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TRB From Washington

An almost remarkable piece ran in last Sunday's Washington Post. I say "almost" because the Post has run articles before that reflect mild black hostility to whites. But it is still rare for even the Post or The New York Times to run articles that openly defend racial separatism as a goal in itself.

The article, by Post staffer Natalie Hopkinson, is a tale of how she and her husband moved to D.C. and bought an expensive Victorian house in the District's Bloomingdale section. Her intent was not merely to live in the District but to prevent white people from buying the house. In her words, "[T]he fact that we had emerged victorious from a six-month battle at the height of the District real estate wars--skirmishes in which we were often the lone black faces vying for homes in historically black neighborhoods--said something else: `We damn sure are not about to let white folks buy up all the property in D.C.'"

Racial hostility to non-blacks pervades the entire piece. Hopkinson and her husband grew up in largely white middle-class neighborhoods and loathed the experience. They were, she says, subjected to bigotry. Her response is to return to a predominantly black city and keep it as segregated as she can: "There is a real sense among black Washingtonians that the city is slipping away from us. A few months ago, as I left a take-out on Georgia Avenue, a gentleman passed me a flyer. It invited me to a community meeting where residents planned to debate the question, `Is the Chocolate City turning Vanilla?' I pocketed the flyer, but didn't bother going to the meeting. I already knew the answer: Not if I have anything to say about it."

In some ways, Hopkinson's commitment to return to the inner city--in contrast to the countless members of the black (and white) middle-class who have abandoned it--is admirable. She also sees no reason why white residents cannot also do their part: "Many whites want to help out, too, and their privileged racial status can only improve the city's prospects. But this is the Chocolate City. It's our responsibility as black people to return to these historically black communities that are finally rebounding." Notice that the whites do not bring their commitment, talent, or understanding. Their only asset is their "privileged racial status."

This is not another battle about gentrification. Hopkinson is not a longtime, poor black resident being squeezed out by higher rents. She's an affluent member of the black middle class and, like many bourgeois blacks, seems to view her success as reason to be more racially bitter, not less. She is a newcomer to a city she defines as her own solely because of the color of her skin. In her eyes, white residents of the Chocolate City, even if they have lived here all their lives, are not as authentic as she.

Is this racism? The Post doesn't think so. But would the Post ever publish a piece by a white man who wanted to move back to, say, Cincinnati because it was once a predominantly white city, and who believed he had more right to be there than black newcomers and residents? Of course not. Just imagine the statement "There is a real sense among white Washingtonians that the city is slipping away from us" appearing in the Post. Maybe in a Ku Klux Klan newsletter.

But the distinctions between right-wing racists and left-wing racists are increasingly hard to discern. The left now argues that, since racism is not a personal moral choice but a structural oppression, blacks de facto cannot be racists. Liberals now argue that, although some element of choice is involved in a racist statement or act, minorities--especially those who have suffered in the past--should have more leeway than whites in being bigots. Fewer and fewer members of the American intelligentsia still believe what liberals once held sacred--that there is never any excuse for shunning or condemning anyone because of his or her race. Hardly anybody still maintains that allowing blacks to be more racist than whites is in itself racist because it robs individual blacks of the expectation that they can be as moral as anyone else.

But Hopkinson's case is interesting because it presents the issue in extreme form. She is wealthy; she grew up in integrated neighborhoods; she has a stellar education; she is a newcomer to the city; and yet she still claims racial privilege in D.C. over whites, Latinos, Asians, and any others with the nerve to live and work in a city that desperately needs all the influx it can get.

You could argue, I suppose, that protecting a neighborhood's culture is not the same thing as racism. Hopkinson, however, is new to her neighborhood. She's not defending something that is already hers. She is staking a claim--on purely racial grounds--to a culture she has decided to embrace. In some ways, this is human. You can see why some Hasidic neighborhoods want to keep out gentiles to protect their culture; you can see why some gay neighborhoods fret about becoming straight yuppie paradises (once all the town houses have been fixed up). But the line between a legitimate desire to defend a way of life and an ugly aversion to living among people who are different is a crucial one.

It should be possible, for example, to retain the character of a predominantly black neighborhood while incorporating increasing numbers of whites, Latinos, and Asians. What's to stop newcomers from getting to know local manners, food, and neighborhood events, regardless of their ethnicity? One of the joys of my mixed neighborhood in D.C., for example, is the local Catholic church, St. Augustine's. Predominantly black, its liturgy is a unique blend of African American spirituality, Catholic ritual, and Gospel music. I may be a white gay Catholic, but no one bats an eyelid if I show up in the pews. Why shouldn't, equally, my black neighbors appreciate the Korean food my local convenience store offers? Why shouldn't my straight friends have a beer every now and again at a gay bar? My local park, named after Malcolm X, hosts Salvadoran soccer games on weekday evenings. This is not, of course, what Malcolm X had in mind, but it's certainly close to the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.

Does this threaten the identity of the Chocolate City? Only if you identify a city on purely racial grounds. Resisting an attempt to wipe out or smother an entire culture is not the same as resisting people purely because of their superficial differences. That's why parochial Hasidim who shun outsiders are indeed offensive to liberal values. Ditto for white-ethnic neighborhoods where black people are subtly and not-so-subtly kept out. And ditto for black neighborhoods that make white interlopers feel unwelcome not because the newcomers are wealthy or racist but simply because they are white. The freedom of association to keep to one's own should be legal, as long as the government doesn't enforce it. But in a liberal culture, such separatism should be seen for what it is: an assertion that what we have in common as citizens and as human beings is less important than what separates us as members of racial, ethnic, or other groups. This, in many ways, is still the fault line in our current cultural politics. It hasn't gone away. In fact, the separatists' arguments are gaining force all the time--abetted by white liberals who should know better and who are too cowardly and guilt-ridden to take this evil on.