Bill Seeks To End Racial Inequality in Montgomery County

Bill Seeks To End Racial Inequality in Montgomery County

Legislation calls for changes throughout government

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Navarro

Council President Nancy Navarro presents the Racial Equity and Social Justice Act at a press conference on Tuesday morning.

Photo by Kate Masters

On Tuesday, members of the Montgomery County Council shared their accounts of racial inequity at a press conference to support a broad bill spearheaded by Council President Nancy Navarro.

Council member Will Jawando said he experienced racism for the first time in fourth grade — a lobbed slur as he brushed past an older white women on the street.

Unemployment is three times higher in District 5, a diverse region with a majority black population, than in the rest of Montgomery County, Council member Tom Hucker said.

Council member Craig Rice raised two daughters who thought people didn’t see skin color, he said, until one of them was the target of a racist taunt on the school bus last week.

The comments were to bolster new legislation with the towering goal of erasing racial inequity in Montgomery County. Navarro spent more than a year working on the Racial Equity and Social Justice Act before she presented the bill with full endorsement from County Executive Marc Elrich and her colleagues on the council.

The legislation received a joint endorsement from three advocacy groups in the county — CASA, Impact Silver Spring, and the Montgomery County Racial Equity Network.

It’s an example of cooperation that might be needed to fully implement legislation that sets eight distinct goals for the council and executive branch.

The bill would establish a countywide racial equity and social justice program, according to language introduced Tuesday in a council session. It also calls for a separate Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice.

It would require a countywide equity action plan and individual plans for each of the more than 30 executive departments and offices, including Montgomery County Public Libraries and the county’s police department.

The act would require a racial equity and social justice impact statement at the end of every bill, program, or master plan submitted before the council.

Just like a financial impact statement, Navarro said, the information would include an estimate of how the proposal would help or hurt racial minority groups in the county and possible amendments that could equalize racial outcomes and opportunities.

“This is not a magic wand and this is not a panacea,” she said. “This is not going to solve everything. But it’s the beginning of addressing these issues in a systemic way.”

It’s a bill that will take time to develop. Navarro set a goal of passing the legislation before the council breaks for Thanksgiving, with implementation by the end of January.

In an interview after the press conference, she said she didn’t anticipate the bill requiring significant spending. Individual departments should have enough staff members to implement any changes without adding positions, she added.

The bill specifically removes the position of chief equity officer — an executive position Elrich created and has yet to fill— to avoid redundancies with the new Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice created in the bill. Elrich was not available to comment on the proposed changes.

Later, Navarro did not immediately respond to further questions on how the county could avoid extra expenditures given the requirement for a new executive office.

But she and the bill’s co-sponsors expect the legislation to provide much-needed steps to address what Raymond Crowel, the county’s director of Health and Human Services, called “decades and centuries” of racial disparities. More than 750 Montgomery County residents, two-thirds of them people of color, attended public forums this year to discuss inequities in the community, Navarro said at the press conference.

Criminal justice, housing, employment, and education were some of the biggest concerns raised at the meetings. The county’s Office of Legislative Oversight released a July report that detailed existing disparities for minorities compared with outcomes for white people.

Black and Latino residents have a median household income of $71,847 to $72,587 — more than $45,000 less a year than white residents’, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Both groups see higher unemployment — more than double the percentage, in the case of black residents — and higher rates of infant mortality.

All minority groups in Montgomery County have higher rates of poverty and child poverty than white residents have, and the disparities continue for more than 50 pages in the report, charting significant differences in insurance rates, educational attainment, home ownership, and housing security.

“It’s a reminder that there’s a systemic issue here and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can to change things,” Council member Sidney Katz said at the council session.

The trends in Montgomery County align with a well-documented national gap in success measures between white people and people of color. One 2018 study found that black boys raised by wealthy parents are more likely to become poor than remain wealthy as adults.

It’s not yet certain how the bill will address those inequalities in Montgomery County. The legislation will go through several workshops and public hearings before the council passes a final version, Navarro said. Much of its success depends on how new bills are adjusted based on the accompanying racial inequity impact statements.

But the council’s goal is to use its legislative power to reverse trends socially ingrained for generations. Sponsors hope that legislative action within the government will ripple across the community and bring about wider changes outside government, especially through bills and budget allocations that factor in existing racial inequity.

“Budgetary decisions are where the rubber meets the road,” Navarro said. “And this bill requires that every time we make a budgetary decision, we have that information in front of us.”

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