DC Discussion on Slavery Reparations Makes Light of Its Role in Structural Racism

The District is seeking reparations for slavery. Yet, it has offered no compensatory relief for the racial injury that it directly caused in the last two decades. Public housing residents, gentrified communities, and victims of the early 2000s lead crisis have plausibly suffered acute emotional, economic, and physical harm. The District exacerbated the residual effects of institutionalized racism. If reparations should be made, they should begin first with these populations. It makes little sense for the District to call for reparations when its phalanx of lawyers is currently challenging several personal injury and class action lawsuits on contemporary sources of racial policy violence. The District needs to accept responsibility in these cases and develop a compensatory schema for broad classes of injury. The policy discussion on slavery reparations is a political coverup of the highest magnitude.

The District is quietly in crisis mode on race. As the District's role in deepening vast racial inequity comes into full view, elected officials are scrambling to control the narrative. Our February issue covered how Mayor Bowser only established goals to narrow the racial income gap the day after this paper asked whether increasing racial disparities would continue under statehood. By the end of her second term, the racial income divide grew to $100,000. Our February issue also discussed the self-described centrist politics of at-Large Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie.

Mr. McDuffie recently reintroduced his bill on slavery reparations. That bill would establish a nine-member task force to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans "wronged and traumatized by the ills of slavery, Jim Crow, and structural and institutional racism," covering several centuries of collective injury. The bill cites the racial wealth gap in the District as a consequence of systemic racism. The typical white household has a net worth 81 times the typical Black household. The bill has 9 co-sponsors. It is likely to pass given its majority support and Mr. McDuffie's role as chair of the Committee on Business and Economic Development. Mr. Duffie and his office did not respond to a request for comment.

Whatever its legislative success, the District is attempting to absolve itself from heightened forms of racial policy violence and their effects in contemporary Washington, DC. District officials repeatedly squandered opportunities in the last two decades to respond timely to and anticipate rising racial inequity. The structural racism leveled against African Americans, especially low-income residents, was reminiscent of the racist attitudes that underpinned urban renewal throughout the US in the 1950s and 60s. African Americans were accepted as collateral damage ("externalities" in economic terms) to expand the tax base and spur population growth. The public has little insight into the vast international networks of developers, investment firms, and pension plans that profited from the displacement and economic vulnerability of Black DC residents. We have found that public employee pension plans in Canada and California have heavily invested in the gentrification economy in the District.

The Council only enacted a series of racial equity laws such as establishing the Council Office of Racial Equity, the Mayor's Office of Racial Equity, and Zoning Commission reforms within the last three years in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. This paper and other voices such as the Ward 3 Housing Justice Coalition believe that the District is moving too slowly, short on details for meaningful racial reform. In many neighborhoods such as Southwest and Buzzard Point, gentrification continues unabated. "They say one thing, then do another," stated Patricia Bishop, Greenleaf Midrise Resident Council President.

While communities and residents voiced acute harm in public forums, District officials and agencies actively engaged in applied racism, often championed and implemented by African Americans. Race lacks any meaning to be relevant for public discourse. As we argued in our last issue, a monolithic Black cultural worldview and collective identity do not exist for all African Americans. Many African Americans ascribe to a racial identity that lacks any deep moral, political and social conviction, much less a sense of responsibility or accountability to other African Americans' plight. Many of those individuals are in District government. US society needs to jettison the outdated concept of race and to find more accurate categorizations of humans to account for identity and behaviors, including willingness to perpetuate racist policies.

District policies of racial injury negated the full benefits of constructive policies such as Medicaid expansion and other programs. Black life expectancy in DC is chronically worse than the US. The racial divide in life expectancy is growing, in excess of 10 years, except the District has vast resources to attenuate these trends. It lacks political will and an effective government to do so.

Within the last two decades, the District had all the tools at its disposal to buffer the residual effects of slavery and institutionalized racism - 1) a Black plurality with 2) prominent Black officials at the highest levels of government, 3) a booming economy, 4) a sizable budget, and 5) access to a highly skilled workforce for effective policymaking. Rather than focus on slavery reparations, the District should focus on repairing the damage from two decades of policy violence aimed directly and relentlessly at African Americans. 


The District should build on this list to identify populations deserving of reparations rather than first prioritizing slavery reparations. 


We cannot underscore enough the scale and scope of personal and collective trauma perpetuated by District agencies against public housing residents. DCHA is improving housing repairs but has not considered any plan to repair residents' deep emotional and physical harm, including on displaced populations. Residents in public housing deserve just compensation.

The misconduct of the DC Housing Authority strengthened the social determinants of health for low-income residents. From its inception, Southwest Voice has continually covered the struggle of public housing communities against racial injustices perpetuated by the DC Housing Authority and District officials. Our December issue highlighted the psychological warfare against Greenleaf residents in the use of an institutional paint color in residences and the lack of protocols for emergency water leaks. Those issues are part of a broader arsenal of weaponized policies, including intentional deterioration of living conditions and public safety. HUD indicated that DCHA had the lowest occupancy rate of any housing authority in the US. The Office of Attorney General (OAG) settled a lawsuit with DCHA in 2020, forcing DCHA to confront ongoing drug- and firearm-related nuisances. That plan did not provide for any compensatory relief to residents or for community strengthening. The OAG has an active lawsuit against DCHA on disability discrimination.

Residents' injuries can be seen publicly each month as residents testify before the DCHA Board of Commissioners about poor housing conditions and mistreatment. Their emotional damage and heightened stress level are palpable. Residents pay a price in health for mold, water leaks, lax security, shoddy repairs, poor leadership, redevelopment, and displacement.  Elected resident council leaders are particularly vulnerable to adverse physical and mental health effects because they manage the day-to-day issues that their residents face and advocate on residents' behalf. View Greenleaf Midrise Resident Council President Patricia Bishop's testimony


Research in Southwest shows the direct link between neighborhood change and poor mental health. African Americans with strong moral, cultural, political convictions of collective identity have been harmed due to the racial disparate impact of neighborhood change.

Southwest recently held a community meeting to discuss results of a 2020-21 survey of Southwest residents on neighborhood change and poor mental health. The study findings showed a positive association between negative perceptions of neighborhood change and poor or fair mental health. That study also analyzed how residents clustered. A plurality of residents perceived that Blacks or African Americans, low-income, public housing residents, and large families experienced the negative impact of gentrification. The study is pending review with an academic journal. Results are consistent with research that shows negative health effects for Black and economically vulnerable populations due to displacement and neighborhood change.

While the literature on neighborhood change is expanding, the harm of gentrification is widely acknowledged - physical displacement, eroding affordability, psychosocial and mental stress, cultural and political displacement, and eroding sense of belonging and place attachment. The public has little insight into the daily struggles of residents to manage the mental and physical effects related to gentrification. Because District-led development in Southwest has placed pressure on intense redevelopment in the area, communities experience collective trauma from the threat and actual displacement of residents. Landlord behavior in pushing residents out of private housing or engaging in retaliation by withdrawing services for maintenance and mice and cockroach abatement is common in Southwest. Individuals and gentrifying communities deserve to be made whole with just compensation. The District also needs to stop fighting lawsuits where individuals and communities seek compensatory damages.


Prior to the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, the worst incident of environmental racism occurred in Washington, DC in the early 2000s.

"The Flint Water crisis was not the only major case of environmental racism due to abject failure in water authority policy. Black communities in Washington, DC also suffered a lead crisis in the early 2000s that was “20 to 30 times larger” than Flint's. It crystallized interlocking injustices implicating Washington's Water and Sewer Authority and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control came into town and wrote a falsified report that literally claimed that not a single man, woman or child in D.C. had any evidence any of them had their blood lead elevated above CDC's level of concern,” according to Virginia Tech environmental engineer Marc Edwards. An investigation by the US House of Representatives found that the CDC made “scientifically indefensible claims.” [Excerpt from Southwest residents' manuscript on the Public Health Economy and Public Health Liberation]

To our understanding, the District has not provided for a victims' fund due to the 2000s lead crisis. If the District is talking "reparations," then this affected group in contemporary Washington, DC should be prioritized. DCHA has also failed to inform residents of lead-based paint in public housing consistent with existing laws.