Pedestrians cross 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Residents in the Washington region have for years experienced life in ways that differ drastically depending on what racial group they belong to, according to a study released this past week by researchers from American University.

The report — which zeroes in on facets of daily life, such as shopping, talking with neighbors, sending kids to after-school programs, dealing with government agencies or encountering police — captures how even the most mundane parts of life can be shaped by racism and inequity, said Michael Bader, associate director of AU’s Metropolitan Policy Center, which oversaw the study.

White residents reported high rates of satisfaction with their neighborhoods, schools and government institutions. They felt supported and catered to by local businesses and nonprofits, the report said. They largely don’t fear interactions with the police, as 13 percent said it impacts them on a daily basis.

But more than half of black residents who responded said they fear interactions with police.

Black residents are more likely to be dissatisfied with schools and government agencies, even in areas where they are a plurality or majority, such as the District and Prince George’s County, the study found.

“I’m hoping that people — especially white people — take it seriously and see how much race affects the simplest things in our lives,” Bader said. “When we think about racial disparities, it’s often this intractable problem — it’s this giant issue that seems impossible to tackle and change society for the better. But this helps us look at things we can actually accomplish to make daily life a little better and a little more equal.”

To compare the sentiments of a diverse cross-section of residents, researchers based their findings on responses to a separate study the AU department conducts annually. That 2018 report polled people from 1,061 households across the Washington region about their neighborhoods, nearby businesses, government institutions and dealings with nonprofits.

The study does not take into account recent events, including the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated black and Latino neighborhoods in the region nor anger over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”

More than 60 percent of white residents who responded to the survey reported seeing disparities in the way police treat people from different backgrounds: 63 percent of white respondents said police treated wealthy residents better than poor residents, 60 percent said officers treated white residents better than black residents, and 61 percent said police treated white residents better than Latinos.

Among black residents, those numbers were higher: More than 80 percent reported police bias across all three categories.

“I think for lots of white folks this question of police bias is more of an intellectual question, but for black and Latino folks, it’s not intellectual — it’s very real and visceral,” Bader said. “I think that white folks in this region understand that something is wrong. They understand that police treat black and Latino folks differently than they treat white folks, but they don’t have the same visceral reaction to it. And they don’t always know what to do about it.”

The biggest takeaway — and most surprising finding — from the survey, Bader said, was the rate at which white residents in the Washington area remain unaffected by issues and concerns that vex those from other racial groups.

“The profound racial differences demonstrate the urgency for racial equity policies,” the study notes. “The results also demonstrate the need for multi-sector solutions that involve not only local governments, but the business, nonprofit, philanthropic and academic communities as well.”

Researchers recommended possible avenues to address the issues: Business associations, the authors wrote, should research why certain residents feel ignored or excluded by local businesses and nonprofits. Government agencies, they added, should establish “racial equity impact assessments” to evaluate how new programs and departments affect different racial groups.

Meanwhile, police departments, researchers said, should institute further training to address inequities and prioritize racial equity training and relationship building between police and communities of color.

“If we really make an effort to address the underlying disparities that this report shows, that existed even after a historic economic run, with almost full employment and unprecedented prosperity, it really points to how much those disparities matter,” Bader said. “I think there’s an opportunity right now because things are all up in the air and so much of our lives has changed, that we as a society can think of change in ways we weren’t able to before.”

The Metropolitan Policy Center, which uses its findings to advise policymakers, think tanks, nonprofits and community organizations, is seeking funding to conduct another study exploring how metrics have changed during the pandemic.

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