The Commission on African American Affairs focused on alarming new statistics on the persistent problems of unequal treatment, and the need to mobilize action to address the issues they raised at their meeting last week.
The fact that Black children are twice as likely to be referred to Child Protective Services and that racial discrimination adds to individuals' health care burden highlighted the panel's call for greater community involvement.
The meeting covered a broad range of issues including child services, the justice system and health care.
"We are meeting on how to tie those issues together," said Commissioner Winona Hollins-Hauge.
State Rep. Mary Helen Roberts (D-21st District) spoke on the problems with the justice system and its effect on the community. She remarked on the continued sentencing gaps based on ethnicity.
"We use gang involvement to ratchet up the punishment," said Roberts. "I'm convinced we are not being soft on crime, we're being stupid."
Roberts saw the justice system is Washington State punishing offenders with both jail time and taking their rights, such as voting, away. This cycle, especially for those doing time for minor offenses, can have major consequences on people's outlook.
"You're never through doing your time, you face job and housing discrimination," said Roberts. "You can get your voting rights back, but we make it so complicated for them."
Roberts said the strict drug laws affect a wide swath of the population. She advocated for more treatment and less punishment for offenders.
She also focused on providing those in jail and prison with resources to help them. Roberts saw that by reinstating voting rights, research indicated that has a positive effect and lowers the recidivism rate.
"The more education you have, the more skills you get and the more likely you are to succeed," Roberts said.
Nina Harding, who runs a General Education Diploma program at the King County Jail, agreed, but she said the state and county officials don't want to provide educational resources to those who are being punished.
"We couldn't sell it because the prison only wanted busy work," said Harding. "The system does not want us to accelerate the education programs."
Another issue is the disparity of children's services. According to a presentation by the Washington State Racial Disproportionality Advisory Committee, Black children are 1.2 times more likely to be removed from their homes and 1.5 times as likely to remain in foster care for over two years, compared to White children.
"Disproportionality exists not only in Washington State, but across the country," said Mariam Harris, co-chair of the Washington State Racial Disproportionality Advisory Committee. "In my mind we have enough statistics, we know that there is a problem."
The Commission also heard from speakers who discussed and shared research on the disparities in health care and education. The commission showed a clip from the PBS documentary "Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?"
The documentary examined the issues surrounding the inequalities on the United States health care system. Among its findings were that social conditions – "the jobs we do, the money we're paid, the schools we attend, the neighborhoods we live in, are as important to our health as our genes, our behaviors and even our medical care."
Members of the public also shared their work with organizations providing AIDS treatment services and education programs for local communities.
State Representative Eric Pettigrew (D-37th District) spoke on how these issues are tied in with each other and other issues facing minority groups.
"We must come together as a unified front," said Pettigrew. "This is not a one year turn around, it is a long incremental process."
Pettigrew spoke of the need for all minority groups to come together and help encourage the legislature to pass laws and fund programs that correct these imbalances.
Part of the sentiment echoed throughout the meeting is the need for community involvement in letting the legislature know the issues.
"You would be surprised as how much a note or email will help move the agenda forward," said Pettigrew.
He urged people to email their repetitive and ask of their stances on the issues, especially in advance of the upcoming election. The legislative process is "set up to fail" said Pettigrew and by having the community voice their opinions, these disparities can be fixed.
"The legislature will cut programs that cause them the least grief," said Roberts. She said community involvement is key to helping to change these disparities.
For more information visit www.caa.wa.gov.