Racial “Reckoning” (Via Zoom)

By John O. Harney

Even in this time when people presume to be having a “racial reckoning,” signs of enduring racial inequity pop up everywhere. From nagging disparities in health—Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) die at higher rates than other groups from COVID-19 and are underrepresented in medical research (except in vile experiments such as the Tuskegee study) … to the steep declines in Black and Latino students submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) … to Black food service workers experiencing disproportionate short-tipping for enforcing social distancing rules … inequality reigns. These persistent forces should be a big deal for New England’s Historically White Colleges and Universities, which are rarely called out as HWCUs.

Some help is on the way. Beside targeting $128.6 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, $39.6 billion to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, $39 billion for childcare and $1 billion for Head Start, the new $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan does other less visible things to begin to address structural racism. For example, the package provides Black farmers with debt relief and help acquiring land. Black farmers lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, attributed to systemic racism and inequitable access to markets.

This mention of aid to Black farmers reminded me of something I heard Chuck Collins say at a webinar convened last month by MIT’s Sloan School of Management via Zoom titled The Inclusive Innovation Economy: Amplifying Our Voices Through Public Policy. (I’ve been trying to monitor the racial equity conversation mostly via Zoom since the pandemic began.)

Collins is the director of inequality and the common good at the Institute for Policy Studies and a white man. He told of his uncle getting a 1% fixed-rate mortgage in 1949 to buy an Ohio farm—a public investment that led his cousins to get on “America’s wealth-building train.” Black and Brown people did not get the same benefits. Collins suggested that systems such as CARES relief should be examined with a racial-equity lens, as should policies such as raising the minimum wage or forgiving student loans. Unquestionably, Black students struggle more than whites with student debt. But with Capitol Hill debating the right amount of debt to forgive, Collins suggested we need to test how well these changes would affect racial inequity.

Dynastic wealth

Noting that we’re living through an updraft of “dynastic wealth,” Collins asked why the U.S. taxes work income higher than capital income. He pointed out that “50 families in the U.S. that are now in their third generation of billionaires coming online and that represents a sort of Democracy-distorting and market-distorting concentration of wealth and power.”

That distortion could be partly cushioned with a “dignity floor,” said Collins. “It’s not a coincidence that a society like Denmark has much higher rates of entrepreneurship than the U.S. per capita because they have a social safety net and because they have social investments that create a decency floor through which people cannot all. So if you want to start a business, you know you can take that leap and not end up living in your car.”

We need to disrupt the narrative of “everyone is where they deserve to be,” said Collins. So many entrepreneurs tell their story from the standpoint of I did this. We need to talk about the web of supports and multigenerational advantages behind their ability to take the step they took.


An audience member asked if a bridge could be built to connect the rich and poor. To this, one of the conversation moderators, Sloan School Lecturer and former chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank Malia Lazu, quipped that in the U.S., there’s another dimension: The sides of the bridge are “color-coded.”

Lazu and co-moderator Fiona Murray, associate dean for innovation and inclusion at Sloan, agreed that ironically this is how the policies were designed to work. That’s why we need to change the way the systems are wired.

It’s not that Black people are less likely to get loans from banks, but that banks are less likely to give loans to Black people, explained Color of Change President Rashad Robinson. Shifting the subject that way, he said, has led to remedies like financial literacy programs for Black people, rather than changes in the policies of big banks.

Color of Change was formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which, like COVID-19, disproportionately hurt Black and Brown people. Narrative is not static, Robinson said, reminding the audience of what people might have unabashedly said in the workplace about LGBT people just 15 years ago.

Moreover, budgets are “moral documents,” Robinson pointed out. So if you say you’re going to prosecute more corruption crimes than street crime, that has to be reflected in budgets. People of color are not vulnerable, they’ve been targeted, added Robinson, who is working on a report that will look at not only Black pain, but also Black joy and how BIPOC are portrayed in stories on TV.

An audience questioner asked which policies actually embed structural racism. Lazu pointed to the Constitution’s original clause declaring that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual. For a more modern example, Robinson noted minimum wage laws that exclude certain kinds of work, originally farm workers and domestic workers, now work usually done by people of color and women. Structural racism is rooted in how our economy is designed, said Robinson. “An equity focus means we’re not just trying to undo harm but we’re trying to create systems and structures that actually move us forward.”

Afraid to bring children into the world

Also last month, the Boston Social Venture Partners convened a Zoom webinar with affiliates in San Antonio and Denver to discuss how nonprofit leaders have struggled to implement strategies that funders require for diversity, equity and inclusion.

The conversation was moderated by Michael Smith, executive director of the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance based in Washington, D.C. The alliance was created in 2014 in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin and aimed at addressing opportunity gaps. It works today against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and resulting school closures, an economic downturn and police violence in communities of color.

Another Obama fellow, Charles Daniels, the executive director of Boston-based Father’s Uplift, explained: “We have a shortage of clinicians of color in this country—sound, qualified  therapists who are able to provide that necessary guidance,” he said. “One of the main requests of single mothers bringing their children to us or fathers entering our agency is that they want a clinician of color, someone who looks like them,” he said. “There are conversations they don’t know necessarily how to have with their loved ones about racism, about oppression, about maintaining their dignity and self-respect.”

Daniels noted that constituents are grappling with what to tell sons about getting pulled over by the police and daughters about what their school may say about hairstyles. “These are conversations that people of color dread this day and age. They wake up trying to parent their inner child and also parent the child who they brought into this world.” He notes that some constituents are actually afraid of having children for these reasons.

A young Black man told Daniels that if he had a choice to be white, he would take it: “I wouldn’t have to worry about my life every time I go to school,” the child suggested, or “an administrator being on my back in school because she’s assuming I’m not doing my work because I don’t care as opposed to me not being able to feed my stomach because I’m hungry.” Daniels said these are real-life situations that young men and single mothers struggle with on a daily basis.

When the federal government recently sent relief stipends, many men of color were left out for not paying child support as if they just didn’t want to pay, when the real reason was they couldn’t afford it.

Growing up as a person of color, you’re taught that you have to be near perfect. You can’t get away with things other populations can, said Daniels. He added: “If someone of color who you’re vetting sends an email with an error, it doesn’t mean they’re incompetent; it probably means they’re doing more than one thing or wearing two hats.” He said he likes funders who offer technical support, as well as authentic conversation, and who don’t avoid the word “racism.”

Giant triplets

Meanwhile, the Quincy Institute, led by former army colonel and noted critic of the Iraq War-turned Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, held a virtual “Emergency Summit” of public intellectuals to reflect on America Besieged by Racism, Materialism and Militarism—the “giant triplets” identified by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.”

Against the backdrop of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Bacevich began by asking the panelists how those triplets continue to threaten democracy.

One panelist, New York Times contributing writer Peter Beinart noted that one of the triplets, materialism, while an enormous cultural problem, might not rank as one of the three main ones today because, unlike in the 1960s when people assumed American living standards would be going up, many today suffer from a lack of materialism and hold very little hope that their situations will improve.

Militarism and racism, however, do persist. As a foreign policy term, however, “militarist” has been replaced by euphemisms such as “muscular” or “tough-minded.” But militarism is plain to see in the degree to which domestic policing has been affected by military equipment, and veterans return home without decent healthcare. (As an aside, the military has been lauded for well-run coronavirus vaccine sites while the civilian counterparts are often cast as failures. Asked why this is on a recent television news show, Alex Pareene, a staff writer for The New Republic, offered a simple explanation: The U.S. has never disinvested in the military.)

One panelist, Rev. Liz Theoharis, who is co-chair with Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, said she would add to King’s triplets, two more demons: ecological devastation and emboldened religious nationalism evidenced on Jan. 6.

Regarding militarism, Theoharis noted that while there’s no military draft per se, there is a “poverty draft” because for many young people, it’s the only way to put food on their table and get an education. Yet, they come home to a lack of opportunity. The majority of single male adults that are homeless in our society are veterans. The military system is “not about the ideals of a democracy and opportunity and possibility and freedom for all, it’s sending poor people, Black people and Latino people to go and fight and kill poor people in other parts of the world,” she said, noting that the U.S. has military bases in more than 800 places. The coronavirus threat has spread in the fissures that we faced before in terms of racism and inequality, which were already claiming lives before the pandemic.

Neta C. Crawford, a professor and chair of political science at Boston University, said democracy is the antidote to militarism, extreme materialism and racism. Members of Congress are tightly connected to military bases and defense contractors in their districts based on the belief that the military-industrial complex creates good jobs. Crawford said we need to break this misconception with solid analysis that shows military spending actually produces fewer jobs and what we could be doing instead.

Daniel McCarthy, editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review and editor-at-large of The American Conservative, noted the irony that U.S. military adventures abroad are framed as antiracist. When he opposed the Iraq War, he was accused of being against Arab democracy and therefore racist. He lamented that we need to find something for the part of industrial America that has been declining, not necessarily related to militarism but to make things that people want to buy.

Justice and belonging in New England

This webinar surfing spree came as NEBHE renewed its focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. The terms “justice” and “belonging” are sometimes also added to the collection of values that used to be disparaged as so much p.c. Moreover, “diversity” is not enough on its own because, as one New England college president recently told his colleagues, people can feel welcomed but also disadvantaged. NEBHE has also looked at the concept of “reparative” justice as a way to recognize that fighting racial oppression should not be responsive to specific past wrongs, but rather, driven by the understanding that the past, present and future exist together.

To be sure, New England will thrive only if its education systems promote inclusion and excellence for learners of all backgrounds, cultures, age groups, lifestyles and learning styles in an environment that promotes justice and equity in a diverse, multicultural world.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.


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