A People’s History of Washington D.C.


The District of Columbia is the size of small city, with a total population of 633,736 individuals. Washington DC, historically known for its distinct racial segregation, is somewhat racially diverse but is predominantly inhabited by white and black residents. While the DC metro area is about one quarter black, the entire DC proper is about one half black, with a slightly greater black population than white population. Segregation in DC is very distinct, and the city is racially divided almost exactly down the middle (Blake). As of 2014, DC included 254,955 white residents, comprising 40.2% of the population, 314,138 black residents, 49.6% of the population, and 22,785 Asian residents, comprising 3.6% of the population, and 2,072 American Indian or Alaska native residents, making up 0.3% of the district’s population. About 9.9% of the DC population, 62,637 residents, identify their ethnicity as Hispanic or latino (“ACS Demographic and Housing”). See Figure C for a graph representation of race and ethnicity in DC. The demographics or DC have shifted over the course of time, as would be expected. From 1980 to 2010, the percentage of people of color in DC decreased from 74.27% to 65.19% (“Data Summaries: District of Columbia”). From only 2010 to 2014 the black population decreased from 52.9% to 49.6%, while the white population increased from 38.1% to 40.2% (“ACS Demographic and Housing”).

The gender demographics for the DC area as of 2014 are split between 47.3% male, around 245,527 individuals, and 52.7% female, which represents 280,220 females. This data is obviously based on a binary representation of gender, due to the fact that there is no inclusive census data for gender demographics in the DC area. The median age range for the DC area is 33.7 years old. 83% of the population is eighteen years or older. 10.7% of the population is between zero and ten years old, while 11.3% of the population is age 65 or over (“ACS Demographic and Housing”).

Food Insecurity

The USDA has compiled and publicized data on food insecurity within the United states since 1995. The USDA breaks households into four groups based on their findings: high food security, marginal food security, low food security, and very low food security (FRAC, 2015). The former two are considered to be food secure, while the latter two are categorized as food insecure. Special attention is paid to households with children that fall into the latter two categories.

Data collected by the USDA in 2013 concluded that within the United States “21 percent of children under 18 lived in food insecure households, and one percent lived in households with very low food security” (Child Trends Databank, 2014). In Washington D.C. alone, 13.2 percent “of all households were food insecure in 2011-2013” (D.C. Hunger Solutions, 2014).

Food Insecurity has become more prevalent within the District of Columbia. The number of households considered to be food insecure has grown by nearly 10,000 homes since 2005 (Figure A). Although food insecurity rates have been steadily increasing over the years, the poverty rate has remained fairly stagnant and the rate of children living in poverty has actually decreased since 2005 (FRAC, 2015).  Though the data is showing signs that individuals living in the District of Columbia are in some cases gaining financial security, they are still proving to be losing the battle with food security. One possible explanation for the increase in food insecurity is not a lack of financial resources to obtain food, but rather a lack of access to proper nutrition in order to sustain a healthy lifestyle.

Access to healthy food is a significant problem for the residents of the District of Columbia. Large areas of the District are considered to be food deserts. Food deserts lack sufficient access to nutritional foods to sustain a proper diet. Food deserts often are home to multiple fast food chains, and lack full service grocery stores. In Figure B, the illustration divides the District of Columbia into eight wards. Ward 4 only has two full service grocery stores, seven has four and only three are located in ward 8 (D.C. Hunger Solutions, 2014). “By contract, ward 3 –the highest-income ward- has eleven full service stores” (D.C. Hunger Solution, 2014). Due to the gross imbalance of resources within the District, it is no surprise that some areas are suffering from food insecurity.

History of immigration in D.C.

DC was founded in 1790, and experienced a series of demographic fluxes throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. The population of the District of Columbia was originally entirely white. By 1860 the overall population was smaller than 100,00, and that number more than tripled by 1910. The recorded population peak for the city is around 1950. Following the World Wars, the general population grew to greater than 800,000. The 1980’s was the first era to see Asians and Latinos move into the city. Approaching and during the 2000s, population growth among the District of Columbia was majorly due to an influx of a white demographic. This was a reversal of the suburban flight that occurred in the 1950’s. The white demographic in the District of Columbia grew by 31.6% from 2000 to 2010. Coincidingly, the African American demographic declined by 11.5%. This was a drastic shift from what was known as the “Chocolate City” through the late 20th-century (“Washington, DC: Our Changing City”).

According to the Migration Policy Institute, in the 1990’s there were 58,887 “foreign born” residents in the District of Columbia. 11.9% of this demographic was African, 17.7% Asian, 19% European, 2.2% North American (other than the U.S.) and .6% Oceanic. This was in contrast to the 548,013 “U.S. born” residents at the time. During the 2000’s, the “foreign born” demographic was 73,561. Of this group, 12.5% were African, 17% Asian, 17.5 European, 50.4% Latino, 1.7% North American, and 0.8%Oceanic. Meanwhile, the demographic for U.S. born residents was around 498,498. Also according to the Migration Policy database, By 2014, the “foreign born” demographic was as follows: 15.9% African, 18.3% Asian, 20% European, 43.1% Latino, 2% North American, and 0.9% Oceanic (“State Demographics Data – DC”).

The Migration Policy Institute does not have workforce records from before the 21st century. However, according to the organization’s records from 2014, 20% of the “civilian workers” population in the District of Columbia who worked in “arts, entertainment recreation, accommodation, and food services” were “foreign born.” On the other hand, only 8.4% of “civilian workers” in those same industries at the time were born in the U.S.. In 2014, 0% of “civilian workers” employed in “agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and mining” were “foreign born.” While a mere 0.1% of the “U.S. born civilian workers” population occupied those industries. Also in 2014, 73.3% of the “noncitizen foreign born” population were working-class citizens. While a lesser 69.8% “foreign born naturalized citizens” participated in the civilian labor force (“State Workforce Data – DC”).

The beginnings of an immigrant influx during the 20th century was of a group that majorly consisted of professionals and scholars. More recently, this demographic increase has been due to an increasing population of refugees and their families from Southeast Asia and Africa. The history of an immigrant population in the District of Columbia is particularly diverse. According to a report released by the Brookings Institute, a study of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) admissions data identified that in the 1990’s “metropolitan Washington’s [population of] legal permanent immigrants came from 193 countries” (Singer 2012).


Although the national agricultural sector depends on undocumented immigrants, DC’s urban location means that most food systems jobs revolve around distribution rather than production of food. Food workers in the DC area tend to serve as chefs, dishwashers, and servers rather than as processors or farm laborers. The Washington-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan area employs approximately 200,000 people in food service jobs, with about 54,000 of these positions concentrated in the District of Columbia (“District of Columbia” 2016). Workers receive an hourly mean wage of $12.35 and an annual mean wage of $25,780 (“Food Preparation” 2016), but salaries vary widely depending on the position, from a $60,000 annual mean wage for chefs to a $21,580 for fast food cooks (“District of Columbia” 2016).

The stories we never hear are just as important as those that are widely published, but there is a startling lack of information about the experiences of immigrant workers in the DC food system. According to the US Census Bureau, immigrants comprise about 17% of the DC workforce (“New Americans” 2015), but there is limited data available on their occupations. Given that they make up 10% of the 12.7 million people working in the restaurant industry (Wainer 2014), immigrants most likely play an important role in the DC food service sector. The food service industry offers unique challenges, especially to undocumented workers, who cannot complain about inconsistent hours or dangerous conditions for fear of deportation. In addition, only a fifth of restaurant jobs pay livable wages (Wainer 2014), with employers frequently discriminating against immigrants, people of color, and women.

Gender Relations

There has always been a controversial division of labor between men and women. As time progresses, education opportunities are becoming more accessible to women and gender roles become more ambiguous. Women are taking on ‘men’s jobs’ and are demanding equal opportunity and equal pay. Recent studies indicate that the overall unemployment rate for women is lower than men’s and women are 50 percent more likely to work in the public sector (International Labor Organization 2011).

Even though there has been an increase in employment for women in recent years, distinctly gendered labeled jobs still continue to determine a woman’s career path. Masculine jobs are considered to be financial, manual labor, and considerably more powerful jobs, while feminine jobs are considered to be secretary positions, deskwork, and less authoritative jobs. Within the food industry there is also a distinct gender division of labor. Women are considered to have the title of “cooks”, while men are “chefs”. Even though the title means the same thing, there is a different underlying negative connotation when referring to women as cooks and not as chefs. Women are less likely to run their own kitchen let alone their own business, but in recent years women-owned businesses are growing and diversifying sectors previously considered as nontraditional for women (Womenable 2014).

Segregation of neighborhoods

Discriminatory housing policies in Washington, DC, beginning in the Jim Crow era, resulted in the creation of a deeply segregated city. With the spike in DC’s population at the start of the 20th century, real estate developers began rapidly constructing properties; however, African American’s along with other non-white minority groups were often excluded from buying or leasing these properties (Kraft). In addition to being legally excluded from accessing properties, many neighborhoods would gather signatures for petitions banning certain groups from moving onto entire blocks (Kraft). Neighborhood petitions were used to ensure that all members of the block would not sell to African American families, and these contracts were long-term, often bounded to future property owners, which relegated African American families to continuously lesser valued, black neighborhoods (Kraft).

In the lawsuit Corrigan v. Buckley, 1926, the US Supreme Court declined to hear a case regarding racially restrictive covenants thus upholding the decision of the lower court (Kraft). Through this case, it became legal to exclude African Americans from neighborhoods through these petitions, as the belief that blacks being equal meant that they too could restrict whites from entering their neighborhoods (Kraft). The restrictive, exclusionary nature of this lawsuit enforced the existence of racially segregated neighborhoods, regardless of how esteemed the African American families were in the community or the value of the property. In 1934, the populations in areas such as Pleasant Plains, Old City, LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale were 81-100% non-white demonstrating the city’s racial divide (Kraft).

The fight against racial housing policies existed well into the 20th century, with several lawsuits similar to Corrigan v. Buckley validating the exclusionary tactics. It wasn’t until 1948 that it became legal under the 14th amendment to eliminate racially restrictive covenants (Kraft). However, after centuries of relegating African Americans to a perpetual lower societal standing, from slavery through Jim Crow, there was no seamless transition to integrated neighborhoods. While racial segregation has been declining over the past 50 years in large metropolitan US cities, the racial divide through segregated neighborhoods persists in Washington, DC (Butler).

Race Relations

D.C. is a racially and ethnically diverse city. However, since the 1800s, the biggest racial groups have been non-Hispanic whites and blacks. As a comparison, Asians’ largest population made up 0.2% starting in the 1900s, Native Americans made up 0.1% starting in the 1960s, and Hispanics’ total population made up 2.8% of the population in the 1980s. “Other” is classified as 0.2% starting in the 1960s (Sheir, 2014). D.C. was a predominantly black city, dubbed “Chocolate city.” Indeed, between 1800 and 1960, black people were the majority, with a history of black mayors and rich African culture and intellectual life in many of its neighborhoods. However, many factors led to inflows of white populations: Congress’s power over D.C. politics and budgets, a history of orchestrated removals of black communities (ex: Meridan Hill in the 1880s), the 2008 financial crisis which sparked an influx of white newcomers, a range of homeownership efforts, and D.C.’s predominantly black incarceration rate which has deepened black poverty and reduced educational opportunities at the expense of whites. To incentivize whites to come in, D.C.’s mayors have offered many public services that it has repeatedly not offered to decades-long black residents. Statistics prove that a zip code in a white neighborhood compared to a black neighborhood can lead to differences in employment, household earnings, and condo presence. For example, zip code 20001’s poverty rate which includes the now popular Columbia Heights and U street “is exactly what it was in 1980, 1990 and 2000 — 28 percent — and the child poverty rate is nearly twice what it was in 1990 (45 percent)” despite rapid gentrification and supposed developmental benefits. Whether residents believe tensions exist or not, the idea that there was “a plan” (conspiracy or not) “to remove blacks from power” has been argued by many black groups since the 1970s. This “plan” (even having its own Wikipedia page) has been so prevalent in racial discussions that many publications such as The Washington Post have weighed in on it. Regardless of who you ask, in simplistic terms, “two different groups with two very different experiences of America are thrown together.” Source of section: Ross, 2013.



Figure A

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“National and State Program Data Tool « Food Research & Action Center.” Food Research Action Center National and State Program Data Tool Comments. N.p., 2015. Web. June 2016.


Figure B


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Figure C


Washington DC Race and Ethnicity as of 2014. Carson Peacock.

Figure D


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