By Megan Carpentier in Washington, D.C. for the Tribune Media Wire
William Lamar arrived in 2014 as the new pastor of Washington, D.C.’s famed Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the theological home to over 1,200 members. The oldest AME church in the capital, Metropolitan traces its history back to 1838. Its immediate predecessor served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Among its former congregants, Metropolitan counts the abolitionist Frederick Douglass — recently perplexingly celebrated by President Donald Trump — and it hosted the memorial service for the abolitionist Rosa Parks, as well as many other notable African-Americans over the past 136 years. It was also the first-ever black church to host the traditional pre-inauguration prayer service—for Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997, and then for Barack Obama in 2009.
Today, its members follow a program of “worship, liberation and service,” which Lamar, 42, defines as “a mercy ministry with an eye on justice.” The church not only offers GED classes, a food pantry, a homeless outreach program, tutoring services and a ministry for the elderly in Washington, D.C., but also hosts social justice events, like the NAACP’s People’s Inauguration, and participates in the Washington Interfaith Effort to, as Lamar said, “really get to know persons throughout the city, and get to know what their issues are and advocate for them.”
Its history in both Washington and its position as the “the ancestral home to AMEs” might begin to explain the pilgrimages that black Republicans have quietly made to the young pastor’s modest office in the church’s basement since the November election of Donald Trump. Those visits, many conducted under a low ceiling and yellowed fluorescent lights, are apparently part of the Administration’s efforts to reach out to the black community, which was spearheaded by former Apprentice contestant and now Trump Administration official Omarosa Manigault during the campaign. That campaign included Trump’s infamous “what the hell do you have to lose? speech, meetings with prominent African-Americans like Martin Luther King Jr.’s son and, eventually, the aforementioned bizarre paean to Douglass.
Though Pew research shows that a mere 8 percent of African-Americans voted for the new president, and the campaign’s outreach efforts were undoubtedly stymied after New York Magazine revealed in a January issue that Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner had crowed to a group of business executives in December that “he was “proud” Trump had won only 4 percent of the D.C. vote.
Washington does generally skew rather heavily Democratic — its Electoral College votes have all gone to the Democratic candidate since it was awarded the right to participate in 1961 — but not because of the sort of white, Obama-loving bureaucrats of whom Trump has promised to rid the city. Instead, it’s because, until quite recently, Washington was a majority black city: in 2000, African-Americans made up 61 percent of residents; in 2010, they made up 51 percent of residents; and, in 2016, they made up 48 percent. Though black residents are still a plurality in Washington, the shift in demographics is a function of the massive racially-tinged gentrification in the last 10 years, as mostly white residents move in and black residents move out, partially in response to rapidly rising housing prices and fast development.
“[Kushner] is oblivious because he can be,” said Lamar in response to the comments from the young mogul, who is the son of American real estate developer Charles Kushner. “It’s a function of privilege.”
“You have people [in power] who do not have to think outside the narratives that they’ve been given,” he added.
Lamar explains that “official Washington is in ‘Washington'” as the tendency of some people is to think of the nation’s capital as a place inhabited by white, liberal bureaucrats. “But D.C. is the place that people inhabit.”
And, in D.C., the inhabitants are still mostly black.
Those divides between “Washington” and “D.C.” play out in everyday life for many of D.C.’s black residents, often out of sight of the more socially visible denizens of the nation’s capital. “Black people have to be conversant in the language of white Washington, but the reverse is not true,” said Lamar. He noted, for instance, that many black D.C. residents still refer to the closest airport as “National Airport” among themselves, despite the fact that legislators in Washington renamed it Ronald Reagan National Airport in 1998. Those who interact with “official Washington” know to call it “Reagan Airport.”
“All these narratives are running concurrently, and they don’t intersect because they don’t have to,” said Lamar.
“D.C. has its own music, it has its own slang,” he elaborated, referring to go-go music — a black musical genre that rarely gets airplay on the white-owned radio stations, but live performances of which have often been used by police to justify law enforcement actions — and local terms of art, like “bama.”
Still, when outsiders — including Trump, who is now the ultimate insider — think of the “culture of Washington,” they’re often talking about the working culture of the government in the city, not the one created and lived by the inhabitants of it (who are mostly black).
So if the incoming Administration (and its employees) try to change the culture of Washington but ignore the culture of D.C., can they affect how many of its residents actually live?
Clinton Yates, who, at 36, is a lifelong D.C. resident and writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, doesn’t think so.
“What D.C.’s relationship is going to be with the Trump Administration is not going to be as obvious as people think,” he said, referring to some who have suggested that the Trump era in Washington means the death of “cool,” from pop culture relevance to the demise of its newly-recognized restaurant scene. “I don’t know that it’s going to be a huge visible difference,” for the people in his circle, he added.
“There are a lot of people more concerned with how the type of person who comes to town [to work for Trump] will affect the social scene,” he mused. Those reportedly moving to town include white nationalist Richard Spencer, who announced his move to the area after Trump’s win, but before video of him being punched in the face while standing on a Washington street by an inauguration protester went viral. “But I don’t know that anyone knows what to expect, and that’s the scariest part.”
What many in the District had been hoping — if not outright expected — from an new Administration was an end to what residents long-ago dubbed “Taxation Without Representation:” the city’s residents pay federal taxes, but their representative in Congress, currently former civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton, doesn’t have a full vote, and they lack a Senator entirely—meaning those taxes are passed without input from their representative.
Trump, as is his wont, has been circumspect on the city’s prospects for more political power—and any changes to the city would require an act of Congress or a constitutional amendment. In a March 2016 interview with the Washington Post, he refused to give a concrete answer to the questions, even as he pooh-poohed D.C.’s prospects for statehood (“it’s a tough thing”) and said, “Having representation would be okay.” On NBC’s Meet The Press in August 2016, he said: “I would like to do whatever’s good for the District of Columbia, because I love the people.”
And, after Mayor Muriel Bowser met with Trump in December, she pronounced him “a supporter” of the District, but didn’t comment on the statehood or voting rights issues.
Statehood could have significant impacts beyond merely the political: it would allow the city to levy its own taxes — including so-called commuter taxes, on nonresidents who work in the city — and spend and regulate as it sees fit. Currently, Congress is empowered to overturn any law passed by the city government (and has occasionally done so); advocates for statehood have often noted that, without self-rule, the residents’ interest in everything from reforming sentencing laws to legalizing recreational marijuana, to its 1982 effort to guarantee residents fair wages, is subject to the approval of Congress, which at this point is controlled by Republicans.
There are reasons that the city’s government has long been interested in wage and employment guarantees for its citizens. “Let’s not forget that D.C., the area and the city, is one of the richest places in America,” Yates noted, alluding to the fact that the city’s median household income was over $75,000 per year in 2016, and the Washington metropolitan area’s median household income is over $93,000 per year.
“Yet,” he added, “the income disparities are a disaster, particularly in the south part of the city,” referencing the southeast quadrant of the city referred to as Anacostia, where 90 percent of the residents are black and 33 percent live below the poverty line. Washington, D.C. ranks highest in the nation for income inequality.
Anacostia, however, is far from the only low-income, majority-black neighborhood in D.C., despite the influx of white people into historically black neighborhoods like Brookland in the northeast and Columbia Heights and Petworth in the northwest. In Brightwood — an area just north of Petworth into which white gentrifiers are only slowly creeping — the daily rhythms of many of the residents haven’t been much disturbed by the newest resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
At Brightwood’s Emery Recreation Center, community programming continues as it always has: on any given weeknight, area residents can sign in and attend computer classes, participate in tutoring or play sports — basketball is especially popular.
It’s where retired grandmother and oldest of 11 children Linda Brooks, 68, spends at least a couple of nights a week, dropping off and picking up her grand-nieces and nephews for basketball practice. Another, older nephew whose team picture hangs on the wall of the rec center, went to college on a basketball scholarship, she confided.
Brooks is trying to be optimistic about what she can expect from the Trump years— though she took pains to stress that she didn’t vote for the man. Like many seniors, she’s particularly concerned with what will happen with Social Security and Medicare, on which she relies. But as a lifelong black D.C. resident, she also has reservations about what she’s heard about the incoming president’s opinions on African-Americans.
“I’m hoping and praying that he’s in there to learn,” she said, as a young black man tutored a girl about her grand-niece’s age just behind her.
“I think that he’s prejudiced,” she said. “But I hope that he’ll change.” When asked about this, Brooks couldn’t remember a specific statement from the president. “I’ve just heard things,” she said, “But I don’t repeat rumors. I like facts.”
Like many of her neighbors, she tries to find both comfort and optimism in her faith, adding, “Maybe that’s why God put him there, to give him an awakening.”
That guarded optimism among some liberals that Trump might be changed by the office or was, perhaps, meant to be taken seriously but not literally is in slightly shorter supply in the third week of his presidency than in the weeks prior. And Lamar says he understands the urge to give the incoming administration the benefit of the doubt.
“I’m not optimistic,” he said. “But I am hopeful.”
This hope, he said, comes from his faith in God, while his lack of optimism comes from experience. “You can see the short-sightedness that attends a small group of elites making decisions for people,” he explained. “And when they, whether they admit it or not, dehumanize the ‘other.'”
“It comes from making policy decisions, and making assumptions about members of a community without really knowing them,” he added. “When you are doing something for someone, rather than with someone, the ‘doing for’ asserts, however subtly, superiority.”
Trump, notably, has suggested during the campaign that he would improve the quality of life in majority black communities by implementing stop-and-frisk programs like those used (and declared unconstitutional) in New York City and, thereafter, supported increasing the number of police officers on the streets in those communities.
More recently, he implied that he would send in federal troops to reduce violent crime in black neighborhoods in Chicago. Such a solution has little-to-no support in black communities, which tend to be more focused on the human cost of over-policing, and believe that the key to improving impoverished black communities is in anti-poverty and education programs, not an increase in policing actions.
Lamar thinks solutions like those proposed by Trump have their roots in basic prejudices about African-Americans. “What they all argue is that black people are intellectually and morally deficient, and that’s B.S.” he said. “They ignore policies that took black farms, took black land, the disinvestment in schools, segregation, over-policing… We can’t have a real conversation that doesn’t start in that historical truth.”
There is a path that those in power can walk towards reconciliation, he believes, particularly on race issues—and that starts with an acknowledgement that there are race issues to begin with. “I think the path is from mendacity or willful amnesia,” he said, “to empathy, to relationships and only then to justice.”
But, he adds, it’s unclear that the best way to achieve justice for African-Americans is to wait for those in power to get around to granting it.
“We have what we have because individuals fought,” he says. “Because they agitated”—a reference to former parishioner Frederick Douglass’s call for black Americans to “Agitate, agitate, agitate!”