"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal": These are the first words of the United States’ Declaration of Independence. If you have ever read the Declaration of Independence, and I encourage those that have not to do so, it’s a brilliantly written eloquent argument for the secession of the United States from the British Empire. The obvious problem is, of course, the freedoms it argues for “men” are specific to land-owning white men. On paper, the document is great, in practice, it fell short for nearly two centuries until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racism illegal, but itself has, in turn, fallen short in practice for 55 years.
The murder of George Floyd isn’t as simple as, “one racist killed George Floyd.” If the police officer that knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes is convicted and sentenced, executed even, racism doesn’t disappear. Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged with Floyd's murder, wasn’t born a racist, no one is. If the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was executed and the law followed, Floyd and Chauvin would have been born with the same potential in life. Instead, Floyd was sentenced to have a much higher rate of interactions with law enforcement, incarceration, an inability for proper legal counsel, a lack of education, difficulty finding employment, and ultimately unequal access to justice, at birth. Why? If I had to point to only one cause, the best pick would be, in a word, poverty. The playing field has never been level, to begin with. If you take away the wealth factor, nearly all of the negatives that impact black people at a disproportionately high rate disappear. Not all, but most.
Professors Katherine DeCelles and Sona K. Kang found in a 2016 study in Administrative Science Quarterly that African Americans that “whitened” their resumes or removed information that would identify their race were twice as likely to get called back for an interview than those that did not. Even with the exact same qualifications, resumes that hinted at the applicants’ race “being black” resulted in a 50% decline in responses. In other words, even if the African Americans were wealthy relative to white Americans they compete with for jobs, they still get discriminated against.
Despite the aforementioned added racism, if we control for wealth, the vast majority of “racism” disappears. I did not attend one of the best public schools in America growing up because of my accomplishments, I did so based solely on my zip code. That prepared me for getting into institutions of higher education and ultimately completing those degrees and employment. All of these things are not the result of my hard work and sacrifice but of a system that discriminates against the poor and sets up minorities, black people, in particular, to remain in the poverty trap they have endured even 200 years after the “abolition” of slavery.
There is no silver bullet for the racism issue, to be clear. But the quickest and easiest way to eliminate racism is to level the playing field. Discrimination against the poor is not specific to the U.S., it exists everywhere. Depriving black Americans of the ability to escape poverty, however, is uniquely a U.S. issue. Policymakers need to focus on ways to eliminate this divide first and foremost. The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing multitrillion-dollar spending spree the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve have embarked upon could easily incorporate ways in which past injustices to African Americans could begin to be addressed. Not that it matters where funding is drawn from morally, but practically speaking, both parties rarely align in the way they have now when it comes to spending. Whether this means beginning by ear-marking funds to start to pay for the actual damage suffered by descendants of slaves or by other measures, steps must be taken now if racism is ever to be addressed.
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