Thomas Authors Bill to Study African-American Issues

James Wright | 5/11/2011, 9:42 p.m.
A member of the D.C. Council has recently introduced legislation that would create a commission...
D.C. Council member Harry Thomas wants to create a commission to study the problems of African Americans in the nation's capital. / Courtesy Photo

A member of the D.C. Council has recently introduced legislation that would create a commission that would study the problems of African Americans in the District.

D.C. Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) has offered a bill, "The Commission on African-American Affairs Act of 2011", that would set up the panel that would review and analyze Washington's drop in its Black population and advise the mayor, the D.C. Council and the general public on the views and needs of Black communities concerning education, economic and health indicators.

"Since the 2010 U.S. Census report was released, the decline in the number of the District's African-American population frequently has been discussed," Thomas, 50, said.

"It will be valuable to understand why this decline occurred, as well as how we can better address the persistent, entrenched socio-economic disparities that occur in certain segments of our communities."

Thomas noted that the District government has an office that deals with the affairs and the concerns of Latinos, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender citizens and even Africans, but not one on African Americans. He said that the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department has a Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, but not one for Blacks.

"There is no group in this city that deals with law enforcement more than African Americans," he said. "There is mistrust of law enforcement in the Black community and African Americans are the ones who are mainly incarcerated in the city."

The District of Columbia has long enjoyeda large Black population in relation to other cities in the country, particularly in regards to percentage of the population. For example, the 1940 U.S. Census Bureau report said that Washington's Black population was about 30 percent, an unusually high percentage for a major city at that time.

The District's Black percentage peaked in 1975, when the census estimated that the city's population was 71.5 percent Black. The percentage and numbers of Blacks in the District has declined since then, with many moving to the suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

The 2010 census reports that the city is 52 percent Black and many demographers such as William Frey of the Brookings Institute in Northwest have said that the Black population could dip below 50 percent in a few years. Chairman Kwame Brown (D) is also a co-sponsor.

The legislation calls for the commission to meet bi-monthly and include nine voting members. The voting members would be appointed by the mayor with D.C. Council approval and would be drawn from established public, non-profit and civic organizations that deal with African-American constituencies and residents who have demonstrated knowledge of the needs of Blacks in the city.

The commission members would serve three-year staggered terms.

The commission would also include 10 ex-officio, non-voting members who are heads or their designees from the following D.C. government agencies: Employment Services, Health, Housing and Community Development, Public Works, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Parks and Recreation, Police, Fire and Emergency Services and the D.C. Public Schools.

Thomas' bill has gained the support of D.C. Council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) and Michael Brown (I-At-Large). D.C. Council

Graham, 65, said that the commission is a "great idea."

"I think the more we know about the principal population of the District of Columbia, the better," Graham said.

"As the Council member from Ward One, I have come to learn about and appreciate the African-American population."

William Ellerbe, a resident of Southeast, agreed with Graham in that Thomas' legislation is needed.

"Sure, why not," Ellerbe, 78, said. "We definitely need it. I am a lifelong resident of Washington and there is no question that Blacks here are second-class citizens."

Ellerbe said that in the past, the D.C. government treated Whites better by "removing their snow first and Blacks second."

"Now that Whites are moving back in the city, the streets are cleaner and there are dog parks and bicycle lanes," he said. "That is not right. Everyone in the city should be treated the same, regardless of race."WI