Certainly Washington, D.C., is at the center of a rapidly growing metropolitan area. But the Nation’s Capital is itself a relatively small city. Just 680,000 live within the heart of the Beltway, of whom approximately 320,000 are Black and 280,000 are White. Or, to be clearer, it is two cities, one White and increasingly prosperous, the other Black.
Black Washington is not in any meaningful way in the same socio-economic category as White Washington, and that is clear by every economic and educational measure. Which makes all the discussions about D.C. Public Schools’ graduation fraud scandal even more important than it already appears.
While the unemployment rate for White Washington is just 1.5 percent—hardly measurable—that for the Black population is nearly nine times higher: 13 percent. The White unemployment rate has slightly decreased since the 2007 financial crisis; the Black unemployment rate has increased by three percent, a difference that is itself twice the current total White unemployment rate.
Eighty percent of the employed adult White civilian population work in middle class occupations: in management, business, science and the arts. Just eight percent are employed in service occupations. In contrast, less than 40 percent of the employed adult Black civilian population work in middle class management, business, science and arts occupations, while a quarter of employed adult Black civilians work in service occupations. White residents of the District are managers; many Black workers serve them in one way or another.
In Washington, D.C., nearly 90 percent of the District’s White residents have Bachelor’s or Graduate degrees, qualifications attained by just a quarter of Black residents 25 years of age and over.
As a result, the median household income for White residents of the District was $126,000 in 2015; the median household income for Black residents less than a third of that, $38,000. (By way of comparison, the median household income for the United Stats is $55,000. Nearly two-thirds of American households have incomes over the District median for Black households.) The poverty rate for White families in Washington, D.C., like the unemployment rate, is vanishingly small, just 1.4 percent, while nearly a quarter of Black families, 23 percent, are poor. 18 percent of Black households have incomes of less than $10,000; 26 percent of White households have incomes over $200,000.
The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has found that Washington’s White families have 81 times more wealth, on average, than Black families, and “a higher level of income inequality than any state in the country, with households in the top 20 percent of income having 29 times more income than the bottom 20 percent. The bottom fifth of DC households had just two percent of total DC income in 2016, while the top fifth had a staggering 56 percent.” The Institute concludes that “race is at the heart of DC’s economic inequality.”
Poverty, like wealth, can be inherited. According to the Equality of Opportunity Project at Stanford University, a Black child born to Washington, D.C. area parents with incomes in the 25th (bottom) percentile, as an adult, is likely, on average, to have an income at the 32nd percentile, only 7 points higher, while a White child born to parents with incomes at the 25th (bottom) percentile, as an adult, is likely, on average, to have an income at the 43rd percentile, 18 points higher. The upward mobility chances of one of the few White children born into poverty in Washington are between two and three times those of one of the many Black children born into poverty in the city.
Wealth, like poverty, tends to be inherited. This often comes from home ownership. In Washington, D.C., due to, among other things, mid-twentieth-century federal policies, approximately half of the White population own their own homes, while only a third of the Black populations own their homes. The median value of those White owner-occupied houses is $739,000; that of Black owner-occupied units is $385,000. If these houses are passed along to the next generation, the children of White homeowners start with twice the wealth, from this source alone, as do the children of Black homeowners.
In the nation’s capitol, the caste system that replaced slavery is characterized by a wealthy White, managerial caste and an impoverished, Black, service caste, with the former averaging incomes in the top 10 percent of the national income distribution, the latter averaging incomes far below that. Black children born into poverty have less of a chance of rising out of poverty than White children; the relatively few Black children of upper middle class parents have a greater chance of falling to a lower class than their White peers.
In addition to inherited wealth, largely unavailable to Black residents of Washington, education is a proven route out of poverty. But this route is also closed to Washington’s Black children — often regardless of whether they attend a traditional district or charter school.
The average Black student attends a school in which 82 percent of the students are poor; the average White student attends a school in which only a quarter of the students are from poor families. The Brown University Dissimilarity Index measures whether one particular group is distributed across census tracts in the metropolitan area in the same way as another group. A high value indicates that the two groups tend to live in different tracts. A value of 60 (or above) is considered very high. The Black-White Dissimilarity Index for the District is 83 out of 100.
Before the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, Washington had some fine schools for Black children. Segregation does not automatically lead to differentiated education achievement; after all, children in public charters schools generally do better than their peers in traditional districts despite stratification based on race. It’s just that the reality in traditional public schools is that segregation usually leads to worse outcomes for Black and other minority children.
In D.C.’s schools, 79 percent of fourth-grade White students whose family income is sufficient to make them ineligible for the National Lunch program, test as Proficient or Above in reading (and 95 percent Basic or Above). For all intents and purposes, all the district’s middle class White fourth grade students are taught to read at an acceptable level or beyond that: very well. And the White students who are not from middle class families? There are too few White students eligible for the National Lunch Program in Washington for NAEP to report their test results.
Over 90 percent of public school students in the Washington, D.C. are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Almost all of these are Black. Educational opportunity in the District of Columbia’s traditional district (as well to a lesser extent, in its charters) are distributed by race and income. It amounts to the same thing.
In fourth grade, 44 percent of the few Black students whose family income is sufficient to make them ineligible for the National Lunch program test as Proficient or Above in reading (and 80 percent Basic or Above). Just 15 percent of Black fourth-graders whose family income is low enough to make them eligible for the National Lunch program test at Proficient or Above in reading (and 44 percent Basic or Above).
Then in eighth grade, 82 percent of White students, nearly all of whom are ineligible for the National Lunch program, test at Proficient or Above in reading (and 96 percent Basic or Above). Just over a quarter, 27 percent, of Black eighth-grade students whose family income is sufficient to make them ineligible for the National Lunch program test as Proficient or Above in reading (and 69 percent Basic or Above). But only seven percent of Black students whose family income is low enough to make them eligible for the National Lunch program test at Proficient or Above in reading (and 39 percent Basic or Above).
These numbers matter. Literacy is essential for all other education; reading skills rarely change much between middle school and high school graduation (of which more below).
Between grades 4 and 8, the percentage of the relatively few middle class Black students in Washington testing above Basic in reading declined from 80 to 69 percent; the percentage of the much larger number of Black students eligible for the National Lunch Program testing at or above Basic in reading declines from 44 to 39 percent. Between fourth- and eighth grades, the percentage of the relatively few middle class Black students in Washington testing at or above Proficient declines from 44 to 27 percent; the percentage of the much larger number of Black students eligible for the National Lunch Program testing above Proficient declines from 15 to 7 percent. More time in the District’s schools results in lower rates of educational achievement for Black students.
The educational background of the parents of White students is not apparent in test results. Eighty-five percent of White eighth-graders whose parents graduated from college test as Proficient or Above in reading (and 97 percent Basic or Above). On the other hand, the children of highly educated Black parents actually do worst than other middle class Black children, with just 15 percent of Black eighth-graders with some form of higher education scoring Proficient or Above in reading (and 52 percent Basic or Above). The children of less well-educated Black parents do worse yet: just six percent of Black students whose parents only graduated from high school test at Proficient or Above in reading (and 34 percent at Basic or Above).
The District of Columbia school system claimed a 73 percent graduation rate in 2017. The Washington Post recently reported that “one in three graduates received their diplomas in violation of city policy. Wrote the Post: “Those students had walked across graduation stages despite missing too many classes or improperly taking makeup classes. . . Even if all of the students regarded as “moderately off-track” receive diplomas, the graduation rate would stand at about 61 percent — 12 points below last year’s.”
Would even 61 percent of Washington, D.C. students graduate college and career ready? Not at all. In eighth grade, just 53 percent tested at or above Basic in reading, just 25 percent were Proficient or above. It is probably significant that in 2013 96 percent of students entering the Community College of the University of District Columbia required at least one remedial course; half needed remediation in four subjects. By 2017 it was reported that 98 percent of public school graduates needed remediation after enrolling in the University of District Columbia.
Given this education system, Washington, D.C., will likely remain two cities, one White and increasingly prosperous, the other Black, impoverished, in a context in which poverty is reproduced from one generation to the next. Simply allowing children incapable of succeeding in college and life to graduate isn’t going to help end this racial caste system.
Here’s a suggestion for the District of Columbia Public Schools: Instead of faking graduation rates, teach your Black students to read.