THE COLOR OF ART: Mapping white privilege in the nation’s capital.
By Natalie Hopkinson, Ph.D.
I am a scholar and writer, not a politician. So at some point I will write in detail about my most illuminating experiences serving the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities. For now, I will say this: unless the Council of the District of Columbia intervenes, On Nov. 3, Former DC First Lady Cora Masters Barry and I will be removed from the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities after serving half a term.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson moved unilaterally to reject our nominations to complete a full term. He has never initiated a direct conversation with me, so it is hard to decipher his thinking on the matter. However, in interviews with journalists, he has consistently voiced his displeasure about the way that I and Ms. Barry have moved to rebalance the scales that produced the racial outcomes described in the above map.
The Chairman did not ask his colleagues on the Council to weigh in on our nominations. He did not convene a hearing about the issues that we and the local press have raised about the culture of racism, white cronyism and corruption on the Arts Commission.
That a politician elected to serve all eight wards of the city is so emboldened to silence this conversation about racial equity speaks to the times we are in. We are not a state, but if we were, it would not be blue. Black people and our interests are truly regarded in past tense. Gentrification killed us. Chocolate melts. The Black people you see with your own eyes on this map don’t exist here. It does not matter how much evidence, flow charts and data you prepare to bring to grown-up policy conversation, sometimes self-interest, racial tribalism, and identity politics wins out.
What I have learned about the arts is that at almost every level, these are symbolic struggles. As I have written previously, symbols are powerful because they are expressions of power. Is it art, or a nuisance? Should it be discarded or preserved? What is beautiful? What is ugly? These are all in the eye of the beholder, and the level of power the beholder wields.
Still, I physically wince when I look at this redlining map. I and my colleague Dr. Suzanne Goodney Lea, an assistant professor at the University of the District of Columbia, prepared this analysis of DC arts grant funding for a “Color of Art” public forum on Sept. 25. Are Black Washingtonians less artistic? Are they less innovative? Creative? Have they not contributed to the cultural fabric of this city? Are they less worthy?
Of course not. Because I’ve had the privilege of writing about the arts in this city and around the world for the past 25 years, and because I have peeked under the hood of the structural racism in the arts commission, I know better. I know it deep in my soul. You will never convince me that this map makes sense or follows any true cultural logic besides white supremacy.
And I will never stop talking about that until they bury me under the ground.
Arts redlining, just like real estate redlining, is a devastating indictment of public policy because these investments compound and grow over generations. Access to public investments in the arts are the kind of social drivers that impact property values, quality of life, and economic opportunity. These are the kinds of disparities that may be mapped onto every single social outcome in this city: income, health, education, real estate values. And as long as policymakers continue to rationalize and justify these maps, public resources will continue to be hoarded in the same parts of the city.
White privilege will continue to grow with compound interest.
This is a position I did not seek. After meeting her at a forum on the Future of Cities organized by Bloomberg/ The Atlantic, Mayor Muriel Bowser reached out to me in late 2019. It was the height of activism around Don’t Mute DC. My experiences as a co-founder of this movement gave me so much hope. Through the lens of go-go music, Don’t Mute DC was truly remarkable for its ability to shift policy in education, health care, jobs programs, mass incarceration, etc. giving a voice to the Blackest, most marginalized sectors of the District. I agreed to volunteer my time on the Commission as a way to serve the city I love and arts community I have studied for the past 25 years.
Since the rest of the Council has not had the opportunity to weigh in on this matter using the usual channels, such as a hearing, or investigation, On Oct. 27, I wrote the following letter to the Chairman and the rest of the Council of DC as a way to begin the conversation that will continue, regardless of how things shake out in the tribal, rough-and-tumble world of politics.
DC is a city full of progressives. They will post Black Lives Matter signs on their front lawns. They will vote for Hillary Clinton. They will denounce systemic racism and quote James Baldwin after the murder of George Floyd. They will speak on your cultural equity forum when they are running for office. Sometimes though, before they are people, they are white.
I’m posting the letter below.
Thank you for your advocacy of equitable and just arts policy in the District of Columbia.
For the past 25 years, as an arts journalist, then as Associate Professor of Communication, Culture and Media Studies at Howard University, and more recently in my role serving DCCAH, I have worked diligently to advance issues of equity and inclusion in the arts.
Please see attached, a redlined map of 2020 DCCAH funding that I and my colleague, Dr. Suzanne Goodney Lea, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia, put together to share during the “Color of Art” public forum this past Sept. 25. Dr. Lea and I analyzed CAH grant funding from last year and found that 78% of all arts funding to individuals and organizations went to the four wards where white residents are the majority. The four wards where Black residents are the majority split just less than 22% of the nearly $30 million pot of funding. Given the regressive tax vehicle (sales tax) that funds the arts in the District, these disparities are unacceptable.
The decision of the Council’s Committee of the Whole to “disapprove” my nomination to continue serving CAH without a hearing effectively mutes these perspectives. I understand that emotions run high, particularly among certain entrenched special interests that have claimed earmarks and enjoyed special dispensation from the Council and CAH for decades. However, whatever happens with the nominations of four Black women incumbent CAH commissioners that have been unilaterally “disapproved,” it is important that you consider evidence-based approaches to ensuring that arts policy serves the entire city.
In addition, I believe that the Council may need to do more due diligence in understanding the circumstances that allowed the wealthiest, most powerful arts organizations in the District to claim a third of the pot of CAH funding in 2019. This law permanently allowed a private group to bypass the competitive grant process to which all other arts organizations and individuals must adhere. Although this law has been repealed, it is clear that there are powerful forces that wish to turn back the clock on inclusion for all.
Please call me if you have any questions.