I grew up on an idyllic, tree-lined street with a pretentious sounding name in the suburbs of DC. Bethesda, Maryland is a cluster of neighborhoods like mine: affluent suburban bubbles. Residents of Bethesda are happily shielded from the harsh realities of the rest of America, living in blissful ignorance.
My childhood was spent in a cozy brick house with a big yard for my dog to run in. My street has annual block parties, and there are always kids biking or playing ball in the road. Landscapers mow lawns on the weekends, and cleaners scrub homes on the weekdays. Most homes have alarm systems, though they aren’t necessary. Crimes are virtually nonexistent, aside from the occasional person rifling through an unlocked car at night. Neighbors gather for happy hours in backyards and share stories from their high profile jobs (Bill Clinton’s lawyer lives in the house behind me). Multiple cars sit in each driveway. The community is vibrant, warm, and comfortable.
And every single person on my street is white. In fact, a majority of my neighborhood is. In all the years I’ve spent strolling the streets around me, I’m not sure if I can pinpoint many times where I’ve seen a black person in my neighborhood. All throughout elementary school, there was one black boy in my grade, and very few Hispanic or Asian kids. Even in high school, a place that was relatively diverse, my friend group remained predominantly white. I could justify it to myself by saying I was just sticking with my friends who I had known since elementary school, but my friend group was symbolic of a larger issue. My high school was very clearly self-segregated, with racially homogenous groups of friends. Racism was underlying in so many aspects of my adolescent experience, and I never truly noticed the full extent of it from inside my wealthy white bubble.
It is no coincidence that my neighborhood was predominantly white. Decades of discriminatory practices shaped Bethesda, as well as other similar neighborhoods nationwide, into wealthy white paradises. Redlining, a previously common practice, influenced who was able to easily obtain loans and mortgages from banks. The Federal Housing Administration and Home Owners Loan Association created maps labeling certain neighborhoods as desirable places to loan money, and others as undesirable. Unsurprisingly, desirable neighborhoods were almost entirely white, and undesirable ones were almost entirely non-white. This meant that white people in white neighborhoods had a much easier time securing loans to buy their homes, while those in worse off neighborhoods struggled to obtain the capital needed for homeownership. My neighborhood was graded a B in the 1940’s, meaning banks were more than happy to loan elite white families the necessary money to buy a home there.
Even if a black family defied the odds and obtained a housing loan, most houses in Bethesda used to have racial covenants attached to their deeds. This was most common in the wealthiest neighborhoods closest to the downtown area. As recent as the 1970’s, many homes legally could not be sold to black people, Hispanics, Asians, and/or Jews. This means everyone whose Bethesda homes have been in their families for decades is white.
Even now, without these blatantly racist restrictions, it is extremely hard for black and Hispanic families to purchase homes in expensive areas. There is a significant racial wealth gap that places white people lightyears above people of color financially. According to inequality.org, white families have an average of $146,984 in wealth, while the average Latino family has $6,591, and the average black family has $3,557. With that much wealth, it is much easier for a white family to place a down payment on a home in a place like Bethesda than it is for a family of color.
The result of all this is the Bethesda that I grew up in: affluent, desirable, and overwhelmingly white. And those of us who lived here will probably go on to live in similar areas in the future. Growing up in Bethesda awarded me an abundance of advantages that I always took for granted.
My public high school was one of the best in the country. Our building was beautiful: large, a patchwork of brick and glass, and newly renovated. We had the opportunity to take a wide variety of AP classes, or enroll in the world-renowned IB program. Students were driven and competitive, and going to college was the expectation. The reason Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School was as good as it was? Wealth. In an area where income and property taxes brought in large sums of money, the school was always well-funded. Parents with comfortable amounts of cash could afford to make donations to the school. And without the need to work multiple jobs, parents were very active volunteers in the school community, helping it be as good as it could be.
Bethesda offered me every extracurricular opportunity I could imagine. I tried soccer, field hockey, pottery, crew, cross country, choir, producing the school TV show, model UN, and coaching an elementary school running club. These opportunities allowed great personal enrichment, but also enriched my college application. The combination of succeeding at a top high school and trying a wide variety of extracurriculars helped me get into Davidson, an elite liberal arts college. My Davidson education will help me succeed in grad school, if I choose to go, and in my future career. Growing up in Bethesda placed me on track to be just as successful as my parents, if not more so. And these advantages are unavailable to the millions of people who are barred from these affluent neighborhoods.