D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie wants to be sure his hometown becomes a place where people regardless of race can achieve their full potential with the support of District government.
To illustrate his convictions, he convened a symposium, “Race & Policy: Advancing Racial Equity and Economic Inclusion in the District of Columbia,” on Jan. 17 at the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center on the campus of St. Elizabeths East. McDuffie, a Democrat who represents Ward 5, said it’s time for the District to address racial inequities.
“This symposium speaks to the urgency of now,” he said. “This is a necessary conversation. It is my hope that this conference moves forward towards equity in the city.”
There are well-documented inequalities in the District, including how the wealthiest neighborhoods have schools that score well on standardized tests and have the most resources, particularly in Wards 2 and 3 with pockets in Wards 1, 4 and in most of Ward 6.
These well-heeled neighborhoods tend to be majority-white while most of the economically and educationally struggling areas, Wards 7 and 8 with swaths of working-class residents in Ward 5, remain mostly African American. In addition, just over 25 percent of Black District residents have a college degree compared to 92 percent of white residents. And while the median income for African-American households averages $38,000, white households boast an annual income that’s 330 percent higher.
McDuffie told the packed audience of 300, “I am here to listen and learn from the residents as well.”
He indicated his goal to replicate racial equity departments now operating in cities like Madison, Wis., New Orleans, San Antonio and Tacoma, Wash.
The National League of Cities kicked off the initiative after the Ferguson, Mo., uprisings that took place in 2012, encouraging municipalities to establish offices dealing with the inequities communities of color disproportionately face.
On Jan. 8, as first reported by The Informer, McDuffie introduced the REAR Act that would create a racial equity office in the District government.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and council members David Grosso (I-At Large), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) attended the symposium.
White welcomed the participants to his ward and praised McDuffie for his efforts.
“We need to level the playing field in this city,” he said. “Many don’t feel the prosperity that is taking place in the city and this conversation is a great starting point to talk about things like that.”
Panels featured themes that included: education and employment, health, housing and economic development and access to capital for minority-owned businesses.
And while panelists addressing inequities in education agreed that outcomes for black and brown youth need to be tackled and reduced, Trinity University President Pat McGuire pointed to one factor that often leads to minority students deficiencies in their academic performance.
“Many of the students who come to my university are struggling with the chronic effects of poverty,” McGuire said. “Poverty fuels racism and that is why a whole lot hasn’t changed educationally since 1970.”
Annette Arno, director of the District’s Office of Health Equity DC Health, said health outcomes for the city’s people of color remain predominantly race-based.
“Too many times we look only at the racial outcomes but don’t fix the structural system,” Arno said. “Race impacts opportunities for better health and everyone is affected by that spectrum. Economics and housing are determinants of someone’s health.”
District residents consistently say affordable housing remains the city’s top problem – something with which other panelists also agreed.
Attorney Ari Theresa referred to housing as a “commodity” saying, “housing is something that people need in the District.”
Georgetown University Associate Professor Maurice Jackson said the District’s housing crisis requires residents to be more proactive.
During the access to capital panel, Kevon King, co-owner of Village Cafe in Northeast, talked in-depth of how he tried unsuccessfully to obtain financing for his business through traditional banks before finally getting money through am informal network of mentors and friends.
“My partner and I faced a lot of unconscious prejudice,” he said. “We had to answer questions about our business experience and were asked about our tax situation before being told our credit wasn’t good enough.”
McDuffie called the event “amazing” and “just the beginning.”
“I am committed to following up on this,” he said.
McDuffie told The Informer his decision to hold the conference in Ward 8 had to do with the many inequities that exist there. He accepted this task, he said, to make District residents and leaders understand that race remains the consistent factor in the lives of many Washingtonians now dealing with inequities in education, housing, health and economic development.