DC in DC

Analyzing the Chocolate in “ Chocolate City”

Denny Chan
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

Some people regard Washington, D.C. as “Chocolate City.” Indeed, the region features one of the country’s most prominent, robust, and lively African American communities as well as a substantial and active African refugee population. The history is rich, too. For example, Shaw, the neighbor-hood I currently live in, grew out of freed slave encampments and thrived as a center for African American intellectual and cultural life in the late 19th- to early 20th-century. One of the most notable historical residents even include musician Duke Ellington. This sense of vibrant diversity and histo-ry is what attracts me to D.C. and is one of the reasons why I have thoroughly enjoyed calling it home since May. Un-fortunately, a more reflective look at the state of “Chocolate City” reveals that D.C.’s Black community is unable to escape the effects of modern racism and a struggling economy. For brevity’s sake, I will share several anecdotal examples, all of which are derived from work.

In the summer, I walked every day to the metro station, and every morning, I observed an obvious dynamic. I joined scores of White young and middle-aged urban professionals carrying their briefcases and book bags on my march to the subway. On my way there, I would see a handful of Black men gathered on the benches near the entrance. Some of them were lying down, while some of them stood. In D.C. summertime humidity, I cringed at the thought of enduring triple digit temperatures for hours on end. I wondered what they would do with their day and how they would pass their time while I spent my day working away in the comforts of a downtown law firm. As I got off the metro and walked to my office, I saw other men and women, usually Black but not always, lounging on the benches downtown. Sometimes, they had sleeping bags sprawled out, and some used blankets to stay warm during the overnight hours. The pervasiveness of homelessness and its racial implications, I realized, are convenient to forget in Irvine, California, but remain readily apparent in a place like D.C.

The situation did not improve once I got inside, either. In my limited time here, I have observed that while Blacks occupy many administrative positions in the places I have worked, they unfortunately do not hold managerial and attorney positions to any reassuring extent. I walked past desks and cubicles with Black staff, secretaries, receptionists, and paralegals. But as I turn the corridor, the spectrum of difference rears its ugly head. The number of Black attorneys (or attorneys of color, for that matter) at either the entry or management level is upsetting. I expected better from “Chocolate City,” our nation’s capital. Of course, the problem stems from ongoing issues in pipeline and access to education, as well as issues in the recruitment and retention of minority attorneys. The resulting literal and physical divide between Black and White, attorney and staff, is saddening.

And a look at D.C. would be incomplete without at least mentioning the intense rate of gentrification sweeping across the city. I remember when I was here five years ago for an internship during college, and the areas that were “sketchy” and “up and coming” then are now fully revitalized and gentrified. Bars, restaurants, shops, and cutesy row hous-es have taken over nearly all of northwest D.C. and parts of northeast and southeast, too. The rate of gentrifica-tion has caused some racial tensions since the standard (and cost) of living has skyrocketed, pushing many Black residents out of neighborhoods they have lived in for generations. If I were a longtime Black D.C. resident, I would have understandably conflicting feelings and legitimate resentment for the pace of development in the city.

As much as these observations concern me and merit everyone’s attention, I am also entirely thankful to the UCDC program for giving me the opportunity to even have these issues appear in my daily routine. Because Irvine can be an overly comfortable and sunny bubble, it is imperative that we as law students take it upon ourselves to explore different communities. Whether it means trekking out to Los Angeles, D.C., or even abroad, greater exposure will ultimately inform our perspectives and the way we lawyer.