lanes, dog parks, swimming facilities, and rec centers. There’s no reason black folks shouldn’t want these too, since black folks own dogs, play sports, and have children who could benefit from pools just like folks of any other color.

But even if this official is right that black folks care about them less and white folks care more, why must these conflict? The city has not cut social services to fund dog parks; it cut both in bad times and is increasing both in good times. It does benefit certain politicians or columnists to play groups off each other, but they’re not inherently at opposition.

Look at the debate on the 2011 budget, when DC faced a gap thanks to the recession and Mayor Gray proposed a small tax increase amid many cuts (cuts to things both black and white people like). Who opposed it? We had Jack Evans (white), Mary Cheh (white), and Muriel Bowser (black). The main crusader against the idea was Chairman Kwame Brown (black). Supporters included white members like Jim Graham, Phil Mendelson, and Tommy Wells, and black members like Michael Brown and Marion Barry as well as Mayor Gray.

On issues like growth, Michael Brown (black) and Phil Mendelson (white) have more in common in their voting, as do Tommy Wells (white) and Kenyan McDuffie (black). (And all are liberals, at least on national left-right issues.)

Elissa Silverman, a white liberal running for DC Council, has been one of the strongest advocates for social services in the entire city. Anita Bonds, the black interim councilmember, put out a press release about yesterday’s budget which first praised its lack of tax and fee increases and the proposed bond tax cut.

We can group officials in different ways. There are black and white folks. There are also liberals and conservatives, and more urban-minded members and more suburban-minded ones. One of these divisions is easy to divine by looking at people; the others require paying attention to officials’ actions.

Many voters do vote on the basis of race, but it does the city a disservice when people lump all white folks and black folks to be the same. It’s not just white liberals and black liberals, but there’s also white conservatives and black conservatives, or white supporters and opponents of a growing city and black supporters and opponents. We can’t ignore race, but we can avoid looking only at it and ignoring every other more substantive difference between various groups of residents.

And we can absolutely have a budget that supports both social services and quality of life. Moreover, we have a mayor who won mainly with votes from black folks (and myself) who just proposed a budget that puts strong emphasis on quality of life while also growing social services.

Tagged: budget, race

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.