The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Local governments are trying to fix racial inequity. But the path forward isn’t clear.

Montgomery County residents in a group discussion on racial equity in Silver Spring in March. (Crystal Park/Office of Legislative Information)

On a cool summer night, 200 people filed into a community center deep in the Maryland suburbs for an atypical town hall. On the agenda: race.

Armed with Sharpies and poster boards, uniformed police officers, elected officials and students were asked to “take a deep, big cleansing breath” before sharing their experiences with racial inequity in Montgomery County.

The disparities in this liberal, majority-minority suburb were glaring . The poverty rate for black and Latino residents is nearly triple that of white residents; Latinos are more than five times as likely as whites to lack a high school diploma or GED; black youths make up one-fifth of the school-age population, yet they account for 3 in 5 juvenile arrests.

The conversation, awkward at times, was revealing overall. At the end, though, the path forward remained unclear. In this way, it epitomized the growing trend of local governments trying to undo generations of racial inequity with ambitious, sometimes vaguely defined initiatives.

The movement began on the West Coast a decade ago, but has accelerated in recent years as elected officials — mostly from Democratic strongholds — confront mounting evidence of racial disparities and attempt to distinguish themselves from what they see as the racially divisive policies of the Trump administration.

From Washington state to the suburbs of the nation’s capital, officials are diving into uncharted territory, experts say, with little clarity on how their efforts will translate into policy or whether they will effectively bridge gaps in income and education.

In Seattle, where its city council has spent millions supporting racial equity programs in public schools, the achievement gap between black and white students has persisted, and in some areas, worsened. In Virginia’s Fairfax County, leaders appointed a chief equity officer and trained “equity leads” in each department, but have yet to adopt significant policy changes.

“I couldn’t say which jurisdiction is doing better than the other, because every jurisdiction is fumbling,” said Temi Bennett, director of policy and communication at the nonprofit Consumer Health Foundation, which is working on equity initiatives with policymakers in Montgomery and the District. “I can tell you this: no one has any idea what they’re doing.”

“And how could they?” Bennett continued. “It’s never been done before.”

Finding the right language

The Government Alliance on Race and Equity has seen paid membership double annually since it started work four years ago, peaking this year at 162 jurisdictions, said co-director Julie Nelson.

Fairfax joined as a core member in 2015, paying $10,000 in annual dues. Montgomery and Alexandria followed suit this year, while the D.C. Council recently became an associate member.

The Alliance says the first step to achieving equity is to normalize conversations on race, which involves teaching government officials and their constituents to embrace terms like “systemic racism” and “implicit biases.”

At Montgomery’s community conversation in June, a middle-aged Latino immigrant argued that all people of color in the county were impacted by racially biased systems; beside him, an African American couple originally from Mississippi disagreed.

They had worked hard to afford the life that they had now, they said, and they believed others should too. Besides, they added, Montgomery was the most racially equitable place they had ever seen.

“This is part of the squishiness of equity — everyone has their own point of view,” said Elaine Bonner Tompkins, a senior legislative analyst at Montgomery’s Office of Legislative Oversight and a lead researcher in the county’s equity efforts.

The county’s Department of Health and Human Services launched its own racial equity working group a decade ago. It took three years to agree on what racial equity meant, and several more to communicate the definition to staff, said Betty Lam, the chief of the department’s office of community affairs.

Two years ago, the department began evaluating senior managers and supervisors on how active they have been in learning about racial equity and incorporating it into their work. It is the only department-wide initiative so far, Lam said. Smaller efforts, such as redistributing a $36,000 grant for hepatitis B treatment to better serve Asian American residents, took weeks of meetings to ensure community buy-in.

“It’s nice to throw that word, ‘equity,’ around, but what does it mean?” said Uma Ahluwalia, who led the department until 2018. “It took us years, to be honest with you, just to teach ourselves the language.”

From conversation to action

King County, the most populous county in Washington state, passed an Equity and Social Justice ordinance in 2010. Today, its equity office operates with nine full-time staff and a biennial budget of $4 million.

Director Matias Valenzuela said there has been tangible progress, including a change in school suspension policies that he says has led to fewer youths in jail.

But he also said internal pushback has stymied some efforts, particularly when initiatives go beyond training to policy changes and resource reallocation. For example, he said, some hiring managers resisted his office’s efforts to broaden government recruitment beyond a few recognized institutions and graduate schools.

“We have particular pipelines that have existed for jobs,” he said. “And when you try to dismantle that . . . some people see it as a loss.”

In 2013, Seattle’s school board introduced “racial equity teams” as part of a five-year plan to tackle a chronic achievement gap. The plan expired without making a significant impact, critics say. Recent research from Stanford University found that from 2016 to 2017, the gap in test scores between black and white students in Seattle actually increased; in a self-released scorecard for the 2017-2018 school year, the district said it failed to meet three out of four racial equity targets.

In the D.C. area, Fairfax is the furthest along. After the county joined the Alliance in 2015, leaders launched “One Fairfax,” which mandates the consideration of equity in policymaking. In 2018, they hired Chief Equity Officer Karla Bruce and equipped her with two policy advisers and a budget of more than $480,000.

Fairfax has not set outcome deadlines for its equity work, Bruce said, instead focusing on helping agencies incorporate equity considerations into decision-making.

Equity efforts have also sparked explicit backlash in some places, including Minnesota, where conservative writer Katherine Kersten wrote in an op-ed that a push to address perceived biases in student discipline records would bring “increased violence” to classrooms. The state education commissioner wrote in response that Kersten’s arguments were “flat-out racist.”

In New York, Deroy Murdock, a contributing editor for National Review, wrote that a $23 million effort to provide implicit bias training for 125,000 city schools employees was wasteful, adding that the money should have been used to hire more teachers.

And in Montgomery, some parents say proposals aimed at addressing racial inequity in schools, such as redrawing attendance boundaries or offering honors classes for all students, are too extreme. Aleksandra Rohde, a retired Army lawyer, said changing boundaries will end up “dumbing down” all schools and is unfair to residents who can afford to live near the highest-performing schools.

“When people buy into a neighborhood, they’ve invested money,” Rohde said. “And when you take away boundaries, you’re telling people that you’re taking away that money.”

Such criticism, and the slow pace of change so far, has left advocates like Bennett feeling frustrated. A former aide to D.C. Council members Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), she began working for the Consumer Health Foundation in 2018.

“It’s all good to talk about [inequity], but nobody wants to shift resources,” said Bennett, who is African American. “The moment you start shifting resources, it starts to feel to white people like oppression.”

Laurel Hoa, co-founder of Montgomery’s chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, dismissed the county’s efforts so far as “a PR stunt,” pointing out that no concrete changes have emerged since the Montgomery County Council passed its racial equity resolution in 2018.

Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4), the driving force behind the resolution, countered that officials chose to spend the initial months fielding ideas from residents.

“We have hundreds of years of structural issues to work through,” Navarro said. “The timeline is very specific, and we are on target.”

In the fall, the council plans to introduce legislation that will call for, among other things, the creation of an equity office similar to Fairfax’s and a requirement for future legislation to include a statement that details potential implications on racial inequities.

County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said he anticipates more resistance will emerge as the bill is considered.

“You can’t wait for people to be ready for this,” Elrich said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting for everybody to get there.”

McDuffie has also introduced racial equity legislation in the District, which will be discussed in the council this fall. Like other government officials, he sees the biggest challenge as figuring out which measures actually work.

“People believe there’s going to be a favorable impact, and I believe that too,” said Bonner-Tompkins, the legislative analyst in Montgomery. “But if we’re being honest, there is no evidence yet to bear that out.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since its initial publication to more clearly convey Katherine Kersten’s argument against policies that aim to address racial disparities in student discipline, and to reflect that D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie has introduced racial equity legislation.

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