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.
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."