Several state lawmakers want to zero in on deep-rooted disparities that are holding back Black Coloradans economically, from low homeownership to disproportionately high incarceration rates, and expand the search for solutions.

That’s the aim of legislation unveiled Wednesday that would charge History Colorado, the state’s historical society, with undertaking a comprehensive study into the reverberations of slavery and systemic racism, including examining how they still affect Black Coloradans today. A steering committee that includes experts in several fields would advise the effort.

The study, which could be paid for through fundraising rather than state funding, would result in recommendations for policy proposals to bridge those gaps — along with ideas to address the ongoing challenges Black Coloradans face.

“We have a responsibility as lawmakers to investigate and understand the wrongs of the past, to study historic and ongoing racial discrimination in our state, and to shed light on a path for the future,” Sen. James Coleman said during a news conference announcing the proposal.

He was joined by Reps. Leslie Herod and Jennifer Bacon, also Denver Democrats and fellow members of the Colorado Black Democratic Legislative Caucus, at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Five Points. They are among lawmakers who plan to introduce the bill in the legislative session that begins in early January.

The effort isn’t just about a moral reckoning, they and other speakers said, but is geared toward recognizing the economic common sense of making sure all Coloradans have equal footing.

Coleman highlighted Black Coloradans’ history of facing decades of discriminatory housing practices, including those known as redlining, along with inequities in health care and access to education. Police brutality against Black residents and a lack of economic mobility are other problems for the task force to examine, he said.

It wasn’t long ago that Colorado was dotted with sundown towns, where white residents into the civil rights era would refuse service to Black people — or worse. A century ago, the Ku Klux Klan was gaining control over Denver politics.

The backers cited data showing the disparities still felt in the Black community, despite decades of gains in legal equality: Just 1 in 4 adult Black residents have achieved a post-secondary degree or credential; 42% are homeowners compared to 72% of white Coloradans; and despite making up 5% of the state’s population, Black Coloradans constitute 18% of its prison population, according to data from Justice for Black Coloradans, a coalition backing the measure.

Speakers also shared their own experiences. Pastor Thomas Mayes, vice president of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the NAACP, recalled that his family was among Black families that moved into the predominantly white Denver neighborhood of Park Hill in the 1960s, only to suffer “the ridicule of … watching all the others move out.”

More recently, Herod said, she needed to get a second appraisal on a home in that very neighborhood after the first appraiser undervalued it upon seeing that a Black person lived there.

Bacon and Coleman said they had spoken with Gov. Jared Polis’ team about the legislation and haven’t met any pushback. Polis spokesperson Shelby Wieman did not return a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

The bill’s backers are hoping to pay for the History Colorado study through gifts, grants and donations — an uncommon, but not unheard of, way of making sure the state’s tight budget doesn’t stand in the way of the bill passing.

The fundraising is being coordinated by the Collaborative Healing Initiative within Communities, or CHIC. As drafted in the bill, the study is contingent on History Colorado receiving at least $100,000 in gifts and grants to conduct it.

If passed, the draft bill would require History Colorado to submit a final report within two years.

“We are elected to dismantle the systems that have tried to keep our community in its place,” Bacon said. “… We know that if we are not present in the building, critical conversations will not happen. This is one of those.”

While Democrats hold a supermajority in the Colorado House and a near-supermajority in the Senate, it’s not easy to pass anything in the legislature, Herod said.

As with 2020’s CROWN Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race-based hair traits, Herod expects some initial resistance before, she hopes, fellow legislators grasp the purpose of the bill and why it’s necessary.

“I don’t want to say that (this bill) will be easy,” Herod said. “It will be quite complicated. But it’s my hope that people will recognize that complication as the reason the bill is is necessary.”

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