Any policy agenda that tackles systemic problems that disproportionately disadvantage Blacks in America will benefit the entire country, according to elected officials and scholars who kicked off Black History Month Monday with an online discussion of reforms to close race-based socioeconomic gaps.

Brookings Institution’s “Setting a policy agenda for Black Americans” focused on opportunity and justice — with suggestions that include police and criminal justice reform, more education and employment opportunities, improved access to health care, fairer lending practices, potential reparations, and other policy changes that target reducing significant and systemic disadvantages faced by minorities, particularly Black Americans.

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“Only through an inclusive public policy agenda ... can we truly begin to remediate the many issues impacting the Black community today, but also the deeply rooted causal factors that allow systemic racism and the inequity to continue to exist throughout America more broadly,” said John Allen, Brookings Institution president.

“Our decision to name the collective topics of race, justice and equity as a new institutional priority was driven by this most fervent belief and our commitment,” he said.

Reforms at different levels of government are already underway, according to the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, and Frank Scott Jr., the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas. The latter heralded a growing sense of “not only optimism, but hope and decency and a spirit of unity, with understanding that you also have to have accountability.”

There’s a lot to do, according to the speakers, who noted inequality in both situations and opportunities for Black Americans. Among them:

  • Unemployment is almost double for Black Americans, with between 1 in 8 and 1 in 10 adults unable to find work.

“We know Black and brown people are oftentimes the last hired and the first fired,” Beatty said.

  • Lack of home ownership, difficulty finding a place that’s affordable to rent and food insecurity is common for Blacks, Beatty said.
  • At least 700,000 adults leave prisons each year and face challenges finding employment. A disproportionate share are Black, said Brooking’s Makada Henry-Nickie.
  • Black women are up to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
  • Black men and women have very different issues, but what happens to the men often leaves the women as the family’s sole earner, said Camille Busette, another Brookings scholar. They make 56 cents on the dollar compared to white men.
  • Education is “not the great equalizer,” said Rashawn Ray, a Brookings scholar in governance studies, who noted that white college graduates far outearn Black college graduates.

Solutions to social and justice inequality are not simple, said Busette. “I actually think we are at the very beginning of a very long and probably torturous conversation here in the U.S.”

Julius Rowe Jr., 4, joins thousands to protest racism, police brutality and the killing of George Floyd near the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 4, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Drilling down

Scott said Little Rock has deliberately targeted communities that need help. Over the next five years, the city will invest $5 million a year in diverse low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and has created incentive packages to bring more development to those areas. Besides also helping minority small-business owners find lenders who will work with them, the city created a “field academy” to provide financial training and technical assistance to help those business owners make sound business decisions.

Something lacking in many stressed communities nationwide is access to Community Development Financial Institutions Fund resources, designed to revitalize distressed communities with both funding and educational help. That’s a resource Scott said can be leveraged.

The war on drugs and systemic institutional effects of sentencing have created “a number of Black men who are in need of a second and a third chance,” said Scott. But criminal history can make those chances hard to find a job, worsening the problem and keeping people unemployed. “Little Rock has joined communities that have ‘banned the box’ in hiring practices. Someone filling out an application does not have to check a box indicating a felony conviction; it can be asked about when a job is offered. That helps people get in the door of jobs and gives them a chance to work and thrive.

One approach to high unemployment is recognizing that not everyone will graduate from college — and not all jobs require a degree, Beatty said. People need access to college, yes, but also apprenticeships and other ways to train for jobs.

Scott is a former banker and commercial lender who said his city’s approach has been “very intentional” in bolstering owners of small and diverse businesses, including offering $5,000 loans in the pandemic.

The technical assistance provided to such businesses, coupled with money from the city’s venture fund has sometimes provided startup capital that folks would not be able to get from a bank or more traditional lending source. The city used $3 million from the Community Reinvestment Act for businesses located in those low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Within a few years, those businesses should be able to take their new technical knowledge, build on the funds and become “bankable,” he said, adding the intentional approach helps the entire community.

Grace Cunningham, center, takes a knee with other protesters denouncing racism and police brutality outside the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Chasing justice

Little Rock has a citizens review board that tackles concerns with community policing and gives feedback to the chief of police. Because justice reforms were well underway before George Floyd was killed by an officer in Minnesota last year, sparking nationwide protests, Scott said his city “largely remained very civil during the unrest.”

The city severely curtails the use of no-knock warrants, too, he said.

Congress is tackling or has already acted on police reforms from no-knock warrant use to chokehold use, limits on qualified immunity that protects police and whether an officer can take another job without disclosing negative information in their work file, the congresswoman said.

Progress takes time, she noted, calling the progress made by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others for civil rights “a lesson in perseverance.”

Catching up

All eight speakers favor reparation in some form. Beatty supports reparations but believes it has to be done right and should be studied to determine how funds will be used.

“I am not always in favor of the answer being a study,” Beatty said, “but I think we need a study and a task force because you will find leaders are in very different places ... even in defining what reparations means.”

The question of how to pay for reparations is a looming one, according to Scott.

Brookings senior fellow Andre M. Perry said Americans in general may have a more firsthand understanding of reparations after suffering in the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them agreed with reparations in the form of stimulus and financial aid when businesses shut down because of social distancing. Businesses were crying, “Where’s the relief?” he said, prompting a federal response. “My question has been, what does relief look like to a population that has been socially distanced for generations?”

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More people also recognize the wealth gap now, he added. “They’re becoming much more educated on the systemic devaluation and exclusion of Black people from wealth-building opportunities.”

Maternal health is at the top of Beatty’s list of health care concerns. But health is an area of great overlaps in challenges, including food insecurity, access to appropriate care, and a need for more health-related education and awareness.

With lots of data available on so many issues related to racial and social inequality, Busette said the metrics she’d focus on first to close gaps and improve lives would be the very low labor participation and what causes it for Black men. She’d focus on maternal health and maternal mortality for Black women.

“These are the canaries in the coal mine,” she said. “Focus on those and try to get those statistics where they should be and you will uncover a host of opportunities to do other things in other systems.”

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