Covid, Race, and the Revolution

The White House opens the door to racial equity, celebrating Black futures and a new American narrative, the life-changing magic of guaranteed income, and more, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 38. February 3, 2021

Biden Pushes America to “Begin Again” on Racial Equity

President Joe Biden’s leadership on racial equity has the potential to build the government that our multiracial democracy demands and deserves. Centering racial equity is the only way to close the health and economic gaps that the Covid pandemic has exposed and accelerated, and pave the way toward a robust recovery for all.

In announcing his executive orders, the President declared racial equity to be the business of every government department, not a special office or task force. That stance is a historic acknowledgment that the way government now operates is not bias-free. Rather, government structures are based on beliefs, assumptions, and practices as old as this nation, that certain people have less value than others. Our systems and institutions are built atop centuries of racial hatred and economic exploitation, intentional or not. White supremacy is so deeply ingrained that many Americans can’t see it.

That is why it’s so important to interrogate our assumptions. By requiring government agencies to take a fresh look at their structures, America will be able to see where harm is being done. And we will finally learn how to stop it and design programs and a legal and regulatory framework that advance equity for all, especially the 100 million people in this country who are struggling to get by.

“It’s time to act because that’s what faith and morality calls us to do,” Biden said. 

Biden’s charge to conduct an equity assessment within federal agencies is the right next step. Learning to honestly and transparently assess the quality of our governing institutions, and developing unwavering resolve to take actions that quantifiably improve life outcomes, is how leaders must begin to hold themselves accountable to everyone in this country. The assessment is a critical step toward the deeper, transformative, long-overdue work: remaking our governing institutions so they are capable of serving the all in our definition of equity — just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.

Ultimately, the federal government must prioritize liberation for all, and Biden has set that as the new standard. 

We need a Department of Housing and Urban Development that views social housing as a right for all people, not an act of charity (and a stingy one at that) toward the very poor.

We need an Interior Department that treats tribes and Indigenous peoples with the authority, respect, consultation, and dignity their sovereignty and our treaties require. 

We need a Department of Transportation that takes responsibility for the racist origins of the nation’s highway and transit systems and acts boldly to remake them as vehicles of equity.

And the list goes on.

President Biden has called for “unity” as he pushes the nation forward. That may strike some as naive in today’s heated political climate. But make no mistake: the President and his team have delivered a radical message. Unity does not mean compromise. Equity will not be subject to back-room trades and deals by self-serving lawmakers. The call for unity is a challenge to civil society, corporate America, and officials at all levels of government. 

This is the moment to support the administration’s leadership, contribute to progress on equity, and join in the exhilarating work of creating a nation that finally delivers on its promise of liberty and justice for all.

In his final novel, Just Above My Head, James Baldwin wrote about the moral power of refusing to allow the broken status quo to continue. “Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.”

Biden’s first steps on racial equity give us the chance to begin again. The work ahead will be long and difficult, but it is necessary to build a government worthy of the rising America.

Michael McAfee is President and CEO of PolicyLink.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

Black futures and a new American narrative

The Movement for Black Lives  is taking a visionary, forward-looking  approach to the celebrations of Blackness in February, using the month to lift up Black radical history and imagine a world of Black liberation. Black Futures Month will showcase artists and activists telling stories that reflect the boundless offerings of our communities and new possibilities of what it means to be human and live in a free, just, and equitable society.

Media 2070, an ambitious new project conceived by media makers and organizers, is dreaming up how to radically transform who has the capital to tell America’s stories. During last year’s racial protests, journalists of color at leading newsrooms confronted their bosses and demanded an end to racist practices internally and in coverage, the Columbia Journalism Review reports. Many newsrooms responded with apologies, an important step to accountability. But how can news companies that reaped riches by serving and defending white supremacy for centuries — starting by selling ads for slaves — repair the harms? Activists are calling for investments and policies that support new, authentic voices to create the narrative of America’s multiracial future.

The life-changing magic of guaranteed income

The pandemic’s economic devastation has brought new attention to an old idea: guaranteed income. Dr. Aisha Nyandoro reports on the results of Magnolia Mother’s Trust, a philanthropy-funded guaranteed income pilot for low-income Black women in Jackson, Mississippi. Participants received $1,000 a month, no strings attached, for a year. They showed major improvements in many areas of their lives, including completing high school equivalency education, paying off predatory debt, and increasing opportunities to provide healthier food for their children, Nyandoro, the project’s founder, writes on Shondaland.  “For those who have had the opportunity to take part in the program, it has been nothing short of life-changing. But there is only so much that can be done using philanthropy. To get beyond a drop in the bucket, we must achieve action at the government level.”

Eviction bans are not enough

Millions of people who are falling behind on rent may be spared temporarily from eviction by federal, state, and local bans, but they face escalating financial burdens that could ruin their credit and undermine their economic security for years, the Los Angeles Times reports. The rent squeeze threatens low-income people, especially, in myriad ways. Some rely on high-interest loans and credit cards to make rent payments, running up expensive debt. Others will eventually be slapped with big bills for back rent, leaving them vulnerable to eviction, wage garnishment, and bad credit scores — all of which make it difficult to find new housing, obtain loans for education or business, or even land a job.

Fixing inequities in vaccine distribution

The Covid-19 vaccine rollout has been a case study in inequity. In cities across the country, Latinx and Black residents have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s health and economic impacts, but the vaccine is going mostly into White arms, the New York Times reports

Latinx residents make up roughly 29 percent of New York’s City’s population but only 15 percent of nearly 300,000 residents who received the first vaccine dose and whose race was recorded. Twenty-four percent of the city’s population, but only 11 percent of the vaccine recipients, were Black.

A vaccine center set up at a sprawling Civil War-era military facility in a predominantly Latinx Manhattan neighborhood, Washington Heights, was inundated by White people from outside the community, CNN reports. While Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed outrage, cumbersome, overwhelmed appointment systems — almost all web-based — effectively keep out all but the most tech-savvy and connected people with time on their hands to keep checking for new appointments. Going forward, the facility will reserve most appointments for area residents.

Early data from Los Angeles County show that health-care workers who live in South LA, home to large populations of Black and Latinx residents, are getting vaccinated at lower rates than their counterparts in other neighborhoods, the Los Angeles Times reports. Kaiser Health News writes that the location of vaccine centers, the reliance on large medical centers and chain pharmacies, and the complicated appointment systems pose almost impenetrable barriers for Black and Latinx elders, seniors who are not native English speakers, and those who are frail, seriously ill, homebound, or have vision or hearing challenges.

Amid growing concerns about vaccine access, a Covid-19 advisory committee to the governor of Oregon considered whether to explicitly prioritize people of color in the next round of shots, but decided against it because of concerns that a race-based ranking would run into legal problems. “Our system is not yet prepared to center on and reveal the truth of structural racism and how it plays out,” said Kelly Gonzales, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who sits on the advisory panel, told the Associated Press.

Without race-based approaches, how can cities bring equity to vaccine distribution? Baltimore is sending health workers door-to-door in housing complexes with lots of low-income seniors, offering shots on the spot. Washington, DC, is reserving the first day of new vaccine appointments for people in zip codes with the highest rates of coronavirus infection and death and has greatly expanded a call center to help people make appointments.

But in an op-ed in the Washington Post, two prominent health equity researchers argue that explicitly prioritizing Black Americans is the first step toward fixing the equity issues. The idea that categories like “essential workers” and “people with underlying medical conditions” would serve as a proxy for people of color, and sidestep the need for a targeted strategy, has not panned out; Black people are underserved even within priority groups such as health-care workers and nursing home residents, write Uché Blackstock and Oni Blackstock. 

They outline three additional steps to boost vaccination rates in the hardest- hit group: Bring the vaccine to Black communities, prioritize residents for appointments, and make them simple to get. Launch an expansive nationwide public health campaign, providing information through trusted messengers in clear, culturally responsive terms. And mandate the collection of complete racial, ethnic, and zip code data on people who are vaccinated, to help target public health efforts where they are needed most. 

Please share with your networks and send your ideas and feedback. And follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. #COVIDandRace

We hope you find this series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.