Only One Conclusion: DC Resembles Apartheid 

The totality of persistent racial inequalities in the District of Columbia leads only to a single, logical conclusion — the District is an apartheid-adjacent city. While it lacks a system of institutionalized racial segregation, the effects are highly similar. Vast racial disparities persist in nearly every facet of life in the nation's capital. This paper has struggled since its first issue in 2019 to explain the root causes. It had assumed that contemporary sources of structural racism were the result of a handful of bad actors - errant government agencies, elected officials, and private interest groups. As with our last issue, we often blamed the DC Housing Authority. Our conclusions were not wrong, only short-sighted. Racial disparities across education, health, income, and opportunity are not only interrelated, but comprise a whole system and ideology that are adjacent to apartheid. Apathy, inaction, racial prejudice, and a high tolerance for structural racism define the District's contemporary character.

On Education

The District is a major outlier in the US in racial disparities. Its ranking in education is consistently at or near the bottom compared to US states and territories. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress ("the Nation's Report Card"), DC has not had a significant change in fourth and eighth grade reading average scores compared to 1992. Black-White disparities in fourth-grade reading scores are worse now, -61 versus -69. In 2019 just before the pandemic, these differences were -54 points. Black students' average reading scores for fourth and eighth grades are at or below the basic achievement level, signifying partial mastery of grade-level fundamental content. DC's increasing high school graduation rate in the face of declining test scores and growing absenteeism has garnered critical appraisal. "When graduation becomes close to a virtual guarantee, it also becomes pretty functionally meaningless." All these outcomes made more disturbing by the fact that the DC education budget has increased by a factor of 20 since 1992 - from approximately $112 million (adjusted for inflation) to $2.2 billion. In 2022, the "Bowser administration called on spending $2.2 billion in local taxpayer dollars on public education for the 2023 fiscal year." For all of its education spending, there is little to show for it. Wide acceptance of an apartheid state and internalized racism are to blame.

On Life Expectancy and Health

Among males, the Black-White life expectancy gap of 17 years was 399% larger than U.S. Black-White males. Similarly, a Black-White gap of 12 years was observed for females - 482% larger than U.S. Black-White females. Racial gaps in life expectancy are decreasing in the US overall, but the District is experiencing the opposite trend. According to a 2020 study by Roberts and colleagues, heart disease, homicide, and cancer are major contributors to this gap.

In 2017, the closure of two D.C. maternity wards disproportionately affected low-income African American women, which unfortunately occurred in one of the worst US cities for maternal mortality. A 2020 NBC news headline, "Maternal mortality is worse in Washington, D.C. than Syria" was a national embarrassment for the District. The racial divide in maternal and infant mortality has not received the attention or resources that it needs. Hospital construction and expansion are increasing, though it is not clear whether it will sufficiently address maternal deaths.

Of the 19 targets for Healthy People 2020, the District was getting worse or had no change/impact for nine of them that included: reduce preterm births, reduce infant mortality rate, reduce fatal injuries, reduce diabetes prevalence, and reduce homicide rate. Much of the District's health promotion interventions lack sound science and evaluation measures. Public campaigns commonly do not reflect basic competence in program planning and evaluation. The District uses poster campaigns at bus stops. Rather than create unique links to track website views due to the campaign, they frequently send the public to generic links or to the agency's homepage.

In December 2022, we discussed how the public health infrastructure had been co-opted by the Office of Planning. The Department of Health Office of Health Equity conducted its Health Equity Impact Review (of the Congress Heights Small Area Plan). As opposed to the CORE report, OHE concluded that the Plan would "decrease health inequities in the Congress Heights SAP planning area and lead to improved health outcomes." The 72-page report did not reflect upon development elsewhere in the District to inform its findings, among other major flaws. It cites little data on contemporary Washington, DC and heavily draws on studies in other cities to make associations between a statement in the Small Area Plan with some benefit that purports to support health equity. The report's four-person staff of a preparer, support staff, and external reviewers all appear to be Caucasian women. Others listed on the Review were not close to the work, meaning that they did not substantively inform its direction and findings. The main author of that report has since resigned from the agency.

Our last issue shared the experiences of Southwest residents in public housing. Poor conditions are best understood as gender and racial policy violence against women and families. "Through their tears and anger, the public health consequences of DCHA's longstanding dysfunction as the city's largest landlord and most notorious slumlord came into full view....Subsequent to our meeting, this paper was informed that residents in public housing in Southwest experienced a 12-hour blackout - no electricity. In the Greenleaf Senior building, the only functioning elevator stopped working on Mother's Day of this year. The other elevator was out-of-service for repair. A first-person account shared that seniors and their family members had to climb up to eight floors. Although we have not verified, our source said that a senior fell during her climb on the fourth floor and had to be taken to the hospital. That resident had surgery several days ago according to the source."

On Displacement and Gentrification

From the DC Council of Racial Equity, "According to the “urban policy startup” Metro Ideas Project, “gentrification is a term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, resulting in an increase in rents and property values, often pushing out many of the low-income, longtime residents.” This “pushing out” is referred to as displacement. The District was previously reported as one of seven cities in the country that accounted for nearly half of the nation’s gentrification. From 2000 to 2020, nearly 58,000 Black residents were displaced from the District of Columbia." 

On Income

Over time, the District's failure to narrow racial divides has meant major negative consequences, "revealing that one in four DC adults struggles with basic reading, and one in three adults cannot do basic math." This, in turn, drives racial economic and unemployment divides. The Black-White unemployment gap in DC is the worst in the US. DC’s racial difference in household income stands at $100,000 based on US Census data. It grew by nearly $25,000 in the last decade. That’s a conservative estimate due to use of median not mean, which would include outliers at both extremes of income distribution.

On the Lack of an Independent Black Press

The District has a noticeable lack of a Black press to consistently speak to raging racial inequity and seek to hold public officials accountable. Southwest Voice is unique in the local media landscape. Based on our conversations with former and current staff of a prominent Black-owned newspaper, there appears to be a mayoral influence on this paper. Staff strongly implied financial support. The publisher of that paper recently claimed, "I think it's unavoidable but I don't also look at gentrification as a racial issue when at the folks that I see moving into Ward 8." It is little wonder that it does not cover salient issues of racial injustice. We blame the apartheid state in how it permeates the economic and social culture and shapes behaviors and attitudes.

On Business Improvement Districts

DC Council on Racial Equity was unequivocal in its recent racial equity impact assessment criticizing the District's Business Improvement District (BID) system. "Research on BID nonprofits in the District and in the US shows that the current BID structure perpetuates and can widen racial inequity." They elaborated, the BID system "has contributed to the displacement of Black residents, does not offer Black residents and other residents of color equal opportunities to represent their interests, has broad authority to exercise power over communities with little accountability to everyone impacted, and primarily serves the interests of wealthier, white residents at the expense of Black and other residents of color who are unhoused or have lower incomes." The BID system is symptomatic of America's major social ills - racism and classism. It benefits from a multiracial coalition of supporters who conform to practices that exclude low-income or minority populations.

These behaviors are not unique to the BID system. In fact, they are deeply rooted in the social fabric of US society. These practices are a key tool to maintain, even strengthen, apartheid in the District. This paper has confronted the SW BID and other Southwest community groups with race- and class-based exclusionary practices, among them SW Action and the Southwest DC Community Center. Ironically, both were led or chaired by African American men at the time, such is the state of diminished racial identity. When they are asked to change or where we have to engage in gatekeeping to protect our community, we can be met with hostility, anger, and retaliation. The leader of SW Action has been particularly offending with emails to the employer of people he dislikes and a website disparaging them. Women leaders in public housing, as well business owners, have publicly rebuked his behavior.

This paper has struggled with the common occurrence of so many people willing to do so much to act out their racism as in the District of Columbia.  Both at the neighborhood and city-level, the forms and patterns of racial discrimination, marginalization, and mistreatment are unrelenting and too numerous to keep count. It is now clearer than ever that we must not only confront bad actors, but the system of apartheid on which they rely. The pervasive apartheid state is what sets the tone and most influences the chronic and growing state of racial inequity.