D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) convened the second of his civil rights listening sessions on July 13 at the Emery Heights Community Center, located in the Brightwood Park neighborhood in Ward 4 in Northwest. Fifteen residents attended the meeting to vent their frustrations and to get information from the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) about how to deal with an array of discrimination challenges.
“The Office of the Attorney General believes protecting the civil rights of District residents is a priority,” said Toni Jackson, who leads the civil rights section of the OAG. “We are committed to fighting discrimination because it affects housing, whether one has a living wage, a high-quality education, and whether people can live happy lives. We are doing these listening sessions in the face of federal rollbacks in civil rights and less enforcement of those types of laws.
“We want to hear those experiences,” Jackson said.
Residents were forthcoming with their concerns including landlord-tenant rights, students and parents’ rights at school, and the increasing issue of personal appearance discrimination, specifically related to hair length and style.
“There is employment discrimination on the basis of how African Americans wear their hair,” said Taalib-Din Abdul Uqdah, who’s led a decades-long battle to support Black women who prefer wearing natural hairstyles. Discrimination persists, he argued, adding that “We have had success in convincing some airlines, the Doubletree Hotels, the D.C. police, and all branches of the military to let people wear their hair the way they want.
“I am getting tired of fighting this battle, though,” he said.
Racine reiterated that discrimination based on appearance violated the District’s human rights law and proposed that his office and Uqdah come up with promotional materials to remind people of their right to their appearance.
California recently became the first state to ban discrimination based on one’s hair.
The Brightwood Park area has one of the highest concentrations of seniors 60 and older in D.C. But when Harold Valentine asked about marijuana in senior facilities, no one seemed surprised.
“There are senior residences that allow marijuana to be consumed on the premises,” Valentine said. “That’s not right. No marijuana should be allowed in senior housing, and personally I think it should be banned.
“Marijuana triggers health issues in seniors,” he said.
The pungent smell of marijuana causes some respiratory discomfort among some seniors, especially those who require respirators to breathe, Valentine said. He also understands that in many instances visiting friends and relatives smoke marijuana, not necessarily the residents themselves.
Racine said the legal status of marijuana in the District focuses on its decriminalization; and its medical and recreational use.
“Our marijuana laws, particularly decriminalization and medical marijuana laws, are criminally enforced,” Racine said. He said there needs to be better clarity on what constitutes a nuisance on recreational marijuana, given that it’s limited legality in terms of where it can be consumed.
The D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 has the distinction nationally of being the most potent civil rights legislation in the country. The law bans discrimination not only based on race, sex, religion, and gender identification but even on creditworthiness, source of income and status in a family. The D.C. Office of Human Rights has long been the arbiter of residents’ civil rights through the complaint process, with negotiated settlements as a primary tool.
However, since Racine became the District’s top legal officer in 2015, he has moved to take on more civil rights cases that have more significant standing and the D.C. Council this year authorized a section of his office to do that.
The first civil rights listening session took place on July 9 at the Woodbridge Library in Ward 5 in Northeast.
The residents who attended participated in electronic voting exercises where they expressed opinions on the state of discrimination in the District and the type of bigotry they face in the city.
Racine said his staff would take the feedback from the audience and utilize it to proceed with the next steps in its civil rights enforcement strategy.
The next two listening sessions will take place at the Reeves Center on 14th & U Streets., N.W. on July 18 and at the Anacostia Library on July 23.