Black History Month: Celebrating Progress and Examining Inequities

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February 15, 2023
Blog Post

Black History Month: Celebrating Progress and Examining Inequities

Among Washingtonians who embody the best of what Black History month can be, the late Virginia McLaurin is high on the list. She’s perhaps most widely known for dancing with the Obamas and saying, “I thought I would never live to get in the White House…A Black president. A Black wife! And I’m here to celebrate Black history.” Beyond that, however, her life experiences demonstrate many of the shifts in Black History over the 20th and early 21st centuries, and her volunteer and advocacy activities exemplify much of what remains to be done. McLaurin was a centenarian born in 1909 (or not long after) to a family of sharecroppers. By 1939, she had moved to the District where she worked as a seamstress and domestic helper, and managed a laundry shop. Known as Grandma Virginia to many, she spent decades volunteering as a foster grandparent and in special education and early childhood classrooms, enriching the lives of countless District children and youth before passing away last November. She also advocated on housing and other issues on behalf of herself and her communities. The challenges she faced are rooted in the same racist policies that underlie many of the disparities that persist for Black children in the District, and her contributions to the District’s Black History parallel areas where decisions by those in power have contributed to progress. This Black History Month we want to highlight both some of those disparities and some areas of progress.

Economic Justice

McLaurin is far from the only Black District resident whose economic status reflects the impact of historic and current racism. Roughly 9 out of 10 District children living in poverty are Black. And 89% of youth experiencing homelessness in the District without a parent or guardian are Black. Economic choices by those who were and are in power mean that too many Black children and youth are at a disadvantage.

There has been some progress. The median income for families with children rose in every ward in the years immediately preceding the COVID-19 pandemic. But racism continues to drive the economic divide in the District. White families earn nearly four times ($237,074) as much as Black families ($61,531), and well over twice as much as Latinx families ($104,781). One program to help DC’s youth gain access to employment and build their skills is the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program, which Black youth participate in at high rates (83% of the participants who identified their race in 2020).

Education

In the 2021-22 school year, District schools reported 9% of Black students, 70% of white students, and 17% of Latinx students demonstrated proficiency on end-of-year math PARCC assessments. While tests don’t capture everything that’s important for children’s learning and growth, especially in the first year of in-person learning after remote learning and multiple other stressors during the first portion of the COVID-19 pandemic, they do tell us something about whether young people have the preparation they need to succeed in whichever college or career path they want to pursue. While proficiency rates for Black students had been increasing in the years prior to the pandemic, that was more true in reading than in math, where the increase was slow enough that the gap with white students was actually increasing (as the increases for white students were larger than those for Black students). As educators and education policy makers face the daunting tasks of addressing unfinished learning from the first stage of the pandemic, it’s clear that disparities in educational opportunity run deeper than that.

Early Childhood

One area of success for the District is access to pre-kindergarten. As of 2019 nearly two-thirds (65%) of District children enrolled in public pre-K were Black – almost nine-thousand children. While pre-K enrollment dropped during the pandemic, it is still an important program for giving children a strong foundation. District policy makers deserve credit for funding and implementing this important early childhood support.

The District is also working to strengthen education for our youngest residents, those under age three. In August 2021, the DC Council voted to increase compensation for early educators–who are disproportionately women of color–and initial checks started going out in late 2022. Newly hired and newly eligible early childhood educators can apply for payments here.

Health

Due to the effects of intergenerational trauma as well as ongoing economic disparities and inequities in our criminal justice system, Black District parents are more likely to face challenges that white parents do not. That may explain why 84% of children entering foster care in the District are Black. It is important that families have the support they need to be able to overcome hurdles to meeting their children’s needs. One way that can happen is through home visiting programs, through which trained family support workers visit families in their homes, or wherever families are most comfortable, and provide services (e.g. information about child development, skill-building in positive parenting practices and building a safe home environment, postpartum support, and referrals to needed programs and services) to help families meet their goals. DC’s Home Visiting Council works to drive systems-level change that supports positive child and family outcomes through home visiting.

It’s clear that the District’s Black residents are still impacted by historic and ongoing racism, and that Black children and youth are shortchanged as a result (for more data see dckidscount.org). But there are also countless dedicated adults working to enrich the lives of the children and youth who might otherwise not get the opportunities that all young people deserve. This Black History Month, we’re celebrating the progress we’ve made towards making the District of Columbia a place where all kids grow up safe, resilient, powerful and heard.