It’s no secret that Americans are feeling the acute pain of our nation’s unchecked economic inequality. Populist anger over what many view as broken political and economic systems has fueled the unpredictable fires of the 2016 presidential election. While rising inequality has hurt all Americans, as evidenced by the recent increase in mortality rates among whites, our political leaders too often assume that inequality has affected all communities in the same way. As we argue in our new report, Rewrite the Racial Rules: Building an Inclusive American Economy, we must not ignore the ways in which the rules have disproportionately affected people of color, and must not be fooled into thinking that race-neutral progressive economic policies will create the rising tide that lifts all boats.
Rewrite the Racial Rules argues that understanding racial and economic inequality among black Americans requires acknowledging the racial rules that undergird our economy and society. Those rules—laws, policies, institutions, regulations, and normative practices—are the driving force behind the patently unequal life chances and opportunities for too many individuals in our country.
The disparities experienced by black Americans are well known. At every level of income black Americans have fewer assets than their white counterparts, and across all levels of education, they are paid less. Compared to white Americans, black Americans have higher rates of unemployment and lower rates of homeownership. Even middle-income black Americans have unequal access to the quality-of-life goods—education, health, and safety—that economic security is expected to guarantee.
For black women, the challenges are particularly pronounced. They face labor market segregation that pushes them into insecure jobs with low pay and few benefits, and as a result make up a disproportionate share of minimum-wage workers. They bear the weight of community and familial well-being in the vacuum left by mass incarceration. And they experience vast health disparities, from high rates of breast cancer to maternal mortality rates that rival those in some developing countries.
Our report counters the oft-pedaled narrative that these disparities are the result of poor choices, a lack of hard work or ambition, or a failure of “personal responsibility.” Instead, it examines the historic roots of these disparities and illustrates the evolution of our current politics and policies from the era of slavery, Jim Crow, and the racial and gender exclusions of the New Deal to the more inclusionary era of the civil rights movement and the retrenchment and backlash that followed. The past always weighs heavily on the present, and as recent calls for African-American reparations remind us, much of today’s status quo is the product of racially exclusionary rules made long before our time.
Unlike other reports that focus exclusively on either social or economic issues, Rewrite the Racial Rules looks at the web of rules and resulting inequities across six domains: income, wealth, education, criminal justice, health, and democratic participation. It illustrates how our persistent race and gender gaps in income are linked with yawning racial wealth gaps; how trends toward re-segregation in our school system are linked with increasingly harsh penal rules and trends in mass incarceration; and how the toxic stress of racism and of countless inequities impacts the health of black men, women, and children for generations. And it describes the ways in which historic and recent efforts to curb voting access makes it difficult to build power and lift up the voices of those who are most impacted by the racial rules.
Over the past four decades, “race-neutral” policies have helped drive these—and so many other—disparities and inequities. But these last 40 years should be all the proof we need that policies that are race-neutral and colorblind in theory are, in practice, anything but. Rewrite the Racial Rules argues that now is the time to advance an agenda of positive rules and targeted universalism: policies that are designed specifically to improve opportunities and outcomes for black Americans and communities of color more broadly, but that would also benefit all Americans. In the process, we must also remember and reckon with our history, acknowledge that trickle-down economic policies have disproportionately hurt people of color, and recognize that what matters is not only the rules but also who writes them.
Achieving equity in black communities—and all communities of color, for that matter—will require more than single-issue policy solutions. As such, Rewrite the Racial Rules calls for a range of policy interventions, including: passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act and instituting mandatory and universal voting; divesting in the penal system and significantly investing in asset-poor communities; expanding labor protections and health access, including reproductive health access; reversing trends in school and neighborhood segregation; and implementing child trust accounts or “baby bonds.” Such policies would allow us to begin righting the wrongs of our past and creating a more just and equitable future for all Americans.