Opinion | A Blueprint for Racial Healing in the Biden Era

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The 2020 election offered stark, competing visions for American race relations and politics. President Donald Trump cast himself to suburban white voters as their protecter against anarchy, riots and racial integration of their neighborhoods. He embraced Confederate symbols as American heritage, and encouraged and authorized violence against Black Lives Matter protesters. He also constructed a false polarity in which fighting systemic racism was deemed unpatriotic and un-American.

Joe Biden, despite his lengthy record of supporting tough criminal policies, made racial equity a central tenet of his campaign. He spoke forthrightly about racial disparities, especially a staggering racial wealth gap between median white and Black American households. He showed empathy for Black victims of police shootings. He proposed specific policies to promote racial equity and lift up Black communities in rebuilding the nation from the ashes of Covid-19.

That Biden won—with nearly 80 million votes, a record—along with Kamala Harris as the first Black, South Asian American and female vice president, suggests real possibilities for a multiracial democracy that values Black lives and brings all people along. And the Democratic Party’s success in national politics is now very much tied to the work of Black Americans in advancing and exercising their own voting rights, as made clear by Trump’s and other Republicans’ recent attacks on election returns in major cities dense with Black voters.

While Trump made unexpected gains in the election with white women, as well as Black and Hispanic voters, those gains pale compared with the decisive majority of Americans who now acknowledge anti-Black racism. Since George Floyd’s slow execution by a Minneapolis police officer, an estimated 15 million to 26 million people have protested peacefully for Black lives in some 2,500 localities—perhaps the largest movement in American history.

So, despite Trump’s norm-shattering refusal to concede the race, Biden and Harris won decisively, especially with voters who prioritize racial justice and competence in fighting the coronavirus. They have a rare chance to rebuild from both crises with policies that advance the long-held dream of racial equity. What are they going to do with that momentum—and what policies could be transformative?

There are no shortcuts to reckoning with habits and structures born of centuries of white supremacy. As awakening folk have learned, it took seven decades of intentional, racist federal policy to create the separate and unequal landscape that Trump exploited for political gain. Systemic racism will not be undone with a summer of protest and installing a new president. Intention created slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and the iconic Black hood. Intention is required to dismantle and repair what supremacy still breaks.

President-elect Biden signaled to the world in his victory speech that as he fights to rebuild and unify America, he will also fight for the Black American community that saved his campaign. There are concrete steps he can take to dismantle and repair structural racism, with or without the cooperation of Congress. In a divided country, local governments—increasingly controlled by the same coalitions that propelled Biden and Harris to victory—have even more room to innovate on racial justice. Here are some suggestions for what could happen beginning in 2021.

To build consensus for new, anti-racist policies, it is critical to understand the racial inequality the American government intentionally created. Beginning early in the 20th century, federal, state and local government orchestrated affluent white havens and poverty-dense Black ’hoods. They encouraged or funded racially restrictive covenants, exclusionary zoning, Negro-cleansing “urban renewal,” intentionally segregated public housing, an interstate highway program laid to create racial barriers and endemic redlining of Black neighborhoods.

Segregation, in turn, created a dishonest budgetary politics in which society has overinvested in affluent white space, disinvested elsewhere—and then blamed those trapped in concentrated poverty for not being superhuman enough to overcome its many obstacles. For five decades, Republicans and Democrats have invoked stereotypes—from “looter” to “welfare queen” to “super-predator” to “thug”—to justify containing low-income Black people in high-poverty environs or prisons, and to distract voters from plutocratic tax relief that often took place alongside savage cuts to programs essential to struggling people. The past is not past: To this day, governments invest in segregation in neighborhoods and schools, and many Americans depend on segregation in making choices about where to live and educate their children.

Part of what makes these inequities so hard to correct is that there’s an enduring racial architecture to American politics that stymies progress. Sizable majorities of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minority groups still vote Democratic, and a sizable majority of white Americans vote Republican. While no racial or ethnic group is a monolith—as we clearly saw in the election results this month—partisan identity still has much to do with attitudes about race. White Democrats are more likely than white Republicans to acknowledge systemic racial discrimination against Black people, while white conservatives are more likely to perceive discrimination against themselves than to acknowledge racial discrimination against Blacks. Social scientists find that racial resentments drive whites who harbor them to repudiate government interventions because they attribute racial inequality to personal behavior and not systemic discrimination. Racial resentment is the strongest predictor of white attitudes toward policies to redress racial inequality and has been since the 1980s.

Resentment is not the same thing as racism, and liberals who were gobsmacked that a race-baiting Trump garnered nearly 74 million votes should avoid labeling his supporters as racist or deplorable. That said, Trump’s decision to cast a decisive multiracial victory by Democrats as an attempt to steal the election from him—without any evidence—ensures that this gulf between his supporters and Biden’s will not be bridged easily.

A more viable strategy for progressives than trying to win over Trump’s supporters right away would be to continue to win elections powered by energized majorities of Black Americans in critical states, in coalitions with other energized people of color rightfully taking their place in American politics and the critical mass of whites willing to see and resist racism. As Biden implicitly acknowledged in his victory speech, the Democratic Party cannot win a governing majority, which now hinges on two Senate runoff races in Georgia, without speaking authentically to and actually redressing the burdens and aspirations of Black people. Their votes and enthusiasm must be earned.

Biden’s room to operate depends on what happens in the Senate. A progressive coalition turned Georgia blue for Biden, but Black voter turnout lagged and must be energized if Democrats are to elect two senators in the state’s January runoff. Young Black voters especially need to hear specifics about how voting for Democrats would actually improve their lives: Would it make them less likely to get killed by the police, for instance, or more likely to have a path to real opportunity? If Democrats win both races, Harris, as vice president, can cast tie-breaking votes to give Biden a governing majority.

With Democratic control of both chambers, an unshackled Congress could abolish anti-Black policies and processes the federal government set in motion and repair continuing damage. Advocates have argued that because redlined federal mortgage-insurance programs invested hundreds of billions (in present dollars) in pro-white wealth-building, new investments should be allocated now to Black communities. A $60 billion investment in communities hit hardest by Covid-19 could be financed by repealing the tax breaks for large corporations that were included in the first federal Covid-19 relief package. Alternatively, Senator Cory Booker and others have proposed focusing on targeted investment in redlined communities, including by providing “baby bonds” to every child born in the United States.

Bolder still, Congress could atone for the federal legacy of promoting segregation by enacting a law that bans exclusionary zoning—local laws that privilege single-family homes and exclude denser, affordable housing. Congress could also condition federal infrastructure or other spending on measurable local progress in creating affordable housing in high-opportunity areas. Biden has promised to back similar legislation sponsored by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Booker.

Booker and Clyburn also proposed a bill in 2018 that would achieve racial equity in federal spending by applying a formula across all federal programs to ensure targeted spending in census tracts with persistent poverty. Biden backed the bill in his campaign platform. He also proposed to eliminate the $23 billion gap in what America spends on white vs. nonwhite school districts by nearly tripling existing funding for the Title I program for high poverty schools—an infusion that would require increased appropriations from Congress.

Whatever proposals for repair win consensus, they could be paid for in part by repealing recent excessive tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations, and cutting excessive investments in segregation and punitive strategies that exacerbate racial inequality. Harris could play a critical role in gathering support among her former colleagues in the Senate. With a 50-50 Senate split, the image of the first vice president of color casting the tie-breaking vote to enact these and other needed laws would be a historic and symbolic leap forward, restoring and building on the gains of the civil rights movement.

If Republicans retain control of the Senate, there is still much the new administration could do. President Biden can use executive power to reverse Trump’s war on anti-racist policies. He could issue an executive order requiring agencies to assess whether and how the programs they administer promote racial equity. Only by collecting data and paying attention to where federal dollars are spent can the federal government disrupt the racial redlining it institutionalized.

Biden should also rescind all Trump administration executive orders and agency actions that intentionally repealed or undermined civil and human rights protections. Among numerous options for executive action, Biden has already proposed restoring the Obama-era rule to affirmatively further fair housing, along with other fair housing and lending policies that Trump gutted. Biden has already committed to restoring and expanding the Department of Justice’s formerly strong role in investigating police departments for systemic civil rights violations. The Biden administration can aggressively enforce existing and restored protections and issue new guidelines that promote inclusion and equity.

If Biden and Harris use their pulpit to speak honestly and transparently about the federal government’s legacy of pro-white and anti-Black racism, these ideas could become mainstream.

In his platform, Biden also proposed policies that would encourage local governments to promote racial equity and inclusive housing and schools. That support will be crucial: Much of the racial justice work of the next four years lies outside Washington. While states play their part, the “Democrat-run” cities that Trump has vilified should be at the forefront. Since the Black Lives Matter movement ignited in 2015, many cities have been forced to reckon with systems that surveil and plunder in Black neighborhoods.

Seattle, Minneapolis and a few other cities formally require a racial equity analysis in budgeting, and Baltimore is re-envisioning its budgetary practices based on Seattle’s model. Details of what to cut and where to reallocate should be determined at the local level.

In Chicago in the late 2000s, there were 121 “million-dollar blocks”—where taxpayers were spending more than $1 million per inner-city block to incarcerate residents for non-violent drug offenses. Other large cities had similar patterns of expenditure that tracked concentrated Black poverty. Black people use drugs at similar rates to white people. Such concentrated punitive spending is likely the result of aggressive policing in poor Black neighborhoods. This punitive investment paid dividends only to the companies that profit from incarceration. It was not premised on seeing nonviolent drug offenders as potential assets who could contribute to society if they could overcome addiction. Punitive approaches to drug use merely take the drug user out of the community, causing harm to children who need parents and to communities as a whole.

Even before the protests of this past summer, Black citizens in Milwaukee were outraged to learn that nearly half the city’s annual budget went to its police department. But this sparked change. The African American Roundtable and other community groups launched the “Liberate MKE” campaign in the summer of 2019, which surveyed 1,100 residents across the city about how they wanted their tax dollars to be allocated. Citizens identified three priorities: violence prevention not tied to policing, affordable housing and jobs for youth. They also wanted residents to be more empowered to influence city budgets, increased pay for city internships, more representation from historically underrepresented neighborhoods in those internships and a universal basic income (UBI) program. They proposed eliminating 60 police officer positions by not filling vacancies left by retirement to free up savings and stated an overall goal of moving $25 million from policing to community safety and health programs. The Covid-19 pandemic and George Floyd’s death added momentum to their demands. The campaign succeeded in persuading the City Council to approve an initial reallocation of $900,000 from policing to priorities citizens had identified. The City Council also authorized a UBI pilot.

The movement for Black Lives and other Black-led organizations have proposed additional policies and demanded transformation and repair in cities. Unfortunately, the controversial slogan “defund the police” was weaponized by Republicans in the 2020 election. But it makes sense to reallocate resources to services that can reduce crime and promote healing. New York City recently reallocated $1 billion from policing to mental health, homelessness and education services. Investments in evidence-based alternatives to policing can pay huge social returns. In 2014, researchers at the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the University of Pennsylvania found that a program that gave Black teens in high-violence neighborhoods a summer job and paired them with an adult mentor reduced arrests for violent crime by 43 percent.

In 2007, the city of Richmond, California, created an Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) and, three years later, a fellowship program that transformed the relatively few citizens in the city who were most likely to pull a trigger. With an initial allocation of $611,000 matched by private sources, ONS hired “change agents” to conduct outreach in the neighborhoods most beset by shootings, talking to all sides in a “beef” to defuse the situation and get them to stand down. Most change agents had a felony record and intimate knowledge of the codes of the street—effective prerequisites to doing a job that required building trust with hardened individuals and traumatized communities.

The change agents targeted those potentially most violent young actors, not to frisk or arrest them but to love them madly. If the young men agreed to refrain from “hunting,” as the workers put it, stay in daily contact and avoid trouble as much as possible, they could participate in an 18-month “Peacemaker Fellowship,” offering 24/7 support from assigned case managers and individually tailored “LifeMAPs” (Management Action Plans) that identified obstacles and how to overcome them, with specific goals like getting a GED or a driver’s license. Peacemaker Fellows also received cognitive behavioral therapy, navigation of social services available to them, substance abuse treatment if they needed it, connection to job training, internships and jobs, and the chance to travel—whether across town or to South Africa. Most innovatively, if they met goals from their LifeMap, addressed conflict in healthier ways and promoted community peace, they could also receive a stipend of as much as $1,000 a month for nine months. (Donations from partners like the Kaiser Foundation paid for the stipends.)

A peer-reviewed independent study facilitated by the School of Public Health at University of California, Berkeley, found that the Peacemaker Fellowship program was associated with a 55 percent annual reduction in gun-related deaths in Richmond. Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy conducted an independent analysis of the fellowship and conservatively estimated that the nominal cost of the program’s first five years produced more than $535 million in benefits to the city of Richmond due to costs avoided through violence reduction. Perhaps even more profound: Of the 127 fellows who had gone through the program by 2019, 122 were still alive, and the vast majority were no longer gun violence suspects. As sons, brothers and often fathers, individually and collectively they have helped to stop a spiral and begin a more virtuous cycle.

To date, more than 20 cities across the country have opened offices of violence prevention similar to ONS. In California, the cities of Sacramento and Stockton have created peacemaker fellowships, and both cities have begun to see reductions in gun-related homicides. America might not be ready to support a universal basic income for all who need it. But at the local level, it is already a reality in some places, including Stockton. Evidence from UBI programs in other countries suggests they can increase happiness, health, school attendance and trust in social institutions, and reduce crime.

The list goes on. Lawrence, Massachusetts made bus lines from its poorest neighborhoods free. Other cities from Olympia, Washington, to Kansas City, Missouri, to Boston have also created free routes for the carless people who must take the early bus to get to work. Forty acres for each newly freed individual was beyond the political will of the United States in 1865, but today housing activists are demanding collective ownership strategies to solve homelessness and the crisis of affordable housing.

Biden and Harris promised to be partners to all Americans and communities to rebuild America—and make it better. With a new lens for seeing racism and commitment to redressing it, the ascendant coalition that powered them into office can help them do just that.

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