DC Black History Matters: Five Reads for the Close of Black History Month

Black History Month is an important time to celebrate the accomplishments of Black people and the legacies of the District’s Black residents. As the month comes to a close, it’s also important to reflect on past racist and discriminatory policies that connect to the inequality and disparities we see across DC today—in housing, income, education, and health.

We’ve compiled a Black History Month reading guide to our work that highlights how decades of systemic racism created barriers that blocked Black residents from thriving. The District’s budget is a moral document we can use to right the wrongs of our city’s past. Our reports outline opportunities for policymakers to ensure that Black residents have the tools to reach their full potential.

Economic Opportunity

The District’s economy is strong on several indicators such as employment, job growth, and increased wages, but the overall trends mask staggering racial inequalities. The District’s deep history of exploitation and discrimination against Black workers—including being used as stolen labor when DC was a hub for slavery, restrictions of free Black workers to the lowest-paid jobs, federal government job discrimination through much of the 20th century, and exclusion of many Black workers from New Deal labor and housing laws—led to present-day racial disparities in many employment-related metrics including occupations, wages, employment levels, benefits, and opportunities to grow wealth.

Public Education

While the District has made progress in providing quality educational opportunities to all students regardless of their race, the large and unacceptable racial and income inequities in achievement we see in 2020 reflect the legacy of forced residential and school segregation, disinvestment in schools serving Black students, and the ongoing inadequacy and inequity of public investments in education. Our reports below detail these challenges as well as the policy and budget choices that policymakers can make to ensure our public education budget is adequate and equitable—a necessary condition for all DC students to thrive.

Criminal Justice and Homelessness

Black residents bear the brunt of DC’s affordable housing challenges.  This is the result of the enduring legacies of structural and individualized racism — racist zoning and residential segregation, redlining, restrictive covenants, practices barring federal employment — that for years prohibited Black families from equitably accessing the housing and employment markets. 87 percent of adults experiencing homelessness in the District are Black. This has led to the current racial wealth gaps as wealth accumulates over generations. Additionally, the historic denial of homeownership opportunities to people of color through discriminatory lending practices means that most Black residents, even middle-income residents, are renters, and rental costs have risen substantially. The District needs a strategic plan to tackle homelessness, especially among returning citizens, who account for 57 percent of our homeless population.


The District continues to make progress towards investments that help residents thrive, but examining budgets through a racial equity lens allows us to see the budget in a different way, highlighting missing pieces that may not be evident otherwise. This lens can tell us who is—and isn’t—benefiting from the District’s current investments and identifies some steps the District can take towards a more equitable DC.