Eleven days after the presidential election, 100 people were invited to the home of Vernon and Ann Jordan. The guest of honor was former Time Warner chief Richard Parsons, but the belle of the ball was Valerie Jarrett, one of Barack Obama’s best friends and a newly named White House senior adviser.
All night the Jordans’ guests–many VIPs in their own right–surrounded Jarrett, eager to introduce themselves and welcome her to D.C. Business as usual. Every four or eight years, Washington’s primarily white, influential, moneyed set rushes to cozy up to the new power brokers in town: Texans when George W. Bush arrived, Arkansas buddies when Bill Clinton came to town. The city’s high-level social scene–dinners, black-tie fundraisers, receptions, ubiquitous book parties–is the place where money and experience are subtly traded for access and influence.
Except for the first time, the face of ultimate power is African American. With a black first family in the White House and a diverse group of appointees and Cabinet nominees, the all-white dinner party feels all wrong. Certain hosts are suddenly grappling with a new reality: They need some black friends. Overnight, black politicians, lawyers and journalists are hot properties, receiving engraved invitations from people they never got invitations from before.
Blacks have gone from barely being on the list to being in charge of the list.
“Everyone knows that his campaign was about inclusion,” Jarrett said. “We would expect that spirit of inclusion to also reflect on Washington’s social scene.”
A swift shift is underway in this exclusive set of those who deal with the highest level of federal government. That’s a signal of wholesale change, said A. Scott Bolden, managing partner of law firm Reed Smith’s Washington office and a longtime politico in a city where professionals work side by side by day, but socialize separately at night.
“You see those ‘What’s In and Out’ columns every year?” he asked with a laugh. “With Obama and the first family in town, arguably being black is ‘in.’ ”
The Obama era has ushered in plenty of talk that the country has transcended race or that race is incidental.
“There is no question there’s been more race discussions in social circles this year than there’s ever been,” said Rosen, who is part of a longtime integrated group of friends that includes political strategist Donna Brazile, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), journalist Karen Tumulty and former Democratic National Committee official Minyon Moore. “We were having dinner, arguing about what ‘post-racial’ meant,” Rosen said. “Ultimately we decided there was no such thing.”
The subject is close to former defense secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, who wrote “Love in Black and White” about their interracial marriage. The couple have been a fixture at Washington parties, where she has often been the only African American in the room.
“Most whites don’t like to talk about race when I’m there,” she said. “But it always comes up at mostly black dinner parties.” In their own home, the Cohens and their guests talk more freely about race. “They feel that they are among equals and are really willing to discuss and engage,” he said. “They are not afraid to say what they think.”
But Johnson is skeptical about whether more frank conversation leads to integration. Hosts will be “politically correct” and invite African Americans, he said, but that will last about a year.
“I don’t think that’s a sustainable socialization model for Washington,” he said. “Integration socially, as opposed to business or sports, is really tough because it involves people’s personal lives. . . Once people get comfortable–‘I’ve got my two black friends’–they can stop. Real integration on a personal level doesn’t happen without a deep commonality of interests.”
Vernon Jordan thinks it’s too early to tell. His wife is much more optimistic.
“It will change overnight,” she predicted. “It really will. It’s been changing, but this is a jump-start. Once change takes place, you can’t go back. That’s the great thing about it.”