Three Ways to Prevent Physical Displacement of Black Latines in DC and Beyond


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As researchers, policymakers, and stakeholders track and analyze the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 and racist policing on Black and Latine (a gender-inclusive identifier for Latinos/as) people in the US, they must acknowledge the intersection of these communities. Afro-Latine, or Black Latine, people who identify as both racially Black and ethnically Latine, make up 25 percent of the Latine population, yet they are often excluded from Latine policy discussions. People who are Black and Latine are more likely to experience lower health and earnings outcomes and live in more segregated neighborhoods than white Latines.

Physical displacement is just one way Black Latines have been marginalized and stripped of political and economic power. In Washington, DC, this community’s displacement and subsequent cultural erasure is especially apparent in the Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan neighborhoods. Once home to a large group of Afro-Latines, these neighborhoods have experienced gentrification in the past 30 years.

To learn more about the displacement of Black Latines through gentrification in DC, I spoke with DC Afro Latino Caucus advocacy group chair, documentary filmmaker, and oral historian Manuel Mendez. Mendez is a DC native who attended Raymond Elementary, Garnet Patterson Middle, and Bell Multicultural High School and has experienced the effects of displacement and gentrification in Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan firsthand. He is well-versed in decades of Afro-Latines advocacy in DC.

Mendez explained that the area began to transform in 1996, when the Columbia Heights Metro station began construction, and the city incentivized anchor retail institutions to move in. Soon, the nearby land became sought after, and the residents and small businesses that had been the lifeblood of the local community were displaced. Many students, like Mendez, who lived in the Mount Pleasant area attended Bell and were inspired to take matters into their own hands.

“We realized that the changes we see in our community in the present day had been in the pipeline for 10 years prior, and that our community was never in the space where developers and realtors made the decisions on the community’s behalf.” Thus began Mendez’s activism, when, “in 1998, a new youth program called Youth Action Research Group, began their fight for affordable housing and against gentrification by asking the question, ‘What is affecting us [the students] and why?’”

Mendez’s own experiences and the research base point to several policy solutions that could help reduce the displacement and exclusion of Black Latines in DC and beyond.

  1. Acknowledge the Afro-Latine community’s research contributions and engage them in future place-based research.

Traditional forms of research can alienate residents and be extractive (PDF) of local communities, benefiting everyone but the people being researched. To be more inclusive and accurately represent the community members, the field should rethink norms around who researchers are and how research questions and methods could be reframed.

To start, the field should more frequently welcome, encourage, and fund the careers of Afro-Latine researchers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Latines accounted for only about 3 percent of full-time professors at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2017, and Afro-Latine professors make up an even smaller share.

Black Latines have been conducting research studies for the benefit of their own communities for decades, and this legacy should be acknowledged. In the 1960s, the Young Lords group from New York began public advocacy by surveying their communities and tailoring their policy agenda accordingly. Inspired by the Young Lords, Columbia Height’s Youth Action Research Group project surveyed their community and used the results to encourage collaborations with Manna CDC and Project South to support young people undergoing displacement.

Research institutions can also support community-informed research. The Urban Institute’s community engaged methods group is an example of how institutions can use their resources to create space for community voices. A community-based approach that welcomes community members leads to stronger data collection, analysis, and dissemination. This approach can help fill research gaps and account for the experiences of Black Latines in the US.

  1. Addressing census undercounts of Afro-Latines

Last week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the census count can be cut short. An undercount of all Latines was already expected, and now, it seems even more likely. And an Afro-Latines undercount is already expected because the census classifications of race and ethnicity do not capture the historical and sociopolitical complexities of Black Latines’ identities. For example, when asked directly about their race, only 18 percent of Afro-Latines identify at least one of their races as Black.

For Afro-Latines outside DC, an accurate count is important because political representation and federally allocated funds are distributed according to census data. If the government doesn’t know where Afro-Latines live, it will not allocate social services to support their unique needs related to disparate health and economic outcomes.

To ensure Afro-Latines receive the political representation and federal funds their communities need and are entitled to, researchers, policymakers, and advocates could work to strengthen survey questions to acknowledge Latines’ complex racial and ethnic identities.

  1. Anti-displacement measures and affordable housing for Afro-Latines

Research shows displacement and gentrification systematically and predominantly target Black and Latine communities. In DC, Mendez shared that “the community of Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant is no longer affordable, so many Black Latines have had to move out to Prince George’s County, Langley Park, and Riverdale, where Black Latines can afford rent.” Mendez expects displacement to worsen in 2021 because the COVID-19 pandemic caused increases in evictions, houselessness, and unemployment. “I project a lot of hurt and pain because people will be less likely to sustain the conditions helping them hang on to where they currently live.”

To ensure housing is affordable and available to all, especially as post pandemic relief is discussed, policymakers could consider the following tools:

Combatting displacement will take innovation and commitment from researchers and housing stakeholders

Displacement’s disparate impacts on DC’s Afro-Latine community calls for new approaches to studying and addressing the crisis. To improve inclusion and ensure researchers reflect and understand the communities they’re studying, the field can consider these solutions—but progress should not stop here. Creative, place-based solutions can help researchers, policymakers, and advocates prevent and address the erasure of Afro-Latines from public policy.