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On Tuesday, Councilmember Harry Thomas introduced legislation that would create a nine-member Commission on African American Affairs to “review and analyze the District’s decline in African-American population, as indicated by the 2010 Census, and advise the Mayor, Council, and general public on the views and needs of African-American communities concerning education, economic, or health indicators.” Councilmember Marion Barry, who has been quite upset lately about the city’s declining share of black folk, called the bill “historic and heroic.”
But why do we need such a commission, exactly? Should the government be concerned with stemming the tide of black folks who’ve left D.C. as white people flooded in? Thomas certainly seemed concerned four years ago when he proposed the creation of an “African American Caucus” for the city’s black officials.
Such bodies aren’t unheard of. Washington State and Pennsylvania have similar commissions, focused on relaying the concerns of the African American community to policymakers, and ensuring equal opportunity. But in those states, African Americans are a much smaller slice of the population than in D.C., which is still a majority-black town, both in population and in its political establishment. There would seem to be a stronger case for protecting a particular ethnic group when it’s vastly outnumbered.
Thomas says it’s not so much about the population decline, but rather inequality of health metrics, education, availability of groceries, and unemployment that tends to break down in race-based ways. “No one’s really looked at it along those lines,” he says. And he’s actually right, according to City Paper gentrification bureau chief Alex Baca; there’s not enough scholarship out there on current trends. While my instinct is to say that we should care about inequality regardless of the race of the person on the wrong side of it, a dedicated study could help move the debate beyond the typical gentrification shout-fest, if it looked seriously and honestly at the complicated issues underlying race-based inequality.
Plus, Thomas points out that this is an issue of equality, in another dimension: We have Commissions on Women and Latino Economic Development and God knows what else. Is it fair that we don’t have one for black people?
The commission seems headed for approval, having been co-introduced by nearly the entire council. But there were a few notable absences: Jack Evans, David Catania, and Tommy Wells. For his part, Wells says he just tends not to co-introduce things he hasn’t seen before, and remains “open-minded” about voting for it in the future.
Thomas notes with pique that everybody voted for the next resolution, introduced by Muriel Bowser, expressing support for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. “People hadn’t seen that, but everybody automatically supported it,” he says. “So I don’t know why some members choose not to look at these issues.”