You Can't Talk About Race In D.C. Without Talking About Unemployment

The New York Times is the latest paper to take a look at Washington, D.C.'s internal divisions, but it stays in the shallow end of the pool:

Some of these poorer residents saw revitalization as code for efforts to drive them out, and the building of dog parks and bike and streetcar lanes as efforts by affluent whites to re-arrange spending priorities to suit themselves. That perception surfaced during the Democratic primary last year and was used — many say unfairly — as a criticism of Adrian M. Fenty, who was then the mayor.

“Fenty did things that were attractive to white people,” Marion Barry said in an interview. Mr. Barry is the storied former mayor who served time in prison, but is still so adored by his black constituency that he has remained in elected office.

This is the bedtime story some of the city's more affluent residents like to tell themselves because it makes them feel righteous: Fenty was a great mayor who did wonderful things for the city and D.C.'s black residents punished him for it, content to embrace scoundrels like Barry. But for all the focus on demographic changes, the Times barely dips a toe into the disproportionate impact of the city's job crisis, noting only that "Ward 8, in the city’s mostly poor and black southeast, had the highest jobless rate in the country."

This is actually wrong -- as Benjamin Orr pointed out at the time, Ward 7's unemployment rate was higher than Ward 8's. But the Times leaves out the statistics most relevant to Fenty's fall, so I'll list them here. First is D.C. unemployment:

unemployment rate dc.jpg

So unemployment goes up like 5 percent after Fenty takes office in 2007. Those are pretty strong headwinds for an incumbent, but let's take a look at where that rise in unemployment was concentrated:

DC unemployment by race.png

That's right. In the middle of the great recession, white unemployment goes up a hair above 1 percent, while for blacks it goes up 5 percent, and doubles for Latinos. Now personally, I don't think this is Fenty's fault -- there's only so much that a city mayor can do to blunt the impact of an economic crisis. But looking at these numbers, is there any real mystery as to why so much of the city was angry at Fenty? Why he was viewed (mistakenly) as someone who cared about the city's gentrifying newcomers rather than its longtime residents?

No, there isn't. But it's much easier to chalk this up to black resentment without discussing the underlying economic forces that drove the anti-Fenty backlash. What happened during Fenty's term was that black people and Hispanic people lost their jobs while white people largely kept theirs. Blaming this on Fenty is unfair, but given that politicians are always evaluated in part by the jobs they help create (or lose) voting him out was an entirely rational decision. I'm not sure why, in a story about Washington, D.C.'s internal racial divisions, the only mention of this is a throwaway line about unemployment in Ward 8. Alongside the city's black exodus, the uneven impact of the economic crisis is the story. 

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