Presidential candidates should focus on fixing broken systems
As the nation turns to South Carolina and other primary states, there is no secret that the discussion by Democrats will shift to issues that appeal to black and brown communities and the need to embrace more diversity, inclusion, and opportunity. But campaigns need to do more than simply diagnose the problem. So far from transformative policy proposals, the discussions on race mostly focus on individual candidate transgressions or surface as candidate political strategies to distinguish themselves by highlighting the alleged racial misgivings of their own party opponents.
However, in the South, race is reality. Persisting inequalities are evident in our institutions, from voting precincts to jails and prisons, our schools to jobs and wages, and our housing and transportation. This makes clear that our communities are divided by design. So to this day, many people in the South experience unequal justice, access to educational and economic opportunity, and even the democratic process. For many, the vestiges of the unfortunate Jim Crow era have yet to subside. Such divisive policies were intentional and have torn our communities apart here in the South.
As a result of this, the South continues to lag behind on many measures. Our states lead the nation with the amount of youth ages 16 to 24 without work or not attending school. Our incomes trail the rest of the nation. Our states lead in rates of incarceration. Consequently, staggering numbers of people in the South, mostly minorities, are disenfranchised from the right to vote, while the same disenfranchised bodies in the justice system are used as the political pawns for gerrymandering and redistricting efforts.
As rising generations in the South become more racially and ethnically diverse, it is more important than ever to address the discrepancies in outcomes for our people, and specifically for minority populations. It is important for our nation to not only confront its original sin, but to also confront the clear racial divides in opinion regarding the causes, or even existence, of the social and economic discrepancies that still exist today.
It is time to come together around a shared understanding to stimulate a desire, curiosity, and willingness to ask these significant questions. Why do black households with college degrees have median wealth equal to only 70 percent of white households without college degrees? Why do full time workers of color earn more than 20 percent less in wages than their white counterparts? Why is the average initial capitalization of our black entrepreneurs less than 60 percent of startup businesses led by whites?
Many current presidential candidates have proposed policies to address systemic barriers. Unfortunately, however, most proposals appear more like acknowledgements of existing barriers rather than concrete plans or commitments to solve these important issues. Of course, “establishing a federal program that allocates funding to help close the startup capital gap for entrepreneurs of color” will be great, while “creating a competitive federal grant program that reduces barriers restricting affordable housing in high opportunity areas” is also a step in the right direction for equality.
But voters in the South, particularly voters of color, have been promised plenty with few policies being delivered or being delivered then reneged. How will the next president commit to bringing people together around a common understanding? How will he or she redesign systems that have expanded and contracted to bar access to justice and opportunity? How will he or she bring us together to do what is difficult sustainably? Will the next president morally commit to moving people to find a higher common ground? In what ways will he or she help white communities understand that, in reality, lifting up black and brown families raises all citizens up?
We are all inextricably linked as people of this great nation. It is now time to have a broader and honest dialogue to address the enduring legacy of racism, the systemic barriers to opportunity, and the necessity of building a shared future. The positive thing is there is little political downside. We know that folks of all races and backgrounds have a lot in common. We all want good jobs, good health care, and to leave the world better for our kids. We are all better when we are in it together. Which candidate is the one who can make this happen? The best time to plant an oak tree was three decades ago. The next best time is now. Let us take this political moment to have these discussions and outline a new pathway forward.
Mitch Landrieu served as the former mayor of New Orleans. He founded E Pluribus Unum to help address barriers across race and class in the South.
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