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We Can’t Tackle Gun Violence Until We Address Racial Inequity

Years of abandonment of working-class Black communities and incredible wealth inequality lies at the root of this issue.

Two years ago, I was nearly caught in the crossfires of teenagers shooting at each other in northwest Washington, D.C. I was on the phone with my mother when I heard a blast go off just inches away from me. I can still feel the kickback of the gun reverberate across my skull. Had I not run into traffic to save my life, chances are my mother would’ve been subjected to hearing her daughter get shot — or even killed.

Over the next few days, I lived in a state of shock. For years, I worked as a communications professional for a national gun safety organization. I advocated for commonsense gun laws, helped gun violence survivors and victims’ families share their stories and consoled them when lawmakers prioritized the gun lobby’s agenda over public safety.

Now, I was the one in need of comfort — and I found it in conversations with longtime D.C. residents. These friends helped paint a clear picture of the root causes of the city’s violence. Those root causes all trace back to inequitable socioeconomic policies that have persisted for decades.

Now, with the summer months upon us, we are likely to see a considerable uptick in gun crimes, and with that increase, more conversations on how to stop these waves of violence, even as our country is experiencing a general decline in violent crime. What will all but certainly be missing from these conversations is how years of abandonment of working-class Black communities and incredible wealth inequality lies at the root of this issue — and solutions to finally addressing both.

In D.C. and in cities around the country, the ever-expanding racial wealth gap exacerbates the conditions that contribute to this uniquely U.S. crisis. Decades of housing discrimination, redlining, lack of access to quality education, high rates of joblessness and low-wage employment compound the challenges faced by Black communities. As the former vice president for programs at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence put it, “inequality isn’t just about making money or not making money; it’s really about whether you’re going to survive.”

We can see this truth play out in real time in D.C. According to a 2022 article in The Hilltop, “approximately 86,300 Black people are impoverished in the city, and many experience limited access to affordable housing, educational and employment opportunities and resources due to public policies.” Most of those who are impoverished in D.C. live in Wards 7 and 8, where majority-Black communities struggle with high rates of gun violence and limited access to resources for issues aggravated by high rates of poverty, such as mental health issues. In fact, a study found that more than 133,000 people in D.C. live in areas with limited access to mental health service providers — and most live in Wards 7 and 8.

To make matters worse, this is all happening within a rapidly gentrifying city. The shooting I witnessed occurred in the Brightwood neighborhood, not far from the Gold Coast community, which is known as a haven for wealthy Black Americans.

Brightwood, like other D.C. neighborhoods, has undergone considerable changes. What began as a free Black community in the early 1800s became a quiet, diverse community in the 1900s and 2000s, and was the home of the city’s annual Caribbean carnival and notable figures like Jesse Jackson. Yet, thanks to recent property developments, the cost of homes are skyrocketing in the area.

Simultaneously, so is gun violence. Brightwood has experienced several tragic shootings this year, including two incidents in January that left three small children critically injured and one adult man dead. There is also the matter of police-perpetrated shootings. Although Black people make up less than half of the population, they made up 85 percent of those killed by the Washington Metropolitan Police.

Developments like those taking place in Brightwood are happening all across the city, putting D.C. ahead of other large U.S. cities when it comes to human displacement. In fact, D.C. has experienced some of the highest rates of displacement in our country. A 2019 report found that in areas like Kingman Park and Capitol Hill, “nearly 75 percent of the low-income populations have vanished” — and most of those who were pushed out were poor, Black residents who lived in areas facing great economic decline.

Washington, D.C. is a great city, but its potential cannot be realized until all residents are able to share in the abundance it produces. Problems like gun violence will persist as long as there are whole groups who are marginalized, ignored and forced to live with economic inequity.

This summer, let’s center economic policy in conversations on gun violence and prioritize those who’ve been most impacted by it to understand its roots. By increasing resources for community gun violence prevention organizations, creating more summer job programs for teens and tackling housing insecurity, we will be able to save lives, create economic abundance for all and chart a new course for our nation’s capital.