DC's Racial Equity Plan Seeks Slow Pace of Change, Overlooks Deep Social In
The District recently released its proposed Racial Equity Action Plan to the public. Open for public comment until January 2, the 44-page document can appear to reassure residents that the District is preparing for a course-correction. Except it is not. Positioning its challenge of "undoing hundreds of years of discrimination" is disingenuous and deflecting blame. Leveling the playing field has been within the District's locus of control since Home Rule, even more so after the end of the Control Board when its coffers swelled. The District's tax revenue per capita from 2002-2019 increased by $6,500 - a rate of growth more than any US state. Yet, Southwest Voice's own research has shown that one-third of neighborhoods in Washington, DC saw a decline in Black median household income from 2010-2019 when the economy went from recession to expansion. Black median household income in DC of $42,000 is less than a third of the whites' at $134,000 - part of a national trend revealing no progress in reducing racial income and wealth inequalities between blacks and whites over the past 70 years. Black-white life expectancy gap by gender is 12 and 17 years, respectively for women and men, even greater in low-income neighborhoods like Anacostia. Despite consistent literature on vast racial gaps in life expectancy and health outcomes, the District has no coherent public policy approach. The plan fails to respond to the people's mandate for racial reform and anticipates no change in the systems of power that perpetuate modern-day structural oppression and racism.
The District's attribution of its social ills to historical legacies is not at all persuasive since it has strengthened drivers of social inequality in contemporary Washington, DC. The Plan does not acknowledge, even attempt to reconcile, competing priorities and values. Gentrification economic policies, hyper-capitalism, and corporate welfare cannot go hand-in-hand with preventing Black displacement and a serious "ongoing commitment to racial equity". In Southwest alone, District policy has excluded affordable housing, released developers from contractual affordable housing obligations, provided excessive public subsidies for luxury market housing, supported cultural gentrification with conversion of an African American heritage site to a private museum, and pressured matter-of-right development that has no obligation to produce affordable housing. Southwest has yet to feel the full brunt of structural racism with wholesale neighborhood change ongoing. Other neighborhoods are similarly situated in which harmful policies, some originating more than 20 years ago and others under active consideration like the Congress Heights Small Area Plan, portend widening racial gaps. We discuss later how racism is a less relevant construct in the District to explain these trends. Hegemonic theory based on a shadow government of public officials and private interest groups is more important, a theory that urban planners consider "urban regime politics". In a city that has only known Black mayors and majority or near-majority Black city councils since Home Rule, the classic understanding of racism (e.g., who is doing the harm, experiencing the harm) provides no meaningful insight to explain the vicious cycle of racial inequity reproduction.
To become the most intensely gentrified city in the US in the 21st century involved pliant political officials willing to subvert the public good and bargain Black lives as pawns. Land use decisions, appointment powers, underinvestment in vulnerable communities, lax oversight of critical agencies like the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) and the DC Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), and public subsidies worth billions to catalyze a gentrifying and displacement economy are most apparent. The Racial Equity Action Plan can be understood as downplaying the political construction of rampant forms of structural racism. At worst, the plan seeks cover to continue the current course, abusing the language of racial equity to pretend to be serious about change. This issue will provide a critical analysis of the Racial Equity Action Plan, then propose concrete steps on racial equity that would have immediate effects.
Our previous issue of Southwest Voice showcased SW DC residents who are leading a new public health movement to account for the political, economic, and social drivers of health inequity. The root causes of health inequity are found in the public health economy (their original construct), characterized by anarchy, competing moralities, and hyper self-interest. They also challenge anti-racism philosophy by demanding greater attention to liberation.
The Racial Equity Action Plan
The Racial Equity Action Plan is not worth reading in its entirety, if at all. It is frustratingly prosaic, mired in bureaucratic-speak and political speech. In fact, we only encourage readers to peruse pages 26-33 containing the action steps. Half of the Plan is spent on the framework, methodology, and community engagement. The Office of Racial Equity only engaged "a total of 122 residents and community members" and did not provide a demographic breakdown, despite its stated guiding principle of "centering the voices of Black, Indigenous, and people of color". Southwest Voice and other Southwest community groups have been able to engage many more residents in Southwest alone in one-time surveys without the benefit of any funding, much less the number of resources available to the government. The second half commits to staff training, more data collection (except a lack of data isn't really the problem), and changes to government hiring practices. The Plan mistakes these actions as meaningful. They are not. It is predicated on "alternative facts" in which racial inequity is neither acute nor urgent in the District.
The Plan's main sections read as if written by two interest groups — advocates for racial justice on the one hand and the "urban regime" on the other to slow the pace of change. For instance, dozens of aspirational goals set forth in the first section are mostly unmapped to the specific action charts. The Plan acknowledges, "racial equity aims to identity and understand the root causes of racial inequities" and "historical and structural factors that reinforce racial inequities." However, it does not conduct even a basic analysis of root causes or structural factors in contemporary Washington, DC. It is not reasonably to expect the Plan to be completely independent, but the disconnect between the rhetoric of racial equity and the action plan is stark. Our analysis could not find any concrete steps that aligned with this philosophy in the Action Steps (pages 25-33). The first section seeks to "operationalize the advancement of racial equity by explicitly developing and implementing tools," but makes no mention of how various tools from the Office of Racial Equity (ORE) have been implemented or used to-date. It appears to this paper that ORE's online resources are not generally applied or required in government agencies. The report provides no data on outcomes for ORE's pilot that started in September 2021 with twelve District agencies. In other words, the Plan's emphasis on staff training does not provide convincing evidence that it has or will work.
The Implementation Flaws of the Action Plan
The Plan seeks "to stay the course (on racial equity) during implementation". However, the Action Plan is not convincing. First, the timeline stretches over years instead of months for developing resources and trainings that actually or likely exist in the public or private sector or that can be created within months - racial equity training, training on the Certified Business Enterprise program, guidance on racial equity strategic initiatives, training materials for implementing racial equity data standards, culturally sensitive materials for the public, data on racial equity indicators, community engagement approaches, and the like. Some goals such as supervisory training on racial equity and standardizing recruitment processes should already be in place because of anti-discrimination laws and DC Human Resources policy. The Plan admits that DC hiring and employment practices are open to racial bias - probably indicative of a broader issue of errant practices.
These concerns point to a central challenge to the ability of the Plan to ensure implementation — that of government inefficiency and whether the District is even following current laws. Following a racial incident in one of its stores in Philadelphia in 2018, Starbucks quickly responded with national anti-bias training, closing all of its stores. It had also done so in 2009. We are not arguing that DC has to do the same, but the Plan does not suggest any sense of urgency. Some Action Plan goals extend into the year 2026. We also wonder whether this considerable length of time is yet another opportunity for public gifting to benefit the private sector with scores of consulting contracts. Many of the indicators already exist in databases or can be quickly analyzed with data that the District already owns. We wonder what the District is doing with the data it has. We previously reported on the limited use of the CRISP.
The second reason not to have any faith in the Plan's implementation is that authority and oversight are decentralized. To manage the effective implementation of nearly 50 actions, it takes a government agency or position ("czar") vested with powers to work across disparate agencies and mandate full cooperation. It also assumes that a well-resourced implementation team has sufficient staffing and tools. None of this can be said of the Office of Racial Equity, which had only six staff, for the whole of DC government and only shares some of the responsibility for accountability. Plus, 50 actions are far too many for effective management for a staff of six. Rather, 4-5 high impact goals within the next two year would reap more immediate benefits - See our recommendations for a Racial Equity Action Plan below.
Third, the Action Plan does not reflect feasibility, potential outcomes, or evaluate the scale of impact. Feasibility concerns whether it is possible to do. Given government inefficiency, the lack of a central office for coordinating government policy, varied agency-specific missions and specialized skills, and competing priorities and values (e.g., gentrification economy), the feasibility of Action Plans with practical application for District agencies is far-fetched. Based on the Racial Equity Achieves Results (REACH) Act of 2020, the Office of Racial Equity is charged to "work with District agencies to promote inter-agency collaboration The Plan is not associated with any measurements or outcomes," the Plan provides no insight into how any inter-agency collaboration until now has been or can be effective to imbue any trust that the Plan is workable. As discussed, there are no reported details or outcomes of ORE's pilot. The scale of impact to drive a major reduction in racial inequity is not provided. Based on the number of times that "develop," "create," and "identify" are used (all verbs for early-stage action), the Plan cannot reasonably anticipate a major sea change, although one is desperately needed.
Finally, the REACH Act requires, "Beginning no later than Fiscal Year 2022, and for each subsequent fiscal year, the Mayor shall establish at least one relevant performance measure related to an agency's progress toward achieving racial equity." The Plan does not provide a list of performance measures for District agencies. It is yet another indication that the implementation is on a collision course for failure.
"The virulent racist strains behind Southwest urban renewal in the 1950s, were once thought long-dead until the District reached in the laboratory archives and brought the strains back to life, unleashing them on the community, particularly Black communities. The District is neither refusing to contain the virus nor admit its wrongdoing."
An Appropriate Racial Equity Plan
The District should pursue 4-5 high impact goals within the next two years to reap more immediate benefits for racial equity. It should focus on applying the principle of "Do not harm" in all policies. These steps are intended to better align with the Plan's stated goals: drive institutional and structural change, translate the District government's commitment to racial equity, be process- and outcomes-oriented, and promote meaningful results. As opposed to ORE's Plan, a Racial Equity Plan should not include training and process that should already be in place given anti-discrimination laws, DC Human Rights Act, DC Human Resources policy, and federal law. The District needs to fix those issues outside of the Plan.
1. Agency Reform
1A. Reform the Housing Authority - There is little question that the DC Housing Authority needs major reform, especially in the wake of the HUD report and other stories pointing to implosion. As the District largest landlord, the DC Housing Authority is a major source of racial inequity and of structural determinants of health - displacement, indoor health threats (e.g., mold, pests, rodents, industrial activity), lax grounds security, psychological trauma. There are plenty of good ideas. They just need to be met with action.
1B. Reform DC Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) - Because neighborhood change is the single most important driver of growing racial inequity in contemporary Washington, DC, DMPED should be the first agency to undergo top-to-bottom reform. It has too much concentrated power in our opinion and dominates every other city agency. DMPED's agencies are behind all major neighborhood change - Office of Planning (OP), Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), DC Housing Authority (DCHA) (independent), and DC Housing Finance Agency (DCHFA), and other agencies. The best test if the District is serious about racial reform, then it should begin implementing its vision of racial equity here.
1C. Create Office of Policy and Program Accountability and Evaluation - The District needs to do a better job of tracking spending for racial equity, ensure current programs on equity are spending funds properly, and conducting rigorous program evaluations. The programs that show the most improvement in racial equity should receive the most funding. It is a simple proposal but could be a way to identify and recover wasteful spending, potentially creating a future deterrent for bad actors if conduct is found to be criminal. A recent grant that a business group in SW received for gun violence, outcompeting a bid from community leaders, has only produced an overgrown "peace garden" in Greenleaf that no one maintains. It is also certain to have no impact whatsoever on gun violence reduction. The District Opportunity to Purchase Act (DOPA), a tool for to preserving affordable housing, has not worked since its inception in 2008. An Office of Policy and Program Accountability should also seek to create a central database of community benefits and tracking adherence. Expanding the reach of the D.C. Auditor would be an important step. The District often promises community benefits as a way of reassuring the affected community, but there is no central agency that tracks, much less enforces, these commitments. Related story: D.C. misused nearly $82 million meant to provide housing to the city’s poorest residents, IG says
2. Moratorium on Development in Acute Gentrification Areas and on New Small Area Plans - The DC Racial Equity Action Plan seeks "undoing hundreds of years of discrimination," except the immediate consequences of neighborhood change will have far greater impact on racial inequity than more than 300 years of US slavery, followed by Jim Crow. If the District is serious about racial equity, it has ample opportunities to stop racism right now, except that it keeps approving the same gentrifying projects and has moved forward with plans in Ward 8 that will lead directly to displacement and an affordability crisis for the city's most socially vulnerable Ward.
3. Neighborhood Gentrification Resilience Fund - This paper has repeatedly asked the District for a neighborhood resiliency funds for providing protection against the physical, emotional, and economic effects of neighborhood change. It should help assist renters and homeowners, especially minority, burdened by increasing housing costs in DC's gentrification hotspots like Southwest. Gentrifying neighborhoods also experience cultural displacement, which the city has officially acknowledged in its Comprehensive Plan, so funds should help with cultural regeneration for the existing community.
4. Conduct Impact Assessment - The District did not conduct impact assessments in 2013 and 2017 as legally required to do. The 2021 impact assessment was vastly incomplete. The last impact assessment was in 2006 and should have been every four years thereafter. The District should prioritize these impact assessments by neighborhood and also end moratorium once it has a mitigation plan.
5. (DC Office of Attorney General) Investigate Chronic Gentrifying Developers and Charge Criminally - At least one major developer in Southwest is likely under an active investigation for chronic gentrification. Other development firms should be held account for violating fair housing provisions.