In the District of Columbia, when I engage in conversations with people about neighborhoods, race, and change, I hear a near universal mantra about the “DC riots” and its role in urban decline in the city. The story tends to follow this timeline: the White House was built, there were riots in 1960s, there was a crack epidemic in the 1980s, something pejorative about Marion Barry with no real details, and now bike lanes are wonderful. New 20- and 30-something residents from all racial/ethnic groups may know who Stokley Carmichael was but not Spottswood Thomas Bolling. They speak proudly about how they reside or play in neighborhoods where the “riots” took place: U Street, NW, Shaw in NW, and H Street, NE. (I, too, enjoy restaurants and bars in these neighborhoods. And I'm white.) Yet there is little to no understanding about the forces that culminated in the uprisings. This dynamic is buttressed by a media that uses the same oversimplified memes. In a recent article describing Council Member Jack Evans' announcement of his mayoral candidacy, Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post mentioned that 14th Street, NW location was a “corridor scarred by 1968 riots.” Interestingly, an older WaPo article linked in the piece presents a more sensitive and thorough explanation of the situation prior to 1968.
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been a spark--and more specifically, it was reportedly contentious requests to close businesses out of what was perceived as disrespect by remaining open after the assassination that quickly escalated--but was by no means the cause. Let there be no mistake: the violence, fear, and property destruction during the summer of 1968 in the District of Columbia was profound. However, focusing on these uprisings in our cities' memory and collective identity overlooks the institutional factors of segregation in housing, education, health, and employment which created the conditions of unrest, and incorrectly redirects the lens to individuals who participated in the uprisings. It is the legacy of institutional, government-sanctioned racism, not riots, that we find in our cities' poor health outcomes, educational disparities, and income differentials. A different turning point in DC's history, the desegregation of District of Columbia public schools in 1954, a year before Brown, and the related federal urban disinvestment coupled with white flight, impacted the city in more significant ways than the uprisings.
This narrative of “riots” will continue to impact the city as rising affluence and demographic changes occur. It clouds the realities of who benefits. Whereas some see neighborhoods magically rising like a Phoenix out of the ashes, safer streets, and improved services, others see a commercial celebration of former spaces of segregation and resistance or a place where some no longer feel like they belong. Among these various interpretations of urban change, we need to remember that it is our government institutions, not merely individuals, that can make decisions to ensure that more people have access to opportunity. Neither segregation nor integration occur naturally.