By Dr. John H. Jackson
Schott Foundation President & CEO
The story of America is the power of common people coming together around a vision of opportunity, democracy, and a better way of life for generations to come. However, from our earliest beginnings, the painful dichotomy is that the vision was executed with instruments of brutal and legalized oppression, heavily fueled by racial bias which for centuries has metastasized through every system of American life: healthcare, education, employment, policing, faith, technology, and infrastructure.
Over the past several years, the Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index has documented the racial disparities in supports for children and families in over 20 major cities across the country. Today, we are hard-pressed to identify one aspect or area of the country that has not been influenced by systemic racism or that does not exhibit clear racial disparities. The link between structural racism and the opportunity for children of color, particularly Black children, to learn and thrive in America is so interwoven that aggressively reducing racial disparities is the clearest pathway to ensuring their educational opportunities, social mobility and democratic participation for generations to come.
Out of the urgent need to decouple America’s vision of opportunity from America’s historic vehicles of systemic racism and oppression, this moment calls for Congress to move a multi-year, $10-12 trillion federal Racial Equity Stimulus Package focused on investments in states, urban, rural, and tribal communities, and most importantly in our people as a new reconstruction investment in building one America. This bold fiscal effort could only be aided by a cabinet level Advisor to the President on Racial Justice, Equity and Advancement, a recent proposal made by the NAACP and other civil rights groups.
Four major events in our nation’s history immensely increased America’s wealth as a nation but equally imposed a system of racism on generations to come:
- The genocide and forced relocation of Native Americans in order to claim their land and natural resources;
- The slave trade, which began in North America in 1619 and continued until 1865, gave America centuries of free labor to develop the land, produce goods, and build every part of America, from its roads to its White House. There was an abrupt end to the Reconstruction period (1863-1877), which was an effort to rebuild and reform the 11 southern former Confederate states and to provide land and expand legal rights to former slaves;
- The 1848 Mexican Cession of land following the Mexican-American War was the third largest acquisition of land in U.S. history. The land and resources Mexico was forced to cede to the U.S. includes the current states of California and Nevada, and substantial parts of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.
- Federal policies like segregation and redlining locked Black people out of the benefits of the New Deal, a series of financial reforms, homeownership programs, public works projects, and regulations enacted between 1933-1939 to provide relief, recovery, and growth for the American working class following the Great Depression.
These events were essentially America’s down payment on the wealth and growth of the nation. Yet, the people who were the victims of this oppression have never been re-centered in the national vision.
While these events were pivotal in locking in America’s wealth and systemic racism, other laws and practices also undergirded centuries of systemic racism, including: it was a crime for slaves to read and write; the U.S. Constitution considered enslaved people as three-fifths of a human until 1868; the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that separate but equal schools and accommodations were constitutional; the series of laws in the 1980s-90s related to the war on drugs and criminal sentencing which vastly increased the number of Black people incarcerated for non-violent offenses. The most unique and often forgotten is perhaps the 1930 Roldan v. Los Angeles County decision: the U.S. Supreme Court refused to rule on a California Appeals Court decision forbidding a Filipino man from marrying his white fiancée. Filipinos did not qualify as white because they were of the “Mongolian race.” The Supreme Court’s failure to review the decision formally concretized whiteness as the highest standard and image of citizenship in America. Simply stated, racism and oppression have been the operating system in America, the default setting, based on whiteness as the dominant power structure. Though many of these acts were implemented centuries ago, evidence of their impact is all around us. Consider this: white, non-Hispanics make up 60% of the U.S. population, and yet:
- The ten richest Americans are 100 percent white.
- The U.S. Congress is 78 percent white.
- Teachers are 80 percent white.
- The people who decide which news is covered are 85% white.
These abnormal statistical outcomes are clear evidence that America has not achieved a system where there is a fair opportunity to succeed regardless of race. To the contrary, in America both qualitative and quantitative data clearly indicate success and failure are too often predetermined by race. As DeAngelo states in White Fragility, “numbers represent systemic power and control by a racial group that is in the position to disseminate and protect its own self-image, worldview and interest across an entire society.” More importantly, it cannot be ignored that they also represent white dominance of resources and wealth. You don’t get these heavily slanted, racially identifiable outcomes without the preferential treatment and head start that whiteness was given from America’s early beginnings.
Systemic racism has been braided in America’s history and growth, but it is not a problem that is insurmountable or unsolvable. There is nothing wrong with our nation that eliminating systemic racism won’t fix. We will likely have individual cases of racial bias with us always, but systemic racism which creates outcomes that are racially identifiable can be weakened, unraveled, and eliminated. We can achieve a time when our children’s success or failure can no longer be predicted by race.
There is Precedent
From the 1950s through the 1970s, we saw America begin to use the legal lever to tackle systemic racism and its disparities with the passage of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, fair housing laws, and others. While none of these policies completely eliminated disparities, it is indisputable that they helped address some inequities impacting Black children and families.
It is undeniable that we have seen progress in the presence of Black people in political and corporate offices, yet while diversity and inclusion are essential, adding Black presence doesn’t on its own change how the system operates any more than adding an app on a phone changes the phone’s operating system. The home screen will look different and the app adds capacity, but without the consistent focus on redesigning the operating system the phone largely operates in the same manner.
The presence of people of color definitely brings value in that they are more likely to question the operating system, force through needed updates, etc. However, including people of color without welcoming their proposals and, in some cases, protest, doesn’t change the system any more than adding a workout app changes a person’s health. Including people of color without dedicating critical resources to rebuild the operating system is ineffective. To put it bluntly, 60 years of under-resourced and disjointed progress is insufficient to remedy over 400 years of oppression.
So how do we stimulate progress closing racial disparities and change America’s operating system? The same way we stimulate growth in our economy through laws and fiscal policies: specifically, through a targeted stimulus package that allows us to fix glitches, invest in under-resourced areas, and fundamentally change our operating system for a better future for children and our country.
Since the New Deal, when the nation has faced challenges so severe that there is little prospect for recovery, policymakers have infused cash to jumpstart economic engines and alleviate American suffering. Most recently, the CARES Act of 2020 sought to ameliorate fallout from the coronavirus pandemic which brought the economy to a hard halt. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 aimed to remedy the dislocations and hardships caused by the housing crisis. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed the Job Creation and Worker Assistance Act. Eliminating systemic racism requires an economic stimulus of its own.
Why a Racial Equity Stimulus Package?
Today most of the systems that have undergirded systemic racism in the U.S. have been severely weakened by COVID-19 and disrupted by those demanding change after witnessing countless murders of Blacks like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Most would agree that these events have dramatically cracked America’s foundation. The choice before us is whether we do patch work on our old system or use fiscal policy to seize the opportunity to build a stronger foundation.
We need to construct a new imagination where opportunity and democracy have been intentionally uncoupled from brutal oppression and where the concept of belonging is explicitly uncoupled from whiteness.
Through my 20 years of experience working in government, community organizing, and philanthropy to improve our education system and address education disparities, I am confident that it is virtually impossible to provide Black and brown children a fair opportunity to achieve their full potential without significantly addressing the broader systemic inequities. Their living inequities have become so drastic that it is impossible to systemically decouple them from their learning disparities. As data shows, racial inequities in access to healthcare, affordable housing, and healthy food make as much (if not more) of an impact on Black and brown students’ educational outcomes than education factors themselves. These inequities more pervasively impact students of color, but they impact all student,s while undermining our democracy, economy and humanity.
A federal, multi-year $10-12 trillion Racial Equity Stimulus Package is needed to make significant investments in our states, urban, rural, and tribal communities, and most importantly in historically under-supported American children and families. The stimulus package should be designed to kickstart progress where disparities have been most pronounced. Specifically, policymakers should start in several key areas:
- Stimulate and Liberate Learning for allthrough significant investments from birth and throughout the public pre-K12 education system, as well as free community college, and significant investments in HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.
- Stimulate the Closure of Wealth Gaps through increasing home ownership, small business investments, and capital in Black banks and other financial institutions which more often invest in communities and people of color.
- Stimulate the Reduction of Criminal Justice Disparities through significant state and local community infrastructure investments in job training and placement, judicial system reforms, and community infrastructure projects, including investments in community organizing institutions.
- Stimulate the Well-Being of American Families and People by guaranteeing access to healthcare, eliminating education debt, and investing in family leave.
The U.S. has relied on similar fiscal packages for everything except the existential crisis that is the stain of genocide, slavery, and forced relocation. When the nation previously contemplated and passed specific measures to alleviate harm, those measures were never intended to help Blacks, and often specifically excluded their communities.
Recognizing that closing racial inequities is an economic stimulus, some cities have taken steps towards reparations policies (a broader approach than a fiscal stimulus package), but independently these local efforts lack the momentum and resources to change their states, let alone our country’s operating system. It must be a national goal. Like COVID-19, it requires a strong, national effort, driven by federal policy, to flatten the curve.
Now is the right time to take these steps. The U.S. economy is roughly $22 trillion. Thus, strategically investing $10-12 trillion over the next over five years would mean a fiscal shot of about 10 percent of total economic activity over that period. The investment will indeed increase U.S. debt, but during a time when interest rates are lower than the expected rate of inflation. Thus, the federal government can borrow money for free, and should. Furthermore, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s report, "The Business Case for Racial Equity: A Strategy for Growth," documents the significant economic upside of investments to achieve racial equity: the U.S. economy could gain $8 trillion in GDP by 2050 if the country eliminated racial disparities in health, education, incarceration, and employment. That gain would be equivalent to a continuous boost in GDP growth of 0.5 percent per year, increasing the competitiveness of the country for decades to come.
Rather than seeing a multi-trillion dollar relief package as too large, we should see it as a more than appropriate response to reverse the effects of centuries of systemic racism holding back the potential of people of color, significantly holding back our country.
From an evaluation perspective, we have models of indices to measure economic growth, and when our economy lags we use fiscal measures to stimulate it. Likewise, we can measure the degree of progress in closing racial disparities in the identified key areas and whether we are infusing enough resources to combat the issue. Several models currently exist. The National Urban League and the NAACP have published numerous indices and annual report cards on various sectors, including financial services, hotels and technology, to name a few.
Now is the time to decouple America’s vision of democracy and opportunity from the tools of violence and oppression. Use the wealth created on the backs of those most oppressed to finally help America heal and launch future generations of Americans on a course to exist without the present pain and encumbrance of systemic racism. A new American Reconstruction is in order. It is time for our children’s generation—whose ancestors’ bodies were sacrificed for America’s down payment on wealth and democracy—to participate fully in America’s promise and truly call America their home.