Five Actions That Would Significantly Reduce the Impact of Systemic Racism
As monuments to the Confederacy fall and police caught on tape using excessive force against people of color are facing swifter investigations and justice than they have historically, it’s possible to dare to hope that America is finally ready to deal with the poisonous fruits of its racist past.
However, while the anger we witness daily on the streets is both understandable and long overdue, anger alone is no cure for either racism or any of its associated ills. Nor is it sustainable. These past few years have been nothing if not exhausting. At some point soon the current movement to address systemic racism will have to move beyond generalizable frustration with centuries of injustice and turn its attention toward specific policy solutions that can actually facilitate the change people are so hungry for.
No list of possible solutions is exhaustive and this list is no exception. The five actions recommended below are national and even potentially international in scope. However, particular regions, states, and communities will each have their own unique challenges that require actions tailored to their specific circumstances.
Equalize school district funding
In 2018, National Public Radio’s (NPR) Morning Edition reported on the wide disparities in per-pupil spending across the United States. Even within many states and metropolitan areas, the differences in spending can be dramatic.
To make the point NPR highlighted the amount spent on education within two Chicago area school districts. The Chicago Ridge School District spent $9,794 per-pupil in 2013, according to the story. That was “well below that year’s national average of $11,841.”
Less than an hour to the north in Illinois’ Rondout School District 72 the situation is dramatically different. “It has 22 teachers and 145 students, and spent $28,639 on each one of them.” To drive the disparity point home, NPR points out that the teachers in the Rondout District “earn, on average, more than $90,000” a year. According to a graph accompanying the NPR story cited above, of America’s more than 13,000 school districts, just 80 elite public districts or .006% spend more than $40,000 on each student annually. In all likelihood, the number of minority students in these 80 districts wouldn’t fill a single mid-sized high school’s auditorium.
What accounts for such dramatic differences in funding? Wealth. Where there’s wealth, the property is worth much more and school districts in the United States are substantially financed through local property taxes that are spent within the district. “The balance varies from state to state,” NPR concluded, “but on average, looks like this: 45 percent local money, 45 percent from the state and 10 percent federal.”
This has implications for poor kids whether they’re black, brown, or white. However, because poverty disproportionately impacts minority communities equalizing education funding is one huge step America could take that would reduce the impact of systemic racism. Not every child, regardless of race, is going to grow up to go on to university or to become a world-class scientist. However, we don’t need a well-funded study to know that those starting life out in a ZIP Code where the educational facilities are poorly maintained, the teachers underpaid, and the resources chronically out of date are at a severe disadvantage it’s often impossible to overcome later on.
Universal Basic Income
There’s simply no getting around the fact that American’s median wealth varies dramatically according to race. Based on data collected by the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, the median net worth for white households in 2016 was $162,770. For Hispanic households, it was $21,360 and for black households, it was just $16,300.
While the numbers improve for all groups when the head of the household has a college degree, the gap remains extreme and neither Hispanic nor black households in this category come close to the average for all white households with or without a college degree. For white families headed by a college degree holder, the median net worth is $391,000, while Hispanic families come in at $73,910 and black families at $68,300.
These figures are a pretty good indicator that even assuming we equalized funding for k-12 education in every single state across the country, there would still be a wealth gap that was too wide to explain without taking race into account. That’s where a universal basic income (UBI) comes in.
As is the case with school district funding equalization, a UBI is intended to alleviate a form of systemic inequality without regard to race. In a poor white community and a poor black community where the differences in either annual median income or net worth are at most only a few thousand dollars, the program would have largely the same impact. However, because poverty and race are so highly correlated, the benefit would be disproportionately felt in minority communities.
But what about the universal aspect of UBI? Isn’t it true that Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos would also receive monthly payments of $1000-$1500? It is. But it’s also the case that to help pay for a UBI these billionaires would see those payments plus considerably more clawed back in taxes at the end of the year. Indeed, it seems reasonable to begin progressively clawing back UBI payments through higher taxes at annual income levels of between $80,000 — $100,000 and take all of it back beginning at around $150,000, which coincidentally is about the median net worth for white households anyway.
A truly universal healthcare system
In spite of the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the United States remains the only developed nation without a truly universal healthcare system. For many with some form of health insurance, to keep the cost of coverage down they must choose plans with high deductibles and co-pays, effectively leaving them picking up all or most of their healthcare expenses in any given year.
A consequence of America’s balkanized for-profit healthcare system is that it drives millions of families confronted with a healthcare emergency into bankruptcy. In fact, most bankruptcies in the United States are the result of high medical bills that few families would be able to long endure if placed in a similar situation.
Bankruptcy courts don’t track cases by race. However, given the data regarding the median net worth of various races cited earlier, it’s difficult to imagine how both bankruptcies in general and bankruptcies triggered specifically by a medical crisis wouldn’t be issues that disproportionately impact black and brown populations throughout the United States.
Providing truly universal quality healthcare that does not rely upon high deductibles and co-pays would effectively eliminate the greatest cause of bankruptcy for all poor and middle-class families without regard to race while simultaneously giving minority communities another disproportionate and long overdue lift. To the extent this program, be it single-payer or some other model, does involve higher taxes or charging premiums these should be applied progressively according to the insured’s ability to pay.
In addition, the government should invest heavily in community healthcare programs within historically underserved populations. As with education, no part of the country should be without quality healthcare because lower incomes, property values, or other measures of wealth have left them unable to contribute as much in real dollar terms as wealthier neighborhoods.
End the war on drugs
According to a recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative, approximately 449,100 of the roughly 2.3 million people currently serving sentences or sitting in jail awaiting trial are behind bars due to a drug-related offense. That’s nearly 20% of the total prison population in the United States, a country that already incarcerates more of its citizens than anyone else on the planet.
The Prison Policy Initiative makes clear that simply releasing all non-violent drug offenders would not end the mass incarceration problem in the United States. Even if it were to do so, America would still have more people behind bars than China, the country that is currently coming in second in the global incarceration race.
However, ending America’s drug war and spending the considerable savings that would follow on treatment and harm reduction would almost certainly lead to significant reductions in property crimes and other criminal activity often associated with both drug abuse and prohibition. In other words, a not insignificant number of the 300,000 people currently sitting in state prisons for property and public disorder crimes would likely also not be there were it not for America’s failure to treat drug abuse like the public health problem that it is.
While the overall number of people in prison in the United States has been falling in recent years, it nonetheless remains the case that blacks and Hispanics are still disproportionately represented within this population. While blacks make up just 12% of the U.S. population as a whole they constitute 33% of those behind bars. For Hispanics, those percentages are 16% and 23% respectively while for whites they are 63% and 30%.
This has nothing do with some sort of innate criminal tendency as white supremacists and some other promoters of racist ideologies would have us believe. Instead, it is a consequence of the convergence of lack of opportunity within black and brown communities, generational systems of poverty reinforced by policies that only serve to widen inequality further over time, and a criminal justice system that has for centuries treated minorities worse on average than it has white people.
Like all the other suggestions listed above, ending the war on drugs is not a silver bullet that would solve the institutional racism problem. However, there is good reason to believe it would be a significant step forward for society as a whole with the greatest positive benefits for America’s minorities and poor.
In 2001, Portugal became the first nation to decriminalize drug possession and consumption. According to a 2018 Time Magazine article, since ending prohibition and redirecting resources into drug treatment and harm reduction efforts “the drug-induced death rates has plummeted to five times lower than the E.U. average and stands at one-fiftieth of the United States.” Furthermore, “drug use has declined overall among the 15– to 24-year-old population, those most at risk of initiating drug use.”
Establish truth and reconciliation commissions
While the first four reforms discussed above would all have considerable positive impacts within minority communities, they could easily be supported on the grounds they reduce the impacts of poverty/economic inequality generally without any regard for the role they might play in improving race relations in the U.S.
However, the recommendation to create truth and reconciliation commissions — at least one each to deal with America’s treatment of its indigenous population and its black population — is one that is specifically targeted to the question of racism’s legacy in the United States. The very act of establishing these commissions would be an acknowledgment that U.S. history has left us with too many festering wounds that need to be dealt with openly and honestly, even if there are differences on how best to close them.
While public policy should be just and certainly can be adopted, at least in part, to atone for past wrongs, neither policy debates nor policy implementation can substitute for healing. For one thing, policies like universal healthcare and ending the war on drugs would be wise even if American history had never included the ownership of slaves or genocidal acts against its Indigenous peoples.
While it’s possible to make good arguments for any policy intended to close the economic and opportunity inequality gap or reduce the number of people languishing in our prisons without ever even mentioning slavery, genocide, or the current state of race relations a truth and reconciliation commission requires that we deal with the facts about our history and its ongoing impact directly. It is where terms are clearly defined, stories are told and recorded for posterity, and responsibility is taken. While policy recommendations will almost certainly be included within any final report a truth and reconciliation commission ultimately issues, it is also where attitudes can be named that must change for there to be anything like a lasting peace between peoples who have committed and been the victims of wrongdoing, whether this wrongdoing is in the past or the present.
America needs to end policing practices like chokeholds and an over-reliance on the gun. It needs to bring down its tributes to traitors who turned on their country in the name of slavery. However, it’s imperative that we recognize that a ban on certain harmful policing practices and the removal of some racists from the pedestals they’ve been occupying in many of our parks will not close the country’s wounds. Shouting at each other about what does or doesn’t constitute racism or debating degrees of privilege on social media won’t either.
What the country needs is a deliberative process that involves every state, county, and town across the country. It will take years to facilitate those discussions and prepare the report that comes from them and decades of work afterward to incorporate the findings into our hearts, homes, churches, classrooms, city councils, and legislatures. As impatient as we all understandably are for change to happen we need to recognize there are no short cuts for dealing with centuries of injustice. If we don’t, we’ll be going through this again within a few decades. It was ever thus for those who stubbornly refuse to face their history.