Of the two rivers that cup our nation’s capital – the Potomac and the Anacostia – the latter of the two is, perhaps, the most apt reflection of where America is at socio-economically. The Anacostia River – the Anglicised namesake of which was first officially recorded by Thomas Jefferson and referred to the Nacochtank Native American tribe dwelling east of the river – is just down the hill from my Anacostia house and reflects well what divides our nation’s capital, and, ultimately, America.
A quick dig into the District’s demographics and it is painfully apparent: A growing white majority living west of the river, encroaching east, and a predominantly African American majority living east of the river. There is no question that we are a deeply and demographically divided city. As I take Metro’s green line home to Anacostia after work, I am frequently the only white person on the train. Any remaining white folks on the green line generally disembark at Navy Yard, the last stop before crossing east of the Anacostia River.
As it happens in DC, so too does it happen in America: This year, researchers at Dartmouth, the University of Georgia, and the University of Washington looked at Census neighbourhood data to compare trends in racial diversity and found that highly diverse neighbourhoods are actually rare, African Americans remain concentrated in segregated neighbourhoods, and newly arrived immigrants continue to settle in concentrated racial residential patterns.
Yet, this trend is not the only divider in the District. Anacostia River is a divider of class as well, with a majority of the town’s wealth living to the west of the river and a much poorer population living to the east. Hovering much lower than the national average of $50,000, the average median household income in Anacostia struggles at $30,000 for a family of four, compared with Washington, DC’s $60,000, and the broader DC metro area at well over $80,000. In fact, US Census data cites the income gap in the District as one the highest in the nation. Furthermore, the unemployment rate west of the river is roughly 8.9 percent, while east of the river it’s 35 percent.
The Anacostia River is also a racial disparity dividing line with regard to educational achievement and opportunity. More money, better access, more opportunity and higher standards characterise learning the west of the river. Less money, fewer supplies, fewer opportunities and access, and lower standards is what is available for the students east of the river.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the District has the biggest black-white and Hispanic-white gaps in the country by every measure the study made. There is a 73-point gulf between the District’s white and black eighth-graders on mathematics exams. This is more than double the national average gap of 31 points. Despite this, the DC government is lowering standards for black and Hispanic students, hardly a winning solution that closes the achievement gap or helps end racial disparities in academic performance.
“Hovering much lower than the national average of $50,000, the average median household income in Anacostia struggles at $30,000 for a family of four.”
These disparities make for difficult social mobility. In my Anacostia neighbourhood, for example, where families have lived for generations and great-grandparents live on the same block as their kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, it is quite clear that social mobility – being able to do better than our parents did – is difficult to impossible.
And yet, despite the deep disparities in economic and educational opportunity and achievement, there is something very different about Anacostia that sets it distinctly apart from the rest of Washington. It is the people who live here. Unlike anything I’ve experienced in my past residences west of the river, my Anacostia neighbours are like no other.
Frankly speaking, it is one of the only places in the District where you can find a real community. My neighbours, many of whom have lived on my block for more than 30 years, and some longer than 50 years, look out for me, ask about me, take care of me and call me when I’ve been out of town simply to check up on me. My neighbours are one of the best parts of my day. Every morning is a word of wisdom from a neighbour or an offered ride to the metro. Every night is a friendly recap of the day’s goings-on, and every month is a block or dinner party. After several years in Anacostia, I am now a brother to my neighbours. That is what they call me and that is what I feel.
In DC, this amiable neighbourly behaviour is now remarkably rare, which is why I moved to Anacostia in the southeast – where it is not. Unfortunately, too few people on the west side of the Anacostia ever cross the river to realise this. I’m amazed at the psychological barrier, despite how close Anacostia is to downtown Washington.
Bridge the barrier
Until this barrier is bridged, the aforementioned wealth, race and education achievement gaps will remain persistent and pervasive. I’m not suggesting gentrification, far from it; though it’s worth noting that my neighbours’ biggest beef with the newly built condos nearby is that the upper-middle class owners never come, chat or chill with us, not even at the big annual end-of-summer block party. Their aloofness and disregard for pre-existing dwellers is the biggest offence.
What I am suggesting is a courageous countenancing of the classism, racism and inequality of opportunity that exists in our nation’s capital and in our country. In Anacostia’s case, that means crossing the river, being present with people, listening to their needs and asking how to be of service, whether it is small business grants, local hiring quotas for east-of-the-river projects, job skills training, housing and mortgage assistance, tutoring and GED test prep, nutritional options to offset Anacostia’s food deserts, free legal advice and representation, career mentoring, summer jobs for Anacostia’s youth, in-town environmental cleanups, or as simple as childcare for a single working mother.
There is a reason why Anacostia’s older generation still votes for Marion Barry as their Ward 8 City Council member. When serving as mayor of Washington, DC, Barry got them jobs. We must now do the same for Anacostia’s next generation, empowering all youth east of the river with the access, opportunity, skill and confidence to rise and lead – before the boot of a gentrifying city kicks this can further down the road.
The District’s disparities are not so different from the country’s disparities. America now is witnessing some of its highest income inequality rates and lowest social mobility rates ever and the rise in violence and prejudice based on race, creed, colour and orientation is increasingly disconcerting. If we are to fix any of this, it is best that we start at home, in our back yard and in our nation’s capital. And that begins with the Anacostia.
Michael Shank is an adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and a senior fellow at the French American Global Forum.