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Anthropologist Looks at Washington | D.C. Divide

Photo: Capitol Building

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

There’s Washington. And then there’s D.C. Washington is Capitol Hill, the government, the power brokers.

D.C. is where Sabiyha Prince grew up and, today, where she does her research as an anthropologist. “D.C. refers to the hood,” says the anthropology professor, College of Arts and Sciences. “When people say, ‘I’m from D.C.,’ what does that mean? What does it mean to people who live here? How do people frame ‘D.C.’?”

Prince is a cultural anthropologist whose research centers on urban life in the United States and the intersections between race and class. She analyzes history, class, power, identity, and public policy to illuminate the ways the experiences of African Americans are shaped by those factors.

Her doctoral fieldwork and her first book looked at the black middle class in Harlem; her recent work has been on the changing neighborhoods of her hometown, such as Shaw, Trinidad, and Petworth.

“It’s a new experience for me to do research in D.C.,” says Prince, who grew up in the Michigan Park neighborhood near Providence Hospital. “My project is ethnographic, and the questions I’m asking are on the demographic changes taking place in D.C. right now and, in particular, how African Americans are responding to them.”

Petworth, for instance, became a black middle-class neighborhood after legislation in the mid-1950s desegregated housing and unintentionally set off white flight. As whites moved out, African American families moved into Petworth.

“History is so important,” she says. “I always make sure to use history in research, because it gives texture and depth and you can move away from stereotype. Black communities and black spaces have been so pathologized in academic culture in the U.S. and in pop culture that a lot of nuances have not been there.”

Now as white Americans are increasingly moving into Petworth and similar neighborhoods, the reaction from longtime residents has been varied. Some have seen the property values on grandma’s home skyrocket to the point where the family can’t afford to keep it. Predatory lending has become an issue; so has the lack of input into policy changes on everything from housing to zoning.

“You have other people say, ‘I love the way my neighborhood has changed.’ They love having access to certain resources. Frequently how you feel about it is affected by how it impacts you,” Prince says. “If you’re a middle-class black person and you share in certain tastes, you may be happy to see the impact. But you may also be very resentful to see the traditional community you grew up in become whiter.”

Seeing white faces in traditionally black neighborhoods can have a complicated resonance for people who grew up there. And sometimes, the difference in priorities and perceptions comes to a head in conflict.

One of the battlegrounds? Dog parks. Four-legged newcomers are sometimes at the heart of conflict as wealthier dog owners try to turn longtime hangouts into dog parks. 

New arrivals might see a park where men wile away the hours playing chess as a scruffy gathering place, while the neighborhood’s longtime residents might see a key part of their local identity.

D.C. may be Prince’s childhood home, but her earlier work focused on Harlem in the 1990s. That research led to her 2004 book, Constructing Belonging: Race, Class and Harlem’s Professional Workers, on the black middle class and its experience of race and class.

Defining “middle class” was part of the challenge. “I didn’t define it based on income, but occupation,” she said. The definition might cover an architect making $35,000 a year with a degree from an Ivy League school and a two-income couple earning over $250,000 but saddled with medical school debt.

Among their shared experiences: almost all grew up with poor parents who labored as housekeepers, factory workers, cafeteria servers, and in other low-status jobs. “The struggles their parents experienced—being insulted, going through challenges—really shaped how they viewed being middle class. Some would say, ‘I don’t consider myself middle class. I just work hard, and I’ve gotten where I am, but I’m not middle class.”

Prince found that the Harlem professionals defined themselves and looked at being middle class through the lens of race, but class was also a factor shaping relations to families and community. “It really highlighted some of the contradictions—how they wanted to live in black communities and be part of their people, but then would never interact with anyone.”

This summer Prince will compile her research into her second book, which will focus on D.C. “There’s a unique aspect of doing research on an area you come from,” she says. “Obviously it’s scholarly and academic, but social-emotional issues are involved as well, and you always have to be mindful of process . . . you’re also trying to have an outside perspective.

“Our field is just a wonderful field. It’s broad, it’s holistic, and you learn how to make sense of the world.”

Prince has appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews, the Pacifica Radio Network, and on WOL-AM radio’s the Mark Thompson Show. Among her publications are “Will the Real Black Middle Class Please Stand Up?” in the Monthly Review (July-August 2006); “Manhattan Africans,” a chapter in the book Afro-Atlantic Dialogues; and “Race, Class and the Packaging of Harlem” in Identities (2005).