Blog Highlight: When Structural Racism Went Viral

Jarred Bowman

When Structural Racism Went Viral: 

Race and Care in the Nation’s Capital

Jarred Bowman is a Policy Analyst with DC Action for Children providing research and advocacy to help build political power for children and families in the District.

 

Part I:

The Racial Pandemic within the Viral Pandemic

On April 5, 2020, my Aunt Betty passed away from COVID-19 at Holy Cross Hospital. My great aunt was 91 years old, and had lived in Washington, DC since the late 1950’s. Until recently, she experienced relatively minor health challenges considering her age and was expected to return home within a few weeks of entering a rehabilitation facility. Like many other Black families in the District, my family worried about the quality of care she was receiving as the virus began to reach its peak, whether her doctors were responding to her concerns as an elderly Black woman in a period of great turmoil, and when, if ever, she would come home. While we were fortunate to have my cousin, a healthcare professional, guide us through some of the most worrisome moments one can imagine, it is still a peculiar thing to put your faith in institutions that have historically failed your ancestors. 

Throughout the course of American history, Black people have shared a common understanding that racism is a central feature in our systems of public good just as the Constitution is central to the structure of the US government. From inner cities to rural communities, political leaders have systematically denied Black families access to the same quality of care and support that white families rely upon in times of need. In her groundbreaking project ‘1619,’ Nikole Hannah Jones describes the role of white supremacy in the formation of the United States and its enduring legacy in a society shaped by the economic exploitation of Black and Indigenous bodies. In the District of Columbia, the daily experiences of Black youth and their families reflects the consequence of this racialized past as racial inequities in access to health, employment, and income persist for Black children and their families. (Urban Institute) In the former (or current if you acknowledge the continuous cultural influence of Black Washingtonians) Chocolate City, racial oppression and exploitation are as much a threat to the future of Black lives in DC as the virus itself. These dual experiences of oppression are common for Black folks and should encourage District leaders to think long and hard about how to reverse these realities for our youth. 

All young people growing up in the District deserve to have access to safe and supportive environments that contribute to their long-term health and educational outcomes. Black children’s magic and power is indescribable. You see it when you enter our schools, walk past our public parks, or talk with young people leading protests and demonstrations in response to police violence and terror. But, what is also true is that DC’s legacy of housing segregation, unequal schools, and marginal access to healthy food options continues to place disproportionate barriers to opportunity in the path of many Black children growing up here. In an increasingly gentrifying city, Black families are overwhelmingly pushed to areas east of the Anacostia river, where there is both a long history of Black culture and talent and systemic disinvestment, resulting in communities deprived of basic necessities like an equitable supply of full service grocery stores to service an area that is home to the largest community of Black children city-wide (Kids Count). Furthermore, the most recent data on youth risk behavioral health outcomes reminds us that our young people are hurting, with Black boys in high school reporting that they are more likely to attempt suicide than any of their male counterparts within the last 12 months of taking the most recent YRBS survey. (YRBS) Indeed, the economic and social conditions - wrought by racist systems - that many Black children encounter in their daily lives have resulted in staggering disparities in the form of adverse and traumatic childhood experiences. For many Black families these outcomes can be traced to a racist and discriminatory past.


Part II:

How COVID-19 Exacerbates Employment Inequality

TABLE 1.

According to the most recent Census American Community Survey data, the average income of Black families with children in the District is less than a fifth of the average household income for White families. This disparity represents carefully constructed barriers to Black economic opportunity. In their report, Black Workers Matter, Doni Crawford and Kamolika Daas of DC Fiscal Policy Institute write about the District’s long history of discrimination against Black people and the harsh and exploitative working conditions they were forced to endure for little to no pay. While DC is often known as “the first place where enslaved people were freed by federal action in 1862,” Black families in search of economic opportunity here were still denied access to work licenses due to the Black Codes that remained in place, more often confining them to domestic and service jobs that paid low and unregulated tipped wages. (Black Workers Matter) This dichotomy in effect prevented them from being able to participate in federal programs like the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which created the minimum wage and other important protections for building economic security. 

By the 1960’s, many Black families like my aunt’s were fortunate to find employment within the federal government, marking an increase in Black home-ownership despite the redlining practices of the previous decade. By that time, however, white flight was heading towards its peak. My cousin Holly Robinson noted that, by the mid 1970’s, Coolidge Senior High School went from racially diverse to almost exclusively Black. By the time she graduated in 1975, white families were virtually non-existent in a once integrated community, and segregation began to set in. Much like our neighbors from states with both taxation and representation, Black residents in the District have witnessed and even survived decades of harmful political efforts aimed at urban renewal, such as the demolition and gentrification of communities like Barry Farms and the Capitol Southwest area, to name a few. (WTOP) This historical legacy of racialized oppression is what makes it so common for “Black folks [to] get pneumonia when America catches a cold,” an African-American adage demonstrated by COVID-19.

Black families in the District face the full force of COVID-19’s effects, with Black people representing 47% of the District’s population but approximately 74% of all deaths connected to the virus. (COVID Tracking Project) Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a co-creator of the COVID Racial Data Tracker within The COVID Tracking Project, refers to this phenomenon as “the racial pandemic within the viral pandemic.” (Congressional Testimony) The differences in how Washingtonians experience the viral pandemic comes down to race--and more specifically, racism in a city where Black residents are overrepresented in the workforce known as “essential personnel,” and are more likely to earn lower wages than their white counterparts. (Economic Policy Institute, COVID-19 Tracking Project) These rates exclude residents in congregate settings such as homeless shelters, which serve disproportionately Black Washingtonians, indicating an even heavier burden on Black residents than is not represented in DC COVID-19 data. 


Part III:

Black Youth are Showing District Leaders That

Black Lives Still Matter in DC

Many DC residents are living this tale of two cities in starker ways. The digital divide experienced by many Black and brown students rose to the surface of media attention as students attending public and public charter schools were asked to transition to online learning without high-quality internet available in every community. (WTOP) As schools, businesses, and public transportation began to shutter, the inequities in access to food and health care for Black families grew even wider. Local groups like Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen responded to communities with rapid response and the DC Public School system opened its doors to serve students with meals throughout the remainder of the school year. (DC Central Kitchen COVID-19 Updates) But, it was local organizers in DC who responded with the development of a Mutual Aid Network, which harnessed the power of community groups doing people-work long before the pandemic, to provide food, health care, and even housing resources to members of our community who are most forgotten. For Black communities in DC, this kind of organizing is not just common but a tool for survival that we pass down through generations to ensure that our young people know the value of community and are equipped to let our leaders know that Black lives still matter in DC.

As young people navigate this racial and viral public health emergency alongside the rest of us, it is critically important that we be mindful of the developmental needs that still exist for our youth. For our earliest learners, we know that the beginning years of a young person’s life are essential to healthy development. As children grow older, it’s important to acknowledge the disproportionate impact of adverse experiences on their developing mental, physical, and social-emotional health. (Brookings) As our children reach major milestones in their lives, we come together as a community to celebrate their wins and ensure that they feel safe and supported. But as the future of the pandemic remains uncertain to most, what will happen to Black families? When entire communities don’t feel safe and supported in the midst of a public health crisis, what are the appropriate national, state, and local responses? When I see unemployment data rising, I often think of this. When I hear the fears of child care providers, mostly Black women, worried about keeping their doors open long enough to weather the storm, I think about this question. When I talk to the young people I work with and listen to the stressors they inherit from parents worried about getting back to work, I think of this. Finally, when I am sitting at home thinking about my Aunt Betty--with her 91 years of strength, brilliance, and unapologetic way of speaking truth to power--I think about the public institutions that failed her throughout her lifetime and the reasons why it is so important that we fight for Black lives and for Black women who are more often forgotten.

In Memoriam,

Betty Robinson

Oluwatoyin Salau

Breonna Taylor 

Dominique “Rem’mie” Feels

Marlene Pinnock

Michelle Cusseaux

and countless others.

*The public health data in this blog represents the data made available on June 26, 2020.


Jarred Bowman is a Policy Analyst with DC Action for Children providing research and advocacy to help build political power for children and families in the District.