Race and Economics

Several months ago, my roommate lost his wallet. His small bundle of leather, with cards, cash and miscellaneous tools of identification, had fallen out somewhere not far from the “Q” (a now mythical reference we use for our little home).

This being Shaw, I would not have held my breath awaiting its return any time soon. In fact, I would have started cancelling credit cards. However, pleasantly surprising as it must have been for him, my roommate had his wallet returned to him by a kindly fellow from the neighborhood, its contents perfectly intact. The man’s name, it turned out, was Stanley, and he was homeless.

Now, it goes without saying, but to have anybody return your lost wallet in Washington D.C. seems a particularly rare occurrence; even in Georgetown or Dupont I wouldn’t fancy my chances. But to have a homeless man in Shaw, someone for whom the amount of cash must have seemed exponentially more tempting, is truly a one in a million. It was a beautiful, honest action, and certainly one of the most principled acts I’ve come across here.

My roommate graciously thanked Stanley, and gave him a reasonable amount of cash as well as some blankets and old clothes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, however that wasn’t the last we’d see of Stanley. He would come by the house periodically following the incident, looking for a couple of dollars from one of us.

My roommate willingly doled out more cash a few more times, before  beginning to fear that he was fostering a dependency hand-out relationship of sorts, and thus made the conscious decision to stop. It was at this point that I intervened to help Stan out.

Stanley is a fairly short man of gentle disposition, much more consciously grounded in reality than the red-eyed and lost I see nearby, wandering the streets under the Sisyphean weight of stones of the crack rock variety. Of all of the homeless and vagrant I’ve spoken with, in DC and elsewhere, Stan came off as one of the most sincere and straight-forward.

We spoke briefly, and he explained that he’d been living in Shaw for the past 22 years.
“22 years?!,” I’d thought. “He’s been living here as long as I’ve been alive!,” a fact which is difficult to fathom until I took the time to consider the length of my entire life.Through some vagaries, I came to understand that Stanley had run into a bad patch of luck a few years back, and was now on the street.

And yet there I was, taking out a five dollar bill from my wallet as if I was the established member of society, and he merely some sort of passing vagabond. All things considered, American society being the sort of enlightened Western institute of freedom (of speech, if not from hunger) and suffrage (except, of course, if you live in D.C., the political capital of the nation) that it is, perhaps I am the more “established” one.

On another early evening, he came by with an old television and VCR set, and after some cajolement, Stanley convinced me into purchasing both off of him, for about $15. Though in hindsight I might have been gullible to his explanation that the church had given him the items, I bought them off him as a final “good karma-ish” deed. And, as Stanley had quite pragmatically pointed out, I would have more use for the items than he would in the near future.

After setting up the rudimentary system atop my room fridge, I found a video cassette inside the VCR.  It was “The Land Before Time.”
After this purchase, however, I too had reached the “threshold of good will” of my roommate, the favor that Stanley’s initial good deed had initially indebted the house as a matter of human decency. But of course, Stanley’s own needs have not diminished similarly. Basic needs being unmet, he continued to knock at our door for several months following, sometimes as late as 1am. After calling out my roommate’s name several times, he would leave.

My room is right next to the front door,  and so his voice echoed most directly into it. He never pleaded, just waited out in the cold for a moment before heading off. To where, I do not know. He hasn’t come by for several months now, and I doubt that he’ll return, the implicit knowledge that we no longer provide having been sufficiently communicated by the silence of our closed door.

But, in this most fierce of Winter cold snaps, I do wonder occasionally what has become of Stanley, the virtuous Shaw veteran who acted with a moral fortitude that many a CEO could learn from.

As I walked home from capoeira this past Saturday afternoon, I delighted in the fact that I didn’t have somewhere to be. And so I took the time to follow the Shaw Heritage trail, stopping at each of the posts and connecting the historical dotted lines between cross-street and pictured street, decade and day. It was an experience entirely vital to me, an affirmation of a new truth. For most of my 22 years of life I’ve lived amongst people with whom I acquired similar passions. We listened to the same songs on the radio, bought our dinner produce from the same grocer, all watched the same evening news on our two television stations.

This changed quite a bit upon moving to the States. Different yes, but in some ways it was very similar. The accents and many cultural references were radically different, but the pop culture was—this being the MTV generation and all—nearly identical. Another aspect which remained the same was race. I moved from a predominantly white (English, Irish, Italian) town in southwestern Australia to a predominantly white (more pan-European) town on the Eastern seaboard.

And now, scanning over these newly placed Shaw Heritage Trail posts and their tales of backs-to-the-wall Black businesses succeeding against the odds and the neighborhood’s role as heart of DC’s own ‘Harlem renaissance,’ I was struck by the notion that I do not belong. That I should be like more ‘sensible’ yuppies who know their place—whether by income or prejudice or whose settlement has followed more classical ‘birds of a feather’ sensibilities, and that I should be reading these signs perhaps as a ‘daring’ jaunt into an historic black neighborhood before dashing back out to Bethesda or Dupont.

Or maybe I was just jumping in a little too early? There are plenty of other parts of Shaw that have been completely gentrified, with nary a Black soul in sight. If I had chosen to live there, would that have made it OK? If I go to business or law school, come out with a graduate degree and then move into a condominium in Columbia Heights: that is, if I follow the developer’s rule book, is that better? Many hyper-self-conscious, counter-culture liberals describe such actions as ‘selling out.’ Generally speaking, it’s only all right to assuage such guilt by ingeniously fusing together mannerisms which connote blue-collar hygiene standards with white-collar dietary and consumer ethics. To dig out a niche that provides non-black residency, one can try wallowing in self-imposed poverty, working for a conscionable non-profit, drinking PBR at the Warehouse, or better yet…becoming an artist.

As I completed my loop and made my final stop at the 7-11 near my home, I encountered a thin, clearly drunk man accosting a quite shell-shocked, if rather disgusted, older woman. The verbal assault appeared to be motivated largely due to her skin colour, which, as the case happened to be, was white.

“I don’t mess with no white people! That’s right…Fuck you, stupid white bitch!” he spat, as she attempted to cross the street.

I attempted to do the same thing, but as it was, the foul-mouthed drunk was wandering in my direction. Unsatisfied with the pronouncement of his “No Whites” social order, he decided to inform me that in inclusive fashion, it also encompassed those deriving from the East Asian peninsula.

“Fuck you, Korea! I don’t mess with no motherfuckin’ Koreans!” he repeated, staring me down groggily as I crossed the street, his voice hoarse but still venomous.

I was half-tempted to reply: “I don’t mess with no motherfuckin’ Koreans either,” but thought better of it. Such smug riposte may not have inspired a universal humanistic epiphany and could well have proved harmful to my health. Besides, it would have been flat-out wrong.

I mess with motherfuckin’ Koreans all the time! Plus, they have cute accents.

As I dropped a couple of quarters into a woman’s cup, I wondered if the sort of violent resentment that my lighter-skinned Bolivian colleague fears from darker indigenous countrymen is limited to those below the border. A Shaw resident since 1969 recently told me that the current climate reminds him of 1965 DC. The city’s race riots took place in 1968.

History comes round full circle sometimes, as much as we might want to wish that we learn from past mistakes.

In past weeks, the ever-tempestuous world of international cricket has been mired in great controversy. In a recent match between Pakistan and England, Darrell Hair, an Australian umpire whose decision-making throughout his career has won him few fans on the pitch, penalized the Pakistani team for illegally tampering with the ball. The Pakistani team returned to the field late, and as official cricketing rules do call for, Hair awarded the match to England, a dramatic move that created so much furor in the South Asian and cricketing world so as to lead Hair to write a letter to the International Cricketing Commission asking for a half million dollars for his early retirement.

There is no evidence of ball tampering, and yet there is little logic to accusing Hair of rabid anti-Asian racism. What has been discussed only slightly is the concept of “izzat,” loosely translated as “honor” in Urdu. When Hair accused the Pakistani team of tampering with the ball, he did far more than chastise a handful of men on a cricket field for scratching the ball (a practice done to alter the ball’s weight and movement). In izzat terms, Hair was doing no less than attacking the country of Pakistan. Certainly, Inzaman Ul-Haq, the soft-spoken, well-fed and deeply religious captain of the Islamic nation’s national team, was deeply offended by Hair’s actions.

Occasionally, I play a game of 33 at the Rec with some of the regulars. As I take part in my standard drubbing by the far stronger, more consistent ballers, I have begun to notice the overlap between what constitutes South Asian izzat and what constitutes African-American/hip-hop/urban izzat, often closely linked to norms around masculinity. Like its historical and cultural great uncle, the izzat of streetball involves its own sophisticated set of accepted behaviors and a highly developed, largely non-verbal language, all of which is closely tied to the psychology of the communities in which it originated.

I recently spoke with several contestants at the Washington stop in a national 3 on 3 streetball tournament sponsored by Burger King about the izzat involved in streetball. DJ Slick from the Russ Parr Morning Show–a popular talk radio program–span popular Top 40 hip hop and live entertainment played as contestants and crowd mingled about, collecting sponsor goodies.

Rodney Rodgers, who is 29, managed to utilize the streetball skills he acquired growing up in New Jersey to play professionally in Madrid and Turin, where he lived for several years after being cut by the Dallas Mavericks in 2001.

He views the izzat of streetball, more commonly referred to as “respect,” as being only one half of the equation. The other, which was oft-repeated amongst other contestants I spoke to, is “getting your name out there.”

Young men “mostly see the only way out [to a better life] is to participate in sports,” Rodgers said. “Otherwise you’re just stuck in the mud.”

“They turn to two things: they turn to sports, or they turn to the streets.”

During one of his team’s match-ups, Rogers’ side became involved in controversy with their opponent, arguing (“beefing” animatedly despite the referee’s attempts to settle the dispute quickly. Both Rogers and William Smith, his direct opponent, later downplayed the hostilities, citing natural competitiveness and the fact that a lot was at stake—two thousand dollars and a free trip to Las Vegas.

But was part of the beef about disrespect?

“Yeah, you could say I was disrespected,” Smith told me.

“We would honor their foul calls, but the other team kept fussing on calls. Then we stopped playing as a team, and started going one-on-one,” he lamented after his side’s narrow loss.

Smith, a large, fresh-faced 23 year-old from East Baltimore, also spoke of his hopes to play overseas. The recent growth in an international market for American players unable to crack the NBA has propelled dreams of making a living through basketball even further.

One demographic who was starkly non-represented was women. There was not a single female player on any of the teams I saw, and Jessica Taylor, a freshmen playing for Trinity College in Virginia, was less than pleased about the situation.

“If they had a separate division for women, I’m sure there’d be more of us actually playing,” she told me, adding that she “likes the contact” involved in streetball before making the claim that women are even rougher in the paint than men.

Some of the older female observers had more macro-oriented perspectives somewhat befitting of their age.

“It keeps ’em off the street,” maintained one resident of Southeast, who was seated at the emergency care table.

“But there’s not enough courts. Everywhere in DC, there’s not enough courts.”

And therein may lie the heart of streetball. At its most primal level, streetball is a rejection of organized basketball, with its reliance on oft-unavailable sporting facilities, rules and focus on teamwork and exercise. Streetball is at once the art of the oppressed and the means of salvation. Without the educational and economic opportunities which allow for the opportunity at upward mobility that defines the young American worldview, African-American youth turned to the courts to define their selves, to maintain natural levels of hierarchy and ego, to exercise their creativity and exorcise their rage at the oppressive forces they feel are weighing down upon them. The best of the streets—those with the most game—occasionally make it to the professional leagues, before acquiring the highest pinnacle of respect through fame and stardom.

Today, streetball continues to play that cathartic role for many young poor, largely African-American men. But its global popularity has expanded exponentially through the profusion of And 1 mix-tapes and hip hop culture due largely to increasingly-accessible media. I recently met two Ugandan streetball legends using their fame and rhyming skills to build a youth HIV prevention rap movement.

In a way, streetball is the liberator of the poor just as soccer has been for so long, a unique opportunity to be simultaneously artistic, manly, and playful. In a world of deeply defined separations across religious and ethnic lines, streetball speaks a universal language that exculpates us from the Tower of Babel yet in a manner much less Eurocentric than Esperanto.


    Thirty-three is at face level an extremely simple game. One player shoots an uncontested shot, which is rewarded with another identical uncontested shot if he makes the basket. If he does not, then the rest of the players contest for possession of the ball, before then endeavoring to make the basket. Repeat this process until one player has 33 points, and you’ve got the basic gist of the game.

    But thirty-three with izzat? To the uninitiated, it would be akin to a Tahitian watching Woody Allen, like a Polish grandmother attempting to dance to reggaeton.

    The izzat of streetball is all about maintaining one’s dignity and credibility. One gains respect through several key measures. In traditional basketball, scoring points is most valuable (indeed, it wins you the game). In streetball, however, scoring is the mere cherry topping to establishing one’s cred. Real cred comes through embarrassing your opponent.

    So what is the ultimate dis? I posed the question to several streetballers, and the answer was practically unanimous.

    While there are numerous ways to dis an opponent—at one point trash talk (the fabled ‘Yo mama’ joke era) was in, not long ago it was being dunked on or swatted—and the cycle of what constitutes the ultimate dis continues to change, the most recent revolution came as a clear-cut line between Michael and his generation of followers.

    The moment is etched into recent basketball history, joining the freeze frame moments of past NBA hardwood heroes. Allen Iverson, then an upstart young prodigy, embarrassed the world’s greatest living athlete, Michael Jordan, with one of the greatest moves in basketball history, what became known as the ‘killer crossover.’ Faking a drive to his left side, Iverson fooled Jordan into moving several feet to his right, before unleashing a devastatingly quick crossover dribble to his right side. Jordan was completely wrong-footed, known in streetball parlance as “getting your ankles broken.” Being Jordan, however, he couldn’t let his pride go so easily, and attempted to resurrect his defensive assignment. Iverson proceeded to shoot a smooth-as-silk jump shot over Jordan’s outstretched fingertips, hitting nothing but net. It was the closest thing to an official changing of the guard the sport has seen, and firmly established the broken ankle as the dis of the post-Jordan era.

    Perhaps largely because of this, izzat is a game of controlled limits. Defenders stand back far enough from a skilled dribbler in order to limit any chance of limb disfiguration, thus preferring to let her opponent shoot unchecked jump shots. In this way, one’s izzat is maintained at a comfortable level. It may not provide the most comprehensive workout, but relationships are maintained in harmony, with those who are already of great izzat remaining at the top, and those at the bottom humble in their tribute to the bigger man. In many ways, it reminds me of the dynamics of Confucian societies, and in a useful sense, ties contemporary izzat to something much older and larger than streetball itself.

    Earlier in the evening, I was trying on clothes at Pentagon City Mall. A wife sat outside as her husband tried on jeans.

    “I married a metrosexual man,” she lamented to the sales assistant.

    “I am not metrosexual!” came the immediate denial: adamant, gruff, and decidedly manly.

Last night I was scheduled to go on ONE DC’s Shaw Gentrification Tour. The two hour walking tour was billed as an opportunity to see “how one community is organizing itself to control the negative impact of development on long-time residents,” and to understand “more deeply the racial and economic impact that market rate priorities have on lower-income communities of color.” The organization, previously known as the Manna Community Development Corporation, now shares its name with a recent enormously large-scale movement whose mission is confined to the simple enough goal of “making poverty history.” If they are anything like The ONE Campaign, then District condo-developers better watch their back!

I figured this to be the ideal sort of event for me–young professional, predilection toward liberal guilt-trips–to attend. Additionally, I thought it would be nice to bring along, seeing after all as this was a walk all involving progressive white activists working with/for poorer black people: an actual black person! In particular, a wondrously well-adjusted epidemiologist of Tanzanian genealogy and British schooling whom I have somehow cajoled into braiding my younger brother’s unruly chi-fro (much like an afro, only more Chinese).

In classic form, I arrived to the event late. At approximately 6:15, I reached the Howard University exit of the Shaw metro stop, hoping to find a small group of non-Shaw residents looking at their watches or tapping their feet. There was neither. In their place, I met a large young man soliciting donations for his school’s football team, of which he played safety. I do not recall what a safety is, but I did ask him if he had seen a group (I was tempted to add “of white people”) congregated here 10 minutes ago. He hadn’t.

Earlier on, I had arranged to meet with my dear Tanzanian friend, who, in even more classic form, was just stepping on to the train and would be another half hour late. It was thus up to me to catch the walking gentrification lecture before they had gotten too far away! And, like a cat after his class-conscious sandal-wearing mice, I padded off.

In which direction would they have struck out? Debating the way I might structure such an event, I jogged down 7th Street toward Howard University, hub of African-American consciousness and youthful, lively part of the neighborhood. I figured the walk might move along thusly:

a) Parts of Shaw where Black people still live;
b) Parts of Shaw that are in the process of having Black folk pushed out by dastardly lighter-hued yuppies (and their Bianchi bikes)
c) Parts of Shaw which have gone the way of bleach and the icecream component of an icecream sandwich, and are quickly on their way towards $1,500+ rent.

I speed-walked along, whistling by folks arguing at the bus stop, joking outside the diner, all in the throes of early evening workweek activity. At each corner I surveyed the cross street, searching for my elusive target group. Those that bothered cast their own looks toward yours truly, mostly ones of muted reservation and weariness. Wearing a shirt whose manufacture date I’d estimate to fall close to the same year as my birth, plaid shorts and knee length striped brown socks (a carry-over from my work attire that day), I probably looked as though someone not only out of place, but possibly from outer space.

In attempting to locate the gentrification-watchers, I was looking for several things: one person pointing at a house as others nod thoughtfully, blocked footpaths, annoyed bike riders…but more than anything else: I was scouting for whitey. The anti-gentrification movement might wish to see itself as united across racial and class lines, but with events like this, it seems that such ‘sounds-good-in-ethics-class’ universal humanism doesn’t translate across so well to other Shaw residents.

I doubled down Florida Avenue, out towards the 9:30 club, at which point I did finally see a group of white people, but they were just lining up for that evening’s concert. I then tried part of the more gentrified western fringe of Shaw by Logan circle, looping through Winchester street but again coming up empty. It was around this point, given the lovely weather and time remaining before my friend arrived, that I decided to embark on Mark’s own personal, ‘do-it-yourself’, gentrification observation trip. I suppose that any regular traipse through Shaw could count as such, but on this particular walk, I had eyes peeled, ears tuned open, and socio-economic radar tuned to full-conscience potency!

I quickly realized that my tour didn’t require such intensive effort. The transformation of Shaw is as openly noticeable as a Mid-western tourist on the Blue line to anyone who cares to observe…a couple of closed-down small grocers. White dog-walkers cruising past wizened Black men seated outside old storefronts. The separation between East-African, African-American, and White-serving businesses around U street corridor. For goodness sake, there was a homeless man washing car windows on a newly polished street as a well-heeled yuppie strode loudly by.

I also encountered a couple of hidden jewels that are not so readily visible. There were a wealth and diversity of lawn and shop-window campaign signs regarding the upcoming DC mayoral election, suggesting strong civic engagement and the focus on affordable housing in Shaw from many of the candidates. Best of all, however, was a still-running checkers club that would not have looked out of place in the 1950s. It’s weather-beaten sign welcomed newcomers; however, the deep quietude inside and musty feel suggested a long, unbroken run of the same players since decades past.

Pleased with my observations, I scooped up my friend and we retired to my house to listen to Edith Piaf over gin and tonic. It’s truly a fascinating mix of race and culture, all wrapped tightly within the omnipresent, cosmic ball of capitalist momentum that drives change forward in this political artery of a neighborhood. How the city’s next mayor—Adrian Fenty and Linda Cropp, the two frontrunners, both speak of affordable housing and continued economic growth in the same breath–will balance these competing desires, as well as how Black homeowners weigh up the temptations of developer offers against the cultural integrity of their neighborhood, shall say much about the face of Shaw as it enters its next stage in DC’s constant process of neighborhood evo- and devolution.

As I stepped out towards the metro several hours later, I bumped into a small, scattered group walking along 7th. Sure enough, it was my gentrification tour, wrapping up after a successful walk. They numbered less than a dozen: a middle-aged couple, some indie activistas, all resembling lifestyles cultivated in whole grains and moral gravitas, all starkly white. Dave, the pony-tailed and Chaco-footed tour leader, gave me his email address.

A few minutes later, whilst mumbling over train waiting times, I joked with the Howard University student seated next to me.

“My roommate swears that we’d get better service if there were more white people riding the green line,” I told her.

“Ain’t that the truth!” she laughed, before boarding for Branch Avenue.

Now there’s one thing that all Shaw residents can look forward to.