Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
 before the
DC Council Committee on Government Operations
Public Hearing on Bill 23-0038,
the “Racial Equity Achieves Results Amendment Act of 2019”

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Room 120
by
Nassim Moshiree, Policy Director

My name is Nassim Moshiree and I am the Policy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC). I present the following testimony on behalf of our more than 17,000 members in the District.

The ACLU-DC is committed to working to eliminate racial disparities, reverse the tide of over-incarceration, and advocate for sensible, evidence-based reforms that protect the civil rights and civil liberties of all District residents. I am pleased to be testifying before you today on Bill 23-38, the Racial Equity Achieves Results Amendment Act of 2019 (“the Racial Equity Act”).

Bill 23-38 amends the Office of Human Rights Establishment Act of 1999 to mandate the development and implementation of racial equity training for District government employees. It also tasks the Office of Budget and Planning with designing and implementing a racial equity tool that integrates explicit consideration of racial equity into DC agencies’ programs, policies, and practices, and requires that progress toward achieving racial equity be included in agency performance measures and in annual performance accountability reports.

The ACLU-DC is a strong proponent of the use of racial equity assessments as a vital tool for identifying long-standing inequities and confronting institutionalized racism. We support the goal of Bill 23-38 to meaningfully address racial inequity and eliminate racial disparities that result from District government policies and practices. Decades of systemic racism and discriminatory policies in DC have produced some of the highest levels of racial inequality in the nation in income, employment, housing, and education. [1] Our criminal justice system – starting with our laws and their enforcement – disproportionately targets and incarcerates Black residents and criminalizes the very same poverty that government policies have helped to create.[2] Children of color are routinely overpoliced inside and outside of our schools, yet their basic needs—quality education, health care, and housing—are perpetually underfunded and under-resourced.[3]

Making progress in addressing these inequities will require thoughtful reexamination of our existing policies and practices, as well as an intentional recognition of the implicit biases that affect government decision-making. Bill 23-38 is an important step in doing this.  However, we recommend several key changes to the bill to ensure it achieves its intended purpose. Our suggestions align with evidence-based best practices from other jurisdictions and are informed by the recommendations of the DC Initiative on Racial Equity and Local Government, which we fully support.

  1. The DC Council should be subject to the requirements of Bill 23-38

Many of the policies that exacerbate racial disparities in the District are enacted through legislation passed by the DC Council. In order for Bill 23-38 to effectively address racial inequity in the District, the race equity tool must be integrated into the DC Council’s legislative process. While the Council does not often implement government policies itself, it is the body responsible for passing legislation that directs or allows agencies to do so. The Council also has ultimate control over approving the budgets of District agencies and the programs they fund.

It’s no secret that laws which seem neutral on their face often perpetuate and deepen racial disparities the most. The Council in recent years has taken action to undo some of the harms caused by such laws, notably by decriminalizing fare evasion earlier this year and passing legislation to end the suspension of drivers licenses due to debt last year, but there are many other laws on the books that need similar reform. Using racial equity assessments at the Council level is critical to preventing the unwarranted racial impact of policies and budgeting decisions before they are adopted.  Practically speaking, it’s much easier to modify legislation to prevent possible harm than to reverse bad policies after they have become law.

As such, we recommend that Bill 23-38 be amended to include the use of racial equity assessments during the legislative process. Racial impact statements should accompany all pieces of legislation prior to a vote, similar to how fiscal impact statements work currently. This would make councilmembers and the public better equipped to evaluate the racial impact of discrete pieces of legislation, allowing lawmakers to both avoid passing legislation that exacerbates racial disparities and champion those that would reduce disparities.

To date, four states have implemented laws that require racial impact assessments and statements to evaluate potential disparities of proposed legislation prior to adoption and implementation, and another seven states have introduced such legislation.[4] The District should be next.

  1. Bill 23-38 should require racial equity training for all District employees on an ongoing basis and racial equity should be a component of employee performance goals and evaluations.

The ACLU-DC strongly supports ongoing racial equity training for all District government employees. Effective racial equity trainings can help us identify the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our actions, our understanding of events, and our decisions.  These are often unconscious or implicit biases that we all have and that are exhibited in our behaviors. However, the real benefit of racial equity training is not to simply identify biases, but to change the resulting behaviors that perpetuate a system of racial injustice. For example, it may have been implicit racial bias that led a police officer this week to view a 9-year-old boy as a threat because of the color of his skin, but it’s the officer’s actions in tackling, handcuffing, and detaining an innocent child that needs to be changed.[5] Therefore, we recommend the language in Sec. 2 of Bill 23-38 be modified to clarify that ALL District government employees will receive ongoing racial equity training,[6] and that progress on racial equity will be incorporated into employee work plans and included as a measure of employee performance at evaluations. This is especially critical for those employees who are in position of leadership and management and for those whose jobs involve interacting with the public.   

  1.  Bill 23-38 should designate an independent body like the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to conduct, review, and oversee racial equity assessments of existing and proposed policies and practices.

Analogous to how the CFO certifies the fiscal impact of proposed legislation, an independent body like the OIG should certify the racial impact of proposed legislation. To ensure continued compliance and accountability, we also recommend that OIG issue publicly available annual reports on the overall performance of District agencies, and that the language of Bill 23-38 be amended to include “outcomes” (as opposed to just “use and implementation”) as a key performance measure in agency evaluations.[7] Again, having a racial equity assessment tool is important, but using it to effectuate real outcomes is more important. 

Transparency of these efforts is also critical to accountability. The racial equity assessment tools, as well as agency equity goals and progress on those goals should be made publicly available.

  1. Bill 23-38 should explicitly require meaningful community engagement and input to inform both the development of racial equity assessment tools and their implementation.

Racial equity cannot be achieved without the participation of those who are most impacted by structural and institutionalized racism. The ACLU-DC supports the recommendations of the DC Initiative on Racial Equity to ensure that community stakeholders are engaged in all steps of the process, including the design, planning, and implementation of racial equity assessment tools. The public should also have a meaningful opportunity to weigh-in on the potential racial impact of policies before they are implemented by agencies and prior to the adoption of racial impact statements that accompany legislation. This will require creating opportunities for engagement that are accessible to impacted communities.

Conclusion

Finally, we want to thank Councilmember McDuffie for his leadership in elevating the importance of racial equity assessments and racial bias trainings as critical tools to disrupt existing systems of injustice. We look forward to working closely with this Committee, other members of the Council, and with community partners to strengthen and pass a Racial Equity Act that will not only shine a light on our current disparities but will require lawmakers and other District leaders to intentionally examine, foresee, and address the impact of proposals that could worsen them.


[1] According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the District has the highest level of income inequality in the nation when compared to other states, and nearly one in five District residents live in poverty (rate of 18.6%),  “Black families earn less than a third of their white counterparts, average 81 times less wealth than white families, and are significantly more likely to be in poverty.” https://www.dcfpi.org/all/income-inequality-dc-highest-country/

[2] Black residents make up 47 percent of the District’s population, but are the targets of over 80 percent of all stops and frisks, and almost 90 percent of uses of force. See Report on the Use of Force by the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department 2018, available at https://policecomplaints.dc.gov/node/1391936 and https://www.sptdc.com/nomorestopandfrisk

[3] “At least 6,000 D.C. school children started the 2017-2018 academic year in homelessness, nearly double the number in 2014.” Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Homeless Fact Sheet, available at https://www.legalclinic.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Fact-Sheet-on-Homelessness-and-Housing-Instability-in-DC.pdf

[6] The language in Sec 2 of  Bill 23-38 states that “OHR and DCHR shall develop and provide, on an ongoing basis, racial equity training for employees of the District of Columbia.” It goes on to state that “DCHR and OHR shall conduct workshops for management level position…” It is unclear from this language whether all District government employees or just management level employees will receive racial equity training.

[7] Section 47-308.03(c)(1) state that agency performance will be evaluated based on “its use, implementation and outcomes” with respect to the racial equity tool

 

Stay informed

ACLU of the District of Columbia is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National