The District of Columbia: the name alone evokes images of neoclassical buildings, wide avenues and the National Mall. As a four-year resident of this great city, I cannot help but feel an immense sense of pride when strolling around the Lincoln Memorial late at night or while standing amidst a pink snowfall in early April.
Yet I have to ask myself: are these idyllic images truly reflective of our nation’s capital? How well does the District of Columbia represent our nation, our ideals and our future aspirations?
A simple Metrobus ride on route 34 from Washington Circle to the Naylor Road Metro Station in Maryland near Southeast D.C. reveals another side to the District not depicted in guidebooks nor praised in struggling democracies. Unfortunately – and embarrassingly – the global epicenter of democracy and wealth is also a region of great inequality and poverty. If the extent of racial and economic injustice in D.C. were known throughout the world, perceptions of the United States would change – and certainly not for the better.
I took a ride on bus 34, interested to see how the city developed and changed as the rider traveled from Northwest to Southeast. The change was dramatic and depressing. From Washington Circle until the Capitol Building, the rider experiences the classic images of the District of Columbia: the federal buildings of our democratic government, the White House, the Smithsonian museums and the National Mall. The Greek-inspired architecture seems to call out to the democratic tradition of antiquity and the museums emphasize the importance of education in our country.
Until the Capitol, the other riders on the bus seem to sense this aura of majesty and travel in a state of hushed reverence. Whites, blacks and Latinos sit in the hard plastic seats, with their heads bowed and their hands clasped in their laps. Although the image presented on the bus seems to be one of diversity and acceptance, the clusters of whites and blacks suggest that integration is far from being realized.
The Capitol Building – the center of the city, the nation and (to some less-humble citizens) the world – represents the capital of hypocrisy. This majestic building, which shines as a beacon to visitors and residents alike, divides the city into racial and economic zones of inequality and serves as a constant reminder of the segregated nature of the District. Every time I behold this architectural masterpiece, I cannot help but wonder if its architects knew that this icon of democracy would serve as a racial and economic division for D.C.
Bus route 34 demonstrates the Capitol’s role in the District as the rider watches D.C. transform into poor, almost slum-like regions on the eastern side of this building. Trendy townhouses morph into boarded-up homes and parks transform into used car lots. Tattoo parlors become more common and school facilities seem to be havens for barbed wire and police cars.
The economic disparity between the wealthy white-collar workers in Northwest and the struggling blue-collar workers in Southeast is all too clear during this part of the ride. In the space of a few miles, the visitor has witnessed the harsh reality of this city. Income segregation is a defining characteristic of the District, perpetuated by D.C.’s poor school system and high housing costs.
Perhaps even more humiliating than the economic injustice in D.C. is the racial injustice. To the east of the Capitol Building, the only riders on bus 34 are black, and as the bus travels further east, more and more African Americans fill the sidewalks. Racial segregation – that shameful part of our nation’s past that we thought we had eliminated during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s – is still very much the reality in D.C. What kind of example can we hope to set for struggling democracies such as Iraq if the capital of the free world is divided into sharply separated white and black sectors?
The solution to the inequality in D.C. is not easy, nor is it achievable without some major attitude shifts on where our nation should focus its resources. Route 34 makes it clear that D.C. is not a model of democracy and freedom but rather a hub for racial and economic inequality. Perhaps instead of dedicating our federal resources to making the world safer for democracy, we should be working to make our nation’s capital an urban center that embodies the ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity for all citizens of this great land.
-The writer, a senior, is majoring in German language and literature and history.