Political “Upstarts” and the D.C. Black Elite

From Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, by Lawrence Otis Graham (Harper, 2000), pp. 226-227:

In talking to black Washingtonians, one gets the distinct impression that there have been so many prominent names over the past few decades that people don’t even attempt to rank them in their minds. “Instead we just group them into the doctor crowd—people like the Leffalls, the Rayfords, the Spellmans, the Clarks, or the Freemans,” says an elderly man who has belonged to the Bachelor Benedicts club for more than twenty-five years. “And there was always the lawyer-government-policy crowd—the Brantons, the Brimmers, the Duncans, the Webbers, the Lynks—and of course, Vernon Jordan.”

The man paused for a moment. “But actually, Jordan isn’t one of us. He’s new.” The man laughed. “My wife would know it better because I never really paid much attention to lawyers—especially the new ones like Jordan or Brown.”…

The fact that he dismisses a power broker who is as important and relevant as Vernon Jordan—former head of the National Urban League; partner at the law firm of Akin, Gump; and close confidant to President Clinton—as being “new” reveals what it requires to be taken seriously by some members of the old guard in this city. Equally outrageous was his lack of enthusiasm over one of my mentors, Ron Brown, who was living in Washington and serving as the U.S. secretary of commerce when he died in 1996.

“Upstarts,” the man explains. “Sure they’re in the Boulé and they know where to buy a house, but every four years—with every administration—they come and go. No roots, no history, no plans to stay. Why should I invest the time in knowing them all?”

Because Washington is a city of politicians and government officials, there are many blacks who have received national prominence from blacks and whites outside of the District yet little acclaim from the black elite who have lived in the city for multiple generations. The most clannish residents will admit that Jordan and Brown were clearly accepted into the group, but will note that the old guard is usually less likely to be enamored with new government appointees who come in from Little Rock, Atlanta, or New York after being appointed by the newest president who is sworn into office. Instead, this group prefers to adopt the permanent professionals—the doctors, the lawyers, the economists, the intellectuals and, to some extent, the entrepreneurs who come to the city to live and stay.

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