Columnist: D.C. Mayor Fenty Left Black Voters Behind

Earlier this month, Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his re-election bid to Council Chairman Vincent Gray. Courtland Milloy, a columnist for The Washington Post, talks to Steve Inskeep about what Milloy calls a "populist revolt" against Fenty.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Obama was on NBC this week when he was asked about the school his daughters attend in Washington.

(Soundbite of "The Today Show")

Ms. KELLY BURNETT: I wanted to know whether or not you think that Malia and Sasha would get the same high quality, rigorous education in a D.C. public school as compared to their very elite private academy that they're attending now.

President BARACK OBAMA: Well, thanks for the question, Kelly. And I'll be blunt with you. The answer is no right now.

INSKEEP: The capital's public schools are struggling. Mayor Adrian Fenty worked to improve them, but his methods aroused such opposition that Fenty lost his job in this month's Democratic primary. Afterward, an African American newsman wrote he's happy to see Mayor Fenty go.

Mr. COURTLAND MILLOY (Columnist, The Washington Post): There was some disparate treatment. There was some rub it in your face going on, a preference for well-to-do people over those who were low income.

INSKEEP: Courtland Milloy's columns in the Washington Post led to a fierce response, and that makes this of wider interest because people of different races had such different views of the same politician. Mayor Fenty, who is black, was accused of favoring white voters in a majority black city, and was defeated by another black candidate. Washington is a place where black and white, rich and poor, live in a very small central city.

Mr. MILLOY: You can see the Capitol dome. You can see the Lincoln Memorial. You can see the Washington Monument. You can see all, all of the testimonies to freedom and justice and equality, and right now it's as bad as I've ever seen it. He vowed to work to do something about that. What accompanied the change in character, and it was a stunning change, it happened almost overnight - he went from being a really nice guy to kind of a mean guy, arrogant guy, when it came to dealing with black people.

INSKEEP: Now, he's African American himself, we should point out for those who don't know.

Mr. MILLOY: Yes, he is.

INSKEEP: But you felt that he dealt differently with African Americans.

Mr. MILLOY: Oh, abs - well, absolutely.

INSKEEP: How?

Mr. MILLOY: He was dismissive of African Americans and more accommodating to white people, which manifested itself during this past election with phenomenal support from white people and a lack of support from black people.

INSKEEP: I think we're getting at one of these vast differences in perception, because white people, including white parents in the District of Columbia, perceived this man as attacking the problem of D.C. schools, which are - if you look at student achievement, very low performing, even for a central city school, sending in the very active schools chancellor who got on the cover of Time magazine. Test scores actually seemed to be improving. School construction actually was underway. Things were being done that were visible.

Mr. MILLOY: Yes.

INSKEEP: And this was an overwhelmingly black student population. Weren't black students benefiting from all that?

Mr. MILLOY: Rhee said it best herself after...

INSKEEP: This is Michelle Rhee...

Mr. MILLOY: Michelle Rhee, the school chancellor appointed by Fenty, who now seems to be on her way out in the aftermath of Fenty's loss. She said we didn't do a good job of communicating our plans, our missions, our goals, to those people who voted against Fenty and Rhee.

INSKEE: Well, she believes she really was improving school construction, school conditions, actual test scores. What was she missing?

Mr. MILLOY: She treated white people differently. Every time she went to a white neighborhood, she created excitement, a sense of mission. We're in this together.

INSKEEP: And there were white parents who were beginning to send their kids to public schools who might not have done it five or 10 years ago.

Mr. MILLOY: Well, you know, that doesn't speak to what the message was in low income areas. One of her first acts was to fire 229 teachers.

INSKEEP: And these were mostly black teachers.

Mr. MILLOY: Oh, absolutely. Michelle Rhee believed there was no excuses. You get in there, teachers, you find a student where they, you know, where they are, bring them to where they should be.

INSKEEP: What's wrong with that?

Mr. MILLOY: It's pie in the sky when you're dealing with children who may not even be in school. You're talking about a population that now is flooding the homeless shelters and putting the onus totally on the teacher, you know, to bring up text scores. To have her impact statement reflect progress is just unrealistic.

INSKEEP: I also was interested in reading your column. You wrote about the so-called creative class moving into the city, described them as an imported middle class.

Mr. MILLOY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Sitting in their chic new restaurants, I'm more or less quoting you here.

Mr. MILLOY: Yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: Sending text messages that blacks don't know what's good for them.

Mr. MILLOY: Yes.

INSKEEP: You seem a little resentful about white people moving into the District of Columbia.

Mr. MILLOY: No, no. Im not resentful. I am concerned not about white people moving in, but the way black people are being kicked out. I have no problem with white people. I don't like snooty, snarky people who are more connected to objects and things than they are to other people.

INSKEEP: Explain how African Americans are being forced out in your view even as white people move in, move back to the city.

Mr. MILLOY: Condominium conversion, real estate marketing schemes.

INSKEEP: You take an old rental house that maybe had several apartments in it, you turn it into condos that'll be sold for a lot more than the rent was.

MILLOY: Yeah. Here's the deal. Where you had, you know, five families living, you might have now, you know, a couple. You know, a nice, well-to-do couple, living large. If people weren't so cold about it, I think I would be different.

INSKEEP: You know, I spoke with a demographer who's been looking at cities across the country.

Mr. MILLOY: Uh-huh.

INSKEEP: And there are a lot of cities where the white population in the center city seems to be going up, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot.

Mr. MILLOY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Within five years, this demographer predicts, Washington, D.C., which has been a majority black city for a very long time, will cease to be because African Americans are moving out even as white people move in. What do you think about that?

Mr. MILLOY: Let it happen. Nobody's trying to stop that. Nobody's trying to control that. But again, can it be managed? Can people bring a modicum of humanity to the way our system works? You know, if we have a pyramid of people with a whole lot of black poor people on the bottom and a very few rich white people on the top, do we have to always crush the people on the bottom?

INSKEEP: I want to ask one other thing about this demographic change.

Mr. MILLOY: Uh-huh.

INSKEEP: You have white people moving in, you have black people moving out.

Mr. MILLOY: Uh-huh.

INSKEEP: The perception is that you've got rising real estate values and black renters - poor black renters in many cases are having to move elsewhere. And yet at the same time it seems to me that there were African Americans who owned houses in the District of Columbia, sold those houses into a rising real estate market, made a bunch of money, and moved to the suburbs. Is that a good thing?

Mr. MILLOY: I don't have any problem with this demographic change. The issue is, how do you manage this change and what kind of city do you want? I wouldn't want to live in a city with just a bunch of Courtland Milloys in it. I think that would be hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLOY: This is my definition of hell. Everybody's in there like me.

INSKEEP: There's some angry readers who might agree with you right now.

Mr. MILLOY: Well, yeah, and I love them for their diversity. And I think that a vibrant urban area should have a rich mix of people.

INSKEEP: Courtland Milloy, thanks very much for coming by.

Mr. MILLOY: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: And by the way, Washington's departing Mayor Adrian Fenty declined our invitation to talk.

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