Normative Narratives


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When “Race Blind” Policies are Progressive, and When They Aren’t

A demonstrator holds a No Justice No Peace sign at the ral… | Flickr

In this blog I will paint with broad strokes. In reality each of the issues I will touch on–income and wealth inequality, our criminal justice system, racism and globalization–are interrelated and have complex historical underpinnings. I hope it will inspire you to research further and get involved in advocating for the change you want to see in the world.

Addressing Income Inequality–It’s Not So Black or White (or Latinx)

I don’t like to be put in a box politically or labeled in general, but I consider myself a “progressive”. I believe in the importance of empowering all people to realize their full potential and live a life of dignity, freedom and self-determination. I consider these not only our moral imperatives, but also to be in our economic and security interests.

In my policy advocacy, I tend to promote “race blind” economic policies. I do so for a few reasons:

  • Poverty and lack of economic opportunity affect people of all races
  • Broad, structural reforms are the most meaningful in promoting equality of opportunity
    • These reforms include early childhood development programs, educational reform, higher education reform, job [re]training, and mental and physical healthcare reform
  • I think there is more broad-based support for these policies, particularly in “electorally important” areas

History has led us to a point where significant racial disparities in wealth and income exist, which I will address in a moment. I by no means want to belittle the fact that, on average, minorities still earn less than white people, or that people with ethnically identifiable names still face discrimination in the hiring process.

But nowadays and going forward, people of all races will have to contend with the labor market effects of globalization. With many blue collar jobs displaced or changing, the increasing importance (and therefore cost) of education and job [re]training has led to increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility across racial lines.

So if poor people of all races have similar root causes for lack of opportunity today, if “race blind” policies can meaningfully address these issues, and if they are more politically viable, my thinking is why not advocate for those policies? This platform is similar to Bernie Sanders’ vision of economic populism. It also, I believe, promotes the structural changes many are calling for in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. These are the same structural inequalities that have led the corona virus to be more harmful for persons of color both economically and health-wise.

These are the kind of changes that will never “trickle down”; powerful interests never willingly give up their positions of power. Rather they are the kind of changes that must be claimed by the righteous hand of a unified American people. While these policies may be “race blind” on the surface, to the extent that minorities are disproportionately impacted by poverty, they will disproportionately benefit from them.

Is this approach 100% just, no–more on that in a moment. Might it be criticized as “political expedient”? Yes, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. We should not let perfection be the enemy of progress. Progress can be built upon. It can also be used to change the minds of people who need government support the most, but have paradoxically let themselves be led to believe that the government is their enemy (for example, the effect of Medicaid expansion under the ACA in red states).

You can feel free to disagree with me, but I think there is a strong argument that “race blind” economic policies are a big piece of the economic justice puzzle. But by themselves they are insufficient, particularly when we change our focus from income to wealth.

Wealth Inequality–A Legacy of Discrimination

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Income and wealth are related, but are not the same. Wealth is accumulated over time from savings and investments that are only possible once a certain income level is reached. Wealth is passed down from generation to generation, providing the resources to help keep one’s children at the top of the income ladder (nepotism aside).

Our nations legacy of slavery and racial discrimination clearly drives racial wealth inequality and therefore social immobility. While the primary structural cause of widening income inequality today–an incomplete globalization strategy–may be mostly “race blind”, the same simply cannot be said of wealth inequality.

These wealth disparities mean that even though poorer white and black people’s livelihoods were disrupted similarly by globalization, poorer white people were better positioned to adjust to that shock (and many probably did). This is what I meant earlier when I said race blind economic policies might not be “100% just”. Did previous generations of white people have more opportunities to escape poverty than minorities? Of course. But if they didn’t, is it really fair to tell the current generations they do not have legitimate grievances?

Here is what the Brookings Institute has to say on wealth:

“…wealth confers benefits that go beyond those that come with family income. Wealth is a safety net that keeps a life from being derailed by temporary setbacks and the loss of income. This safety net allows people to take career risks knowing that they have a buffer when success is not immediately achieved. Family wealth allows people (especially young adults who have recently entered the labor force) to access housing in safe neighborhoods with good schools, thereby enhancing the prospects of their own children. Wealth affords people opportunities to be entrepreneurs and inventors. And the income from wealth is taxed at much lower rates than income from work, which means that wealth begets more wealth.

Well-designed taxes on inheritancesreforms to capital income taxation, and even taxes on wealth could be part of the solution. Inheritance or estate taxes in particular could enhance equality of opportunity, especially if revenues were invested in programs that give low-income children a better chance at economic success.”

Not only is a home in a good neighborhood an important factor in a child’s economic outcome, but houses also represent the largest source of wealth of any single type of asset in this country (p. 34). It is unsurprising, then, that minorities have far lower home ownership rates than white people.

As such, housing is one fiscal policy area that should not be race blind; more resources must go towards desegregating neighborhoods and promoting minority home ownership. The same is true of programs that assist minority entrepreneurs and small business owners. These policy areas should not be race blind because they specifically address racial wealth inequality, which is a direct result of our racist past. These are the types of “reparations”, if you want to call them that, that would make the most impact.

Justice is Not [Race] Blind

While poor people’s economic experiences in recent history may have been similar across racial lines, their experiences with the criminal justice system certainly have not been. In other words, “white privilege”, in many ways, plays out most strikingly in the criminal justice system. Poor minorities and poor white people were similarly displaced by our nation’s incomplete globalization strategy, but only members of one of those groups has to fear for their freedom or life every time they go out for a walk.

I think acknowledging this would go a long way towards healing racial divides. Words matter–if we frame “white privilege” this way, and acknowledge that poor people of all races today face an unfair economic system, I think that would go a long way in making the concept more broadly accepted. Perhaps it could even help to build the cross-race working class coalition that would enable this country to finally address many of its structural unfairnesses.

Minorities are disproportionately hurt by virtually every facet of the criminal justice system–from school to the juvenile justice system, and continuing through adult life. Poverty and living in a “bad” neighborhood are root causes of crime, and having a criminal record hurts one’s labor force prospects. Clearly our criminal justice system, with it’s reliance on racial profiling and mass incarceration, has perpetuated a racial poverty trap (on top of the globalization poverty trap).

Because make no mistake, there is certainly a poverty trap resulting from the failures of our criminal justice system. Growing up in a full, happy home is probably even more important in a child’s development than growing up with a lot of money. But due largely to our country’s failed “war on drugs”, an African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent.

Mass incarceration is not only socially regressive, it drains a huge amount of public resources. Since this practice has disproportionately impacted people of color, it is only fair that savings resulting from a realignment of our priorities be earmarked for programs that specifically benefit people of color, like the housing and entrepreneurial programs I mentioned earlier. More resources should also go to community development centers, which empower strong voices that can make a difference young people’s lives and run after-school programs that get them off the street and building social and practical skills.

Police reform is an important component of criminal justice reform, and one that is at the forefront of our national discourse right now. 8 Can’t Wait prescribes some promising reform ideas, and I’m sure there are many others pertaining to police accountability. We also have to reconsider who should be hired as a police officer in the first place (conducting more extensive psych evals and background checks, and making them more representative of the communities they serve), and ensure that the criminal justice system works in prosecuting officers when they do commit crimes.

Ultimately the “race blind” economic reforms many advocate for also rely on targeted race conscious programs and wholesale criminal justice reform in order to fully deliver on their promise for those who have heard so many broken promises from policymakers before.


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Criminal Justice Deformed

In past blogs I wrote about the “Prison Paradox“–the idea that incarceration in America has gotten so out of control that it may actually increase crime by creating a poverty trap and perpetuating prison culture.

I wrote about the topic from the vantage point of an enlightened society that was seemingly moving in the right direction on the issue. While this is still the case at the state level, a recent Justice Department directive by Attorney General Jeff Session threatens to undo recent progress:

In an eight-paragraph memo, Mr. Sessions returned to the guidance of President George W. Bush’s administration by calling for more uniform punishments — including mandatory minimum sentences — and instructing prosecutors to pursue the harshest possible charges. Mr. Sessions’s policy is broader than that of the Bush administration, however, and how it is carried out will depend more heavily on the judgments of United States attorneys and assistant attorneys general as they bring charges.

The policy signaled a return to “enforcing the laws that Congress has passed,” Mr. Sessions said Friday at the Justice Department, characterizing his memo as unique for the leeway it afforded prosecutors.

“They deserve to be un-handcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington,” he said. “It means we are going to meet our responsibility to enforce the law with judgment and fairness.”

Mr. Sessions’s memo replaced the orders of former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who in 2013 took aim at drug sentencing rules. He encouraged prosecutors to consider the individual circumstances of a case and to exercise discretion in charging drug crimes. In cases of nonviolent defendants with insignificant criminal histories and no connections to criminal organizations, Mr. Holder instructed prosecutors to omit details about drug quantities from charging documents so as not to trigger automatically harsh penalties.

People of all races use drugs at roughly same rate, but minorities are disproportionately imprisoned for drug related offenses. Meanwhile, “White America” is currently experiencing the well documented “opioid epidemic”. Drug abuse, treatment, and incarceration should be issues that transcend racial barriers.

On the micro level, drug related criminal justice reform that prioritizes treatment over prison can keep families together. It can keep people in the labor force and in productive society, instead of exposing them to hardened criminals in prison (potentially turning minor offenders into career criminals). Even when prison doesn’t “harden” someone, difficulties finding employment can lead to recidivism (re-incarceration) among ex-cons.

On the macro level it saves money on incarceration and welfare programs. As the “War on Drugs” is no longer achieving its goal–reducing crime–what these funds are spent on is largely irrelevant. Liberals would probably like to see more social programs and public goods. Conservatives would probably like to see more defense spending or a reduction in government debt. This debate can be had once the savings are realized and the socially damaging policies are reversed.

Attorney General Session’s directive claims to give judges more freedom, but it does the opposite. All Holder’s directive did was allow judges to consider the facts of the case before delivering a sentence. It did not prevent them from doling out severe sentences when the situation dictated it. Session’s directive takes this freedom away from judges.

There is no significant public support for this stricter rule. 14 States Attorneys General have written a letter asking Sessions to rescind the rule. Rand Paul has reintroduced bipartisan legislation to ease mandatory minimum sentences, which would override the Session ruling. Unfortunately, based on the current political climate, I wouldn’t count on such legislation getting passed anytime soon.