Kenyan McDuffie
Kenyan McDuffie Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“Racial equity” sounds so much more polite and positive than the ugly ill it’s trying to address—a history of deep structural and institutional racism.

“We don’t have that kind of equity,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said on Thursday, at a packed forum about legislation that could require every D.C. government agency to consider the impact of race on every government program. The Mayor and the Council itself would be required to factor racial impact into all legislation.

“We have the highest levels of social anxiety I’ve seen in awhile,” said Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who sponsored the legislation and the forum held at R.I.S.E. on the campus of St. Elisabeths in Southeast D.C.

“We are long overdue for this conversation,” added Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who last year became embroiled in allegations of anti-semitism involving White, followed him, saying that racial equity should be part of “every bill we consider at the Wilson Building.” Silverman was politely applauded when she first rose to speak, but was enthusiastically applauded as she sat down.

While much of the aspirational forum defined and highlighted instances of racial discrimination, either subtle or overt, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso was blunt about how to address it. “We need to disrupt the way we’ve doing things … and can’t be dominated by a white voice.” Grosso, who is white, says public policy needs to “dismantle the bias and dismantle the racism.”

McDuffie’s legislation would require Mayor Muriel Bowser to take affirmative steps over the next four years to establish racial equity guidelines for city policies and to establish racial equity training within the D.C. government.

During Thursday’s panel on education and employment, there were equally blunt assessments of the road ahead.

“While the demographics [of the city] have changed, all the problems have remained exactly the same” for African-Americans, said Faith Gibson Hubbard, the chief student advocate for the D.C. State Board of Education. Speaking of her own children, Gibson Hubbard said, “I’m concerned … the prosperity in this city is not for them.” She called for “tangible actions” to address rather than just define the problem.

Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire, whose students are majority minority, said corrective actions include educating parents who, because of racism and poverty, may not even know why higher education is required for success today. “Parents not understanding what college means,” she said, is a “chronic issue” of negativity that sabotages many young people. Many Trinity students come from economically disadvantaged families.

McGuire said high school and college students from impoverished backgrounds need far more help than is given now. Poverty hampers students even though they have the intellectual ability to learn. “It’s not about, ‘Can I learn calculus,’” McGuire said, “but do I have a Metro card” to get to school.

Interim D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Amanda Alexander offered a stark statistic: By the time a child is in first grade, that child’s chance of succeeding is just one in eight if they are unable to do basic, age-appropriate reading and math. She urged officials to have early education programs focus on basic reading and math as a means of overcoming racism and poverty.

Alexander said it’s heartbreaking to sit and watch one child who can read and do math, sitting next to a child who otherwise appears lost.  “They know they aren’t capable,” she said. “It’s very hard to close the gap afterwards.”