Racial equity is a core value that drives our work as an organization and is at the center of how Local Progress members govern and support communities. In this work, we demand of ourselves the capacity to learn and undo the ways that our institutions and systems perpetuate inequality and oppression. For Black History month, as part of our ongoing commitment to addressing inequality as it exists today, we are sharing some painful highlights of current practices and their roots in systemic racism and racial oppression. In order to fundamentally change our policies and their consequences, we must face the true extent of systemic racism woven into our very existence.
We know that policing is state-sanctioned violence that disproportionately impacts the BIPOC community. Police – as an institution – originated with slave patrols in the late 1800s. The police departments that terrorize communities of color today originated with the purpose of terrorizing slaves and returning them to forced bondage. Although slavery was outlawed, institutions to police and oppress Black and Brown bodies found a new iteration for the current day.
Mass incarceration is another outcome of policing and policy that harms people of color. The War on Drugs was purported to be an effort to crack down on drug use; in reality, the harsh sentencing laws had a disproportionately devastating impact on communities of color. While drug use is consistent across races, Black and Latinos are far more likely to be criminalized. Today, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated individuals while only home to 5 percent of the world population.
The tipped minimum wage originated after the civil war when many freed slaves faced limited employment options and found themselves in menial positions including in the restaurant business. Employers declined to pay wages in lieu of a small tipped wage for service, and although that practice was outlawed in 1926, the tipped wage remained prominent. In 1938, federal law required a minimum wage that when combined with tips would add up to the federal minimum wage – today it is $2.13. Women, particularly women of color, are disproportionately impacted as they make up over 60% of all tipped occupations and 70% of servers in the restaurant industry.
Systemic racism and the impacts of segregation are visible in the design of our communities and neighborhoods. The construction of the federal interstate highway system devastated Black and brown communities and today separate and divide many once-thriving communities of color. Zoning policies resulted in environmental racism as poor communities of color were forced to live next to heavily polluted sites and waste processing plants. Finally, the practice of redlining effectively labeled neighborhoods with a high number of African American residents or ones nearby as too risky to insure mortgages. These maps resulted in neighborhood segregation, an inability for African Americans to secure loans and buy homes, and created a wealth gap that continues to this day.
Taxation and funding systems also bear the taint of systemic racism. After the Civil War, white supremicists shaped US fiscal policy, particularly in southern states. Those leaders cut property taxes and services, shifting the burden to poor people, who were disproportionately Black. The same leaders utilized convict leasing to help fund state budgets, instituted poll taxes to prevent Black people from voting, and established constitutional limits to state taxing authority. Public education is largely financed through local property taxes, impoverished communities have a weaker tax base and as a result, raise less revenue to fund public schools. As a result, predominantly white school districts receive $23 billion more in funding than districts with a majority of students of color.
Black and Brown communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, for many interrelated factors. However, one of them is the lack of hospital capacity in urban areas – particularly in communities of color. This was the result of an effort to control costs and increase efficiency in the 1970s that resulted in hospital closures and a lack of access to care – including sufficient ICU beds – in many poorer communities.
Voter suppression efforts are rampant, particularly in conservative states with high percentages of Black voters. While these policies are well documented, the nature of our system – the electoral college – stems from racialized roots in the ⅗ compromise favored by southern states over an option for a direct democracy.
What we are doing: Dare to Reimagine
The Dare to Reimagine framework is a commitment and a reflection of the tremendous work happening at the local level and our core values of equity and justice. We know that we cannot build a more equitable and just society by doing the same as we have always done. So many of our fights today – to reimagine the role of police in public safety, to ensure well-funded public schools for all children, to implement progressive taxation policies, to raise the minimum wage, and reduce long-standing segregation built into our neighborhoods – are in response to systemic racism and the cruel legacy of injustice in our country.
In localities across the country, local leaders are taking steps to address the long-standing outcomes of racist policies and institutions. In Milwaukee, county leaders declared racism a public health crisis and are working to dismantle structural racism inside and out and school leaders listened to students’ demand to move resources away from punitive policing measures and into resources and services. In Albany, a new commitment to health equity is driving investments in chronically underserved communities of color, and in Portland, civilian first responders now respond to crisis calls, providing care and services to those experiencing houselessness and mental or behavioral health crises while intentionally reducing the involvement of police.
In Minneapolis, community and local leaders committed to equity as part of their comprehensive plan update that will help modify the racist intent and impact of single family zoning. In Durham, an affordable housing bond will help ensure that lower-income residents can afford to stay in the city and thrive, even as rising rents and property prices threaten to displace them.
In Madison, a culture of worker cooperatives is helping people of color establish ownership in their place of employment and meet critical gaps in community need. In Boston, a small business relief fund is tackling decades of racism in the restaurant industry by eliminating the tipped minimum wage and raising wages across the board.
We can do more, highways can come down, reparations can be done, we can abolish the electoral college, we can eliminate police in schools, we can have more progressive equitable taxation policies. We can in essence, dare to reimagine a future whereby centering equity truly leads us to a place of equity and justice. We can dare to reimagine, together. Join us.