Southwest Voice Calls Upon DC to Address Structural Racism
The economic and health reality for African Americans in Washington, DC does not live up to the promise of equal protection or racial equality. Yet the political establishment through successive administrations and city councils continues to punt the need for addressing structural racism and racial inequality for at least the last 20 years. Kicking the can down the road is no longer a tenable position. As we illustrate below, the lived experiences of Black DC residents are starkly different from other racial and ethnic groups. The severe health burden due to the social determinants of health remains a lingering injustice more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement. An often quoted mantra from that era, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” is as relevant today as it was then.
Since the Control Board ended its oversight of District finances in 2001, the city has experienced rapid growth and unprecedented expansion of its tax base. The District's tax revenue per capital from 2002-2019 increased by $6,500 - a rate of increase more than any US state in the same period. The city's tax revenue per capita of $12,087 in 2019 was greater than any US state. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser's proposed budget of $19.5 billion illustrates how DC has become immensely resource-rich. Notwithstanding regional differences in the costs of living, comparisons with states of similar populations such as Delaware ($4.9 billion budget for FY23) and Alaska ($4.6 billion budget for FY23) show the highly favorable financial position of the District. If the fiscal outlook cannot explain the persistent racial inequity in health and wealth, what does? The lack of political will. As the DC Council considers the fiscal year 2023 budget, Southwest Voice is demanding policies aimed at redistributive racial justice in health and wealth.
Under pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement, the District swiftly moved on major reforms to respond to calls for narrowing the racial divide. However, these efforts are quickly proving to be short-lived. At its height, the Council Office of Racial Equity (CORE) provided an independent and honest account of the racial impact of proposed legislation, which DC Council regarded with high esteem and critical reflection. Its racial equity impact assessments have increasingly lost influence on DC Council. When CORE determined that the Ward redistricting map would likely exacerbate racial inequity, many DC councilors dismissed the findings and unconvincingly feigned confusion. The Ward map passed without much change. The changes that did occur had hardly anything to do with CORE's report.
DC Council also required the Zoning Commission to conduct a racial equity analysis for its decision. At first, the Commission balked and approved developments without even the pretense of following the law, which it claimed was non-compulsory as an independent agency. When the Commission did begin assessing racial impact, it uncritically and readily accepted the claims of developers and the Office of Planning, a governmental arm of development interest. Ostensible racial equity assessments relied on DC Council's overriding priority on increasing housing as the basis for its conclusions to approve the same types of projects that led to more than 40,000 Black residents being displaced in the last 10 years. Its faulty premise was apparent. Building more housing has not and will not translate to meaningful affordable housing. The housing crisis is most acute and defined by incomes below 80% area median income (AMI). As the Southwest Voice editor-in-chief accurately explained in a Washington Post editorial, "The principal failed policy is that building more market-rate residential density will result in adequate affordable replacement units. It hasn’t, and it won’t." African Americans stand to disproportionately benefit from more affordable housing production because of deep income inequality in the District. The median household income for Blacks is $45,000 compared to the $138,000 for whites.
The Council's racial mandate for the Zoning Commission has shown to be a farce. Because the Council provided for 200 million square feet of new development ("up-fluming"), it provided the Commission with its north star - prioritize more development. Although, "up-fluming" does not automatically translate to matter-of-right development, it comes close. That the Commission must pass a map amendment to reflect the future land use map is perfunctory - a technicality that has no legal precedent for the Commission to widely challenge. In fact, the Commission would likely face legal appeals if it applied an accurate racial equity lens to its decisions with any regularity. The Commission faces few barriers to reverse trends of Black displacement.
Development is a single area of policy that illustrates the widely held tenet among the Democratic Party machine both locally and nationally - do not address the deep-seated systemic economic, health, and social inequities that have placed many African Americans in an underclass and others at a marked disadvantage in opportunity and wealth-making. If not for space limitations, we could discuss at length the city's New Communities Initiative that oversees the wholesale displacement of public housing communities, its gifting of large, valuable public land parcels for less than the cost of a steak dinner, the millions wasted on ineffective programs, the culture of cronyism and corruption, or the kowtowing to developers in re-shaping the built environment. The District's "gentrify-and-displace" policy is part and parcel with its new "awakening" to bike lanes. Both policies cater to the same demographic segments that do not centrally situate minority voices.
The broader picture here is that the developer community largely dictates governance in the District. Together with the political establishment, they form a shadow government outside of democratic reach and accountability. Urban planners have studied cities like Washington, DC and have named this practice as "urban regime theory" politics. They have noted that this trend can be most visible in cities like Baltimore, Washington, DC and Atlanta. DC has given the developer cabal license to engage in wholesale neighborhood takeover at the expense of community character and autonomy, especially in areas like Navy Yard, U Street, and Southwest. The overreach of the business improvement districts (BIDs) are just one example. The Council defines BIDs as a quasi-government agency because they are supported by additional property-based taxes, but BIDs present a clear and present danger. They pull community organizations and leaders into their orbit of influence and power. Developer representatives directly finance community-based organizations, leverage news sources to be their mouthpiece, and fundamentally reshape the social space. We are also aware that BIDs have sought grant funding on behalf of communities while community-based organizations in the BID footprint have been denied for those same grants.
If we want to understand racism in the United States, go no further than Washington, DC. Once only second to Harlem in the American imagination of Black uplift, culture, and intelligentsia, the District has symbolized the failed state of racial progress in "post-racial" America. This is an America where the proverbial fault lines of racial violence are no longer discernible - the perpetrators and victims are often racially concordant. Many African Americans are active and willing participants in a system of racial exploitation and lured by the promise of economic security, increased social capital, and upward mobility.
Southwest Voice stands firmly in the shadows of Dr. King, Congressman John Lewis, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Mrs. Ella Baker, and countless leaders through the generations by demanding applied equity work to realize that Black Lives Matter. The District is long overdue for rightsizing grave racial injustices shouldered by African Americans. As the Council deliberates on budget priorities for fiscal year 2023, Southwest Voice is calling for a clear strategy and new funding mechanisms to undo and stem the flow of racial violence in the form of economic marginalization, lack of healthcare access and care, displacement/gentrification, and developer-focused changes in the built environment. We need the District's political will to meet the measure and clear mandate for social reform.