Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Transformative federal action on equity, caregiving reimagined, how Mississippi became a leader in vaccinating Black residents, and more, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 47. April 14, 2021

How the White House Wins on Equity

By Tracey Ross

Transforming the federal government requires leaders to intentionally incorporate equity into every decision they make and consider how every policy — past and present — impacts a multiracial democracy. Having worked closely with the Biden-Harris transition team to advance our Racial Equity Governing Agenda, PolicyLink was encouraged that the President’s Day One executive order on racial equity captured many of our priorities, including conducting an equity assessment of federal agencies, ensuring the equitable delivery of resources, and improving the quality of data to support equitable policymaking. But that was always meant to be a first step. 

As we approach the 100-Day mark of the Biden presidency, PolicyLink hosted a convening of leading equity advocates and administration officials on how the executive order to advance equity throughout the federal government can catalyze progress across the country. The panelists presented to hundreds of staff across the administration on how equity is both a moral and economic imperative and how investing in communities with the greatest needs will benefit all. Chief equity officers shared lessons learned in working to advance equity through local government.

The unprecedented participation of the White House in a convening focused solely on the need for equity underscored the administration’s commitment to this work. It also demonstrated the strides our movement has made over the past decade. 

Speakers emphasized the urgency of this moment of overlapping crises in health, jobs, housing, and deadly racial injustice. And they spoke of the need to get policy right the first time.

“We never really look at those who are most marginalized to begin with...understanding their lived experience,” explained Anne Price, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. “And therefore, the policy never goes far enough. And then once again, we’re back to the drawing board trying to do something to repair it.”

Vilissa Thompson, founder of Ramp Your Voice, expressed the hopes of many equity leaders, in this advice to the administration: “Instead of talking about it, just do. Do the work. Do what’s needed.”

The forthcoming infrastructure package, known as the American Jobs Plan, offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the government to do what’s needed — achieve structural transformation in this country. Decades of discriminatory planning and infrastructure policies have deprived Black and Brown people of opportunity, exposed far too many people to toxins, and shaved decades off average life expectancies for people of color. 

In short, our infrastructure is the physical landscape of inequity.

The plan presents an opportunity to reimagine the nation’s infrastructure in ways that transform communities, reduce racial and economic inequality, and usher in a climate-safe future. Investments in community transit, broadband, housing, green technology, and even the care economy will help communities thrive. However, if the policies or their implementation fail to properly center racial equity, the plan will simply reinforce, or even worsen, persistent disparities. 

That nearly happened when a light rail project was announced in 2006 to connect the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The project was guided by federal funding requirements for a cost-effective approach, favoring fewer stops and longer trips. However, due to persistent segregation, these requirements benefited higher-income commuters who were predominantly White and completely bypassed three of the lowest-income, most diverse, and most transit-reliant neighborhoods.

Residents organized a “Stops for Us” campaign to ensure the new transit line provided them with service. One of their rallying cries was “We don’t want another Rondo!” — a reference to the 1960s freeway that cut through Rondo, a largely African American community in St. Paul, displacing thousands of residents and small businesses. 

After four years of organizing and advocacy, the campaign not only secured the three stops, but also prompted the Obama administration to change its funding formula and consider new measures for how a transit project will benefit a community. 

This is why equity is so important. Biden’s infrastructure package will be successful if equity informs how the federal government designs, targets, and funds its programs. For example, socioeconomic data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and income should inform how resources are distributed. And the government must make sure that projects deliver jobs to those same communities through targeted hiring and inclusive contracting that helps grow and sustain local and minority-owned businesses. 

When smart, sustainable strategies are tailored to the needs of those who’ve been excluded, our communities and our economy become stronger for everyone.

The convening offered hope that the administration understands what’s at stake. “We hear you in the federal government and we will take lessons from today to heart in our work,” Catherine Lhamon, Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council for Racial Justice & Equity, told the gathering. “We are committed — I am committed —- to urgent action that is effective and responsive. That is our charge.” Now federal leaders must seize every opportunity to embed equity in their decision making, continue to work in partnership with the equity movement, and remain steadfast in doing the work.

Tracey Ross is the Director of Federal Policy and Narrative Change at PolicyLink.

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

Let's think big

PolicyLink President and CEO Michael McAfee testified before the House Financial Services Committee today about the need to center equity in all infrastructure policy decisions. He told the hearing on Build Back Better: Investing in Equitable and Affordable Housing Infrastructure that our nation is at a crossroads: if we fail to invest in housing and financial infrastructure, we will forfeit the opportunity to significantly improve the lives of the millions of people living in or near poverty. It's time to think big: an equitable, prosperous nation for all can be achieved only when our policymaking is commensurate with the scale of the challenges facing our society. Listen to his full testimony

The caregiving revolution

The American Jobs Plan is a groundbreaking acknowledgment that caregiving is a fundamental part of national infrastructure — as important to growth and prosperity as roads, trains, and bridges. And that is key to equitable economic recovery, because the plan would lift the floor for a workforce composed largely of Black, Brown, and immigrant women, and because caregiving creates twice as many jobs per dollar invested than traditional infrastructure projects, Ann O’Leary and Julie Kashen write on The Century Foundation blog. 

But while Biden’s plan boldly lifts up the value of home care for seniors, it omits the comprehensive childcare investments he promised during the campaign, Fast Company reports. The plan provides a much-needed $25 billion to build and upgrade childcare facilities, but not free, universal preschool; affordable and accessible infant care; or pay hikes for childcare workers. Such investments are critical for improving the nation’s childcare patchwork, expanding crucial early-education opportunities in low-income communities and communities of color, and allowing millions of women to return to work after leaving during the pandemic to care for their kids.

To learn about  #CareCantWait, a vibrant national campaign to make universal access to childcare, paid family and medical leave, and home and community-based services a centerpiece of economic recovery, check out the latest episode of the Radical Imagination podcast. Host Angela Glover Blackwell talks with Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and caregiver and community advocate Michelle Morton.

Innovations for a disrupted economy

The economic upheavals of the past year have inspired a wave of innovation, and thrust ideas that were once dismissed as too radical — if they were considered at all — into the economic and policy mainstream. For example, the threat of mass evictions offers an opportunity for major expansion of social housing, Gianpaolo Baiocchi and H. Jacob Carlson write in the New York Times. The 2008 foreclosure crisis resulted, disastrously, in a huge transfer of wealth and property from families and communities to Wall Street portfolios. To prevent a repeat of that history, the writers propose the creation of a federal Social Housing Development Authority. It could buy distressed real estate, make sure it is livable and environmentally sound, and finance its transfer to tenant cooperatives, community land trusts, nonprofits, or public housing.

Bold action on housing can’t come soon enough: the Texas state court system has signaled it will no longer enforce a federal anti-eviction order, NPR reports. That could allow landlords to proceed with tens of thousands of eviction cases — just as renters are about to receive the housing aid recently approved by Congress.

Another innovation comes from a new cross-sector collaborative, Path to 15|55. It is galvanizing government agencies, nonprofits, banks, and investors to grow Black businesses. Inspired by research showing that if 15 percent of Black-owned businesses hire one more employee, it would boost the economy by $55 billion, the initiative aims to create 600,000 jobs. PolicyLink is a partner.

And New York State has established a $2.1 billion fund for undocumented workers, the largest relief package of its kind, the New York Times reports. The pandemic has had a ferocious impact on their health livelihoods, but they have been excluded from federal pandemic aid and other lifelines. Undocumented immigrants who can prove they were state residents last year, lost income as a result of the pandemic, and were ineligible for federal unemployment benefits could receive up to $15,600. Those who lack sufficient proof of work could get up to $3,200. As many as 290,000 people may benefit.

But the benefit tiers and the “burdensome paradox” of requiring undocumented people to show documentation of employment and residency may pose insurmountable barriers to many people who are otherwise eligible for the money, The Intercept writes.  

Creation of the fund followed months of organizing and advocacy and a hunger strike, “Fast for the Forgotten,” by street vendors, food deliverers, and restaurant workers in Manhattan, according to The Counter.

A step toward anti-racist health policy?

For the first time, a top federal official has declared what equity advocates have been saying for years: racism is a “serious public health threat.” You can read the statement here, by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, a prominent health equity scholar and advocate, tells NPR why the announcement is a big deal.  “First, you have to name racism because if you never name it, in our widespread culture of racism denial, then you're complicit with the denial... I think, yes, the Biden administration has made the first step and is moving toward action.”

A new CDC web portal, Racism and Health, is a hub for research, commentary, and action on the issue.

The encouraging CDC move comes as disturbing new data show the pandemic is even more devastating to people of color than we’ve realized. While CDC data show the Covid death rate among Latinx people is 2.3 times higher than among Whites, a new study focused on Californians of working age reveals a much wider disparity. Latinx immigrants ages 20 to 54 were 11.6 times more likely to die of COVID, compared with non-Latinx, US-born Californians of the same age, researchers at the University of Southern California reported. Working-age Latinx people from any birthplace were 8.5 times more likely to die than their White peers.

Another analysis, by KQED and Columbia University, finds that Latinx people account for nearly three-quarters of Covid deaths among Californians ages 35-49.

The deaths of so many working-age adults is leaving a staggering number of children behind. “It’s gut wrenching,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez tells KQED. “The repercussions of COVID-19 are going to be impacting our families for the rest of their lives.”

An estimated 37,000 to 43,000 children nationwide have lost a parent to Covid, CNN reports. Black children make up 14 percent of the US population under age 18 but 20 percent of those who have suffered such a loss.

The CDC reports that the wide racial gap in Covid cases among children and young adults, evident early in the pandemic, has shrunk — but it has not vanished. People under 25 who are Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (NH/PI), American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN), and Latinx experience the most persistent disparities.

How Mississippi became a leader in vaccine equity

After a vaccine rollout that severely shorted Black Mississippians, even though they bore the heaviest burden of coronavirus infections and deaths, the state now performs better than 42 others in getting shots into the arms of Black residents, Mississippi Today reports. “The efforts responsible for this progress towards vaccine equity have come overwhelmingly from the community level.” Black doctors, faith leaders, and organizers got vaccinated at highly publicized events and pushed the state health department to implement solutions, including distributing doses to churches and doctors’ offices in Black communities.

As tribes race to get their members vaccinated, the Washington Post looks at the history of medical abuse and unethical experimentation on Native Americans, which leaves some wary about Covid shots. An especially salient episode is the The Indian Vaccination Act, passed by the US Congress in 1832. It allocated federal funds to vaccinate Native Americans against smallpox, not to protect their health but so they could be moved off their lands without infecting White Americans. 

Ending the pandemic will require vaccine equity on a global scale, but distribution so far is badly lopsided, according to a Bloomberg analysis of 726 million doses administered in 154 countries. The highest-income countries, which have 11 percent of the world’s population, have received 40 percent of vaccines. With just 4.3 percent of the global population, the US has 24 percent of the vaccinations.

Removing police from schools

As school districts reopen classrooms, a new survey of more than 600 students finds that two-thirds want police removed from the buildings, Philanthropy News Digest reports. A third said they felt targeted by police based on their race, primary language, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Nearly three-quarters of Black and Latinx students said they or someone they knew had experienced at least one negative interaction with school police, such as verbal harassment, physical restraint or assault,  arrest, citation, or being pepper-sprayed.

Movement for Black Lives (MB4L) has introduced the BREATHE Act to rid schools of police and use trained trauma interventionists and mental health experts to deal with an unarmed person having a psychological crisis. In an interview with Colorlines, Karissa Lewis, the national director of the MB4L, explains why the act, which is gaining traction, goes further than most police reform initiatives in advancing law enforcement accountability and improving safety in Black communities.

Navigating race as life gets back to normal

The return to a semblance of normal in schools raises a question: How to determine and address the impact of closures on reading and math skills? The Biden administration has told most states they should resume testing students to get a handle on “educational inequities'' that have been worsened by the pandemic. But some educators and advocates fear that all the talk about “learning loss,” especially among low-income children of color, will brand the rising generation as broken, when common-sense approaches can help students catch up, the New York Times reports

The reopening of workplaces may also be fraught. In a recent survey, only 3 percent of Black employees who were working at home during the pandemic wanted to go back to the office full-time, compared with 21 percent of White employees. Kevin Delaney of Reset Work interviews author Chad Sanders about the stresses of code switching in the office, how businesses fail Black workers, and ways to navigate racial dynamics on the job.

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.