On Old and New, and Race Narratives


As Martin Austermuhle wrote this morning, there are many narratives floating around to explain Vince Orange’s victory in the special election for the open at-large council seat. Nearly all of the ones that I have seen have, unsurprisingly, focused on race.


There is little doubt that these elections highlight the changes that DC is currently undergoing. As the Post put it:

Orange struggled to win over voters in neighborhoods in the western part of the city, resulting in an electoral split similar to last year’s mayoral race, in which Gray unseated Adrian M. Fenty (D).

Again this is billed as white DC vs. black DC, but I prefer to think about it in terms of old DC politics vs. new DC politics. What these two elections have shown is that the newcomers are becoming increasingly politically aware and active, if not as of yet effective.

The narrative of old DC vs. new DC is not something that just cropped up to explain the election results after the fact, but played an enormous role throughout the campaign. Late in the campaign, Kwame Brown’s father Marshall, who was on Sekou Biddle’s campaign staff at the time, was quoted in a Washington Post article:

Marshall Brown, a longtime D.C. campaign strategist whose son Kwame is the council chairman, worries that the shift in population will result in a racially polarized electorate. “The longtime white population, the people who got involved in statehood, civil rights and environmental causes, thought of this as a black city,” said Brown, who is black. “But the new white voters aren’t involved like that. They want doggie parks and bike lanes. The result is a lot of tension.

“The new people believe more in their dogs than they do in people. They go into their little cafes, go out and throw their snowballs. This is not the District I knew. There’s no relationship with the black community; they don’t connect at church, they don’t go to the same cafes, they don’t volunteer in the neighborhood school, and a lot of longtime black residents feel threatened.”

Apparently the myopic little dog-loving, cafe-dwelling snowball throwing population actually does pay attention to District politics, or at least Biddle was certain they did–he fired Brown from his campaign the day that the article came out.

The day before the polls opened, I saw this on Twitter:


The message in question reads:

We will be out of town, however, I know you can help us with the  following:

If you can, please vote for Vincent Orange tomorrow and “please call your
DC folks to also to vote for him.”  This election, to me and others believe
that this will be the last time that folks of color will be able to
determine  our own “DC” destiny, openly, I think, personally.

All this talk is very strange to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive–I am aware of the dramatic demographic shift that has occurred and is occurring in the District. But race, while the most visible element of this change, hardly tells all or even most of the story.

For one thing, I don’t think you can explain everything that has gone on in DC in the period from the riots to the end of the crack outbreak in terms of race. The implication of the listserv post quoted above is that during this period, District blacks were able to determine their own destiny. But what does that even mean?

The District gets a lot of flack because of its political troubles in general, and Marion Barry in particular. But just because Barry managed to get himself elected, and is still in office, doesn’t mean that everyone in his constituency wanted him to be there. For most of my life as a registered voter, I lived in Jim Moran‘s district in Virginia. I voted against him every chance I got, and yet he remained. I did not feel like I was determining my own destiny, with regard to Jim Moran.

Electoral outcomes are far more complex than the Will of the People, and election outcomes in the District are far more complex than race boundaries.

You can tell that Patrick Mara thought that it was all about race from the excuses he made not five minutes after it looked like he was going to lose.


This is absurd. Mara has clearly assumed that anyone who was white would have voted for him, if they hadn’t gone and voted for that other white candidate. (EDIT: a commenter argued that I was reading too much into Mara’s statement, especially given that he mentions Biddle, who is not white. Reconsidering the matter, I think he’s right; it’s unfair to characterize Mara’s statement this way)

The fact of the matter is that many of the people who voted for Weaver would never have voted for a Republican candidate, however watered down he was for his DC audience. And there are many people who may simply not have voted at all if the candidate that they did vote for hadn’t been running.

Mara’s frustration is understandable–he was just over a thousand votes shy of pulling off the impossible and becoming a Republican on the city council. But the Mike Debonis tweet quoted above is part of a frustrating trend of people who, unlike Mara, don’t have a dog in the fight and yet still boil it down to a “split white vote”.

Why would we ever expect “the white vote” to be anything other than split? As a libertarian, when it comes to policy matters I disagree with more people than I agree with–regardless of whether they are black, white, asian, or moon-beast.

DC is in the midst of a change in the perspectives being brought to the ballot boxes, and this will result in a shakeup of the political landscape sooner or later. But the end result will not be that white people in DC will be controlling their destiny at the expense of black people, who no longer can. Governance just does not work that way, in a democracy or in any system.



  1. Whoa – seems like a huge jump to assume Mara’s comments were about race. Got any support for that? Biddle is not white, for one thing. Seems like you are the one making unjustified assumptions. I’m white and voted for Mara, but not because he’s white.

    Interesting post up to that point, especially as a white, libertarian-leaning independent native of NE DC.

    • Thinking it over, you’re absolutely right. I apologize for mischaracterizing what he said, it’s just my initial impressions from when I first heard he was blaming Weaver for the loss. But when I saw that Biddle was included in the statement, it should have changed my mind. Edited the post to reflect this.

      • No need to apologize – thanks for making the change. I would be curious to find out what Mara actually meant, or what polling data or other info his comment was based on. On the other hand, Orange winning just seems to me like the more things change, the more they stay the same … same old dysfunctional DC politics. It remains a city at odds with itself.

  2. Felt the same way about Gray’s win last year. I feel confident that the long run trend will be in a better direction, though as a libertarian obviously it’s unlikely that any realistic political situation is going to end with me jumping for joy.

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