Why a Racial Equity Approach is Better for DC

December 7, 2016
By Jackie Lendsey

Chair, Board of Trustees, Consumer Health Foundation


Jackie Lendsey

A week ago today, the Consumer Health Foundation and the Meyer Foundation hosted DC in Color: Advancing Health, Economic and Racial Equity to release Urban Institute data on equity in DC. The energetic panel discussion revealed the complexity of the issues that need to be addressed so that DC residents in low-income communities of color can live healthy and dignified lives. Like others on the panel and in the audience, I am a native Washingtonian and feel compelled to respond in order to point out how a racial equity approach might produce very different policies.

One of the more dynamic debates arose around the proliferation of new bike lanes and residential parking restrictions that are limiting parking options for a historic black church and its congregants who commute to DC on Sundays from the suburbs. One panelist suggested that a small group of bike advocates was effective in their advocacy and should not be criticized for creating supports for people to have an affordable transportation option.

In response, audience member Aja Taylor of Bread for the City expressed frustration about having to show up with a hundred residents in order to get basic services in the primarily black wards of seven and eight while a small group of primarily white privileged advocates can push for bike lanes and they happen.

DC In Color panel (from right: WAMU’s Alicia Montgomery, Busboys ad Poets’ Andy Shallal, Urban Institute’s Kilolo Kijakazi, Councilmember Robert White Jr., Councilmember Elissa Silverman, Community Member Brother Rashad and Community Member Delfina Flores)

As this debate deepened, it became obvious that the conversation was less about bike lanes and parking and more about policy, power, privilege and race. As black congregants are decried as Sunday-only city dwellers, not long ago the families of these congregants likely lived in the District. However, due to a history of policies that intentionally limited the ability of people of color to buy property and the lack of affordable housing (per the Urban Institute data, only 9.3% of housing in the District is affordable to black residents while 67% is affordable to white residents), it is clear why people of color increasingly find few affordable options to live in DC.

In this post, I am not advocating for or against bike lanes or parking, I am pressing for a racial equity approach to the way we decide what gets on the agenda and what the policy alternatives might be. We should be asking questions like:

  • Does this issue, policy, regulation, program, practice or budget disproportionately and adversely impact people of color? If yes, in what way and why?
  • Are stakeholders from different racial/ethnic groups – especially those most adversely impacted, leading the development of proposals to address the issue? If not, why not and how can they become engaged?
  • If there is a policy, regulation, practice, program or budget under consideration to address an issue, does it address the root causes of racial inequities and racialized outcomes?
  • If there is a policy, regulation, practice, program or budget under consideration, will it reduce or eliminate racial inequity and undo racialized outcomes? If yes, in what way? If not, how could it do so?

As vexing as achieving racial equity may appear, there is no shortage of people power, resources, tools and data here in DC to help us to achieve racial equity. Let’s begin asking new questions to inform a radical approach to building a prosperous city where everyone can finally thrive.

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