Health care and job creation are important, but Obama must address racism

A racially conscious approach to lawmaking is essential to rooting out institutional racism.

Will President Obama pull it all off? That’s the question everyone seems to be asking as they wait to see if the Obama administration can deliver on everything from healthcare reform to job creation.

As the media focuses on Senate votes and market debacles, though, there is a larger issue that threatens to rip the country apart. That issue is race.

Nearly two years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama acknowledged the urgency behind confronting our racial divide when he said, “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.”

So let's address it.

Societal shifts in attitude on race and the presence of institutional racism embedded in our laws are an ever-present challenge for elected officials.

Right now the current unofficial policy of colorblindness ignores the issue. But what if racial equity was a standard for government effectiveness?

The findings of a recent report by my organization, the Applied Research Center, and our partners in eight states indicate the importance of racial equity across the board.

The findings illustrate how a racially conscious approach to lawmaking is essential to rooting out institutional racism. Taking equity into account means addressing the causes of inequality and racially disparate outcomes.

We found that when elected officials consciously considered the effects of policy proposals and budget measures mindful of racial issues, they increased the state’s ability to address racial disparities and prevent unintended consequences that harm whole communities.

The results of the study countered the theory that colorblindness is the best policy when it comes to addressing race issues in politics.

Thus, racial equity should be a standard for measuring government effectiveness. It rightly redirects the focus of legislation from political intent to an explicit evaluation of the impact of laws on communities of color.

In Nevada, where high-interest home loans were concentrated in black, Latino, and native American communities, the state passed a law that delays the eviction of foreclosed homeowners until the completion of mediation.

Washington state legislators funded a community healthcare program where 61 percent of recipients were from communities of color.

In Denver, graduation rates for blacks and Latinos are 47 and 38 percent respectively. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. signed a bill that provides technical assistance to high-needs school districts serving black and Latino communities.

In each case we can see how solutions were applied to address the greatest need and where the potential outcome could undo disparities. That’s what racial equity is about.

Of course it’s a fine line when making such decisions. Sometimes lawmakers may, intentionally or not, reinforce institutional racism and aggravate existing racial inequities.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for example, bypassed legislative consent via his allotment and line-item veto powers to cut funding to General Assistance Medical Care, Renters Credit programs, and state aid to local municipalities, all of which disproportionately serve the state’s native, Latino, black, and immigrant communities.

In California, where communities of color make up the majority of the population, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a $2.9 billion cut to health and human services, and the complete elimination of cash assistance and the state’s welfare program.

To be sure, when lawmakers take racial equity into account, they cannot be guided by the politics of scarcity.

If laws and budgets are an expression of society’s values, then the values of fairness and justice should be paramount. That means not passing regressive sales taxes that hit communities of color and the poor the hardest. Or relying on limited middle-income tax deductions and credits, which do little or nothing for our communities that face unemployment at rates above the general population.

If we believe the rhetoric of politicians who say everyone has to tighten their belt in these tough times, this should mean not leaving multibillion-dollar corporations out of the equation. In California, this would mean requiring elected officials to have the fortitude to mandate that companies like Wal-Mart pay their fair share of property taxes.

Earlier this year, Oregon voters agreed to increase corporate taxes on those making $125,000 or more. Through a proposed Fair Share Tax reform, New York State could add $6 billion in revenue for healthcare, education, and the desperately needed safety net.

This is money that is urgently needed to pay for quality healthcare, schools, and services that benefit all of us. And for communities of color it would represent a shift away from societal disinvestment to commitment to fairness.

Racial equity is about putting our values into the laws themselves. It recognizes that every complex society has a history, media, and culture that shape ideas and policies that are not necessarily fair to everyone. And this is not just about fairness for blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other communities of color.

Racial equity is ultimately about creating a society where we are not pitted against one another because everyone gets their needs met. It is a concept that every elected official from city councilwoman to the president should remember as they balance budgets and levy taxes.

Tammy Johnson is director of Strategic Partnerships at Applied Research Center. She is author of “Racing the Statehouse: Advancing Equitable Policies” and five editions of the California Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity.


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