Running through the airport trying to catch our connecting flight to Washington D.C, my brother and I attempted to calculate how fast we would have to race up the down escalator to catch up with our parents on the other side. If the velocity on the up side was five meters per second up, and the velocity on our side was five meters per second down, my brother and I would have to leap up the stairs at ten meters per second, that is if my parents stood still, which was not a likely scenario since my mom was already irritated that we only had ten minutes to get to the other side of the Cincinnati airport.
We soon abandoned our physics quandaries and turned our attention to the list of flights. After a crummy experience on our last vacation to Williamsburg, Virginia, three years prior when our luggage was lost, my family was determined to make this a memorable vacation. We had planned for months and prepared for an exciting experience in the nation’s capitol.
For the most part, D.C. was like any other major American city filled with cacophonous noises, crowds of people, and the unpleasant smell of garbage. However, something was different about Washington, D.C. Was it the grandeur of the architecture, the myriad of museums, or the five-star restaurants? No. It was the obvious de facto segregation still existing in a city that prides itself on political progress and change. Everywhere we went, my family seemed to find African Americans working in minimum wage jobs as bell-hops, taxi drivers, or prep cooks. Meanwhile, the majority of the well-dressed business people on the streets were white. You could accurately predict the color of a person’s skin just by knowing his or her employment.
One night over dinner at the Daily Grill with a white server and black bus boy, I brought the subject up. My family began boisterously debating the issue. We settled on economics and lack of education as reasons for this economic segregation. Education was not valued by many of the new African immigrants, my dad argued, citing conversations with the taxi drivers. My mom claimed the poor inner city schools were somewhat responsible. I thought of how hard it would be to escape poverty, even decades and generations later, when a group of people was economically disadvantaged and generally unskilled from the start.
As the vacation continued, I could not get my mind off the issue, especially after we visited a laundromat in a shady area of town. My family was reluctant to enter a place with bars on the windows, but the thought of the outrageous laundry prices at our downtown hotel urged us on. It would be an eye-opening experience to see how the other half lives we convinced ourselves.
We were initially met with stares; apparently, the sight of four well-dressed Caucasian tourists was not typical. My mom, an extremely social person, struck up a conversation with a black woman using the nearby tumble dryer. Meanwhile, I added up how much this would cost us. Twelve dollars for the taxi ride each way plus eight dollars to wash and dry for each one of four loads, I figured we probably were not saving much money. I couldn’t help but notice how expensive washing clothes must be for someone barely making minimum wage.
Suddenly, I heard my name. ‘Lauren is taking all honors and AP classes next year. She loved AP United States History last year, so we decided to come to D.C. and see some of the historical sites,’ my mom boasted.’You’re lucky. I try to motivate my son to stay in school and do well, but it is so hard,’ the other woman regretted, ‘especially when you’re a single mom working a low-paying job. I don’t want my son to end up like me.’I really felt for the woman. Here was someone who obviously understood the value of education, but when faced with hard circumstances was barely able to survive, let alone put much money away for her son’s future college costs.
Even long after the memories of Smithsonian museums, political tours, and monuments fade away, I will never forget that woman. A simple change in location caused me to question my privileged life. We will probably never completely eliminate racism and economic segregation, but had I not taken the trip, I would have never discovered the day-to-day reality.
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