America is turning a corner. Or so it hopes; so it claims.
We have just elected a rational adult to the Presidency, thanks in no small part to the turnout of Black Americans in places like Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Detroit and beyond. There is now a budding hope for a return to some semblance of norms, normalcy, decency, and decorum. Much of the public is similarly hopeful that two of the most pressing threats to our nation–racism and the COVID-19 pandemic–may actually be dealt with in good faith by competent people newly returned to positions of power.
And while the public health component, by no means easy or uncomplicated, seems a comparatively straightforward matter of following medical and scientific guidance, the response to our long-overdue national reckoning with systemic racism is rife with challenge and disagreement even between those on the same side of the partisan divide.
Yet, given the essential role that Black Americans played in facilitating the return of competence to the White House, how will President-elect Biden make meaningful progress toward extinguishing the scourge of systemic racism?
It will not be through smart slogans or silver bullet policy solutions. Simply nominating more Black leaders into Cabinet positions–while very important–is far from sufficient. The challenge calls for a solution on the order of a Marshall Plan for Black America. In recent years, Black members of Congress have championed such an undertaking as well as the likes of the Urban League and other advocates for people of color. The Biden administration has a historic opportunity and obligation to take up the cause.
Centuries of well-architected oppression have exacted social and economic devastation on the Black community akin to that inflicted on the nations of Europe in World War II. The post-war reconstruction of Europe was one of the greatest peacetime foreign investments the U.S. has ever made–about $145 billion in today’s dollars. Are we not capable of an investment of at least as much every year for our own citizens?
The 2008 bank bailouts amounted to more than $4 trillion. A Marshall Plan for Black America would be a rounding error in the CARES Act and other recent stimulus spending. Do Black lives not matter at least that much?
Economic empowerment would be an essential component of such a plan. Median Black household wealth is just a fraction of that for white Americans–less than 1/10th by recent estimates. This, despite our ancestors having built the economic foundations of this country while enslaved.
To that end, as I have argued, in order for Black lives to matter, Black minds must matter. Reparations cannot be made without a radical investment in the education of Black children and adults. Decoupling the legacy of residential redlining from the funding of and assignment to elementary and secondary schools, delivering true equity in education for Black and brown families by ensuring they can choose the public school that meets their unique needs, and creating low and no-cost pathways to college and career training are the floor, not the ceiling of real educational reparations.
There is an urgent need to get more Black and brown teachers into our classrooms. We need curricula informed by the trauma done to communities and students of color – as well curricula that highlights the brilliance, creativity, and resilience that we used to resist white supremacy. We need our schools to be centers of our communities and welcoming to all families. We need a culture of accelerated learning that does not expect less of Black and brown children and in so doing, resign them to just that.
But it still must be more than that.
We should ensure HBCUs are funded on par with predominantly white institutions, but are also actively supported in their profoundly positive impact on the broader Black economy. Doing that is essential as it is clear that education alone will not solve the economic disenfranchisement of people of color. A Black person with an advanced degree possesses on average just one-sixth of the wealth that a similarly educated white person possesses.
Structural barriers to economic empowerment are real and pervasive, even for our the most educationally accomplished Black folks. We must build an economic ecosystem that supports Black entrepreneurs, supports the economic stability of Black families, and decriminalizes the lives of Black men and women. This would not be a handout – it is a simple calculus of justice.
Building a meaningful Marshall Plan for Black America will require not just resources and the right policy changes, but an implementation strategy that will ensure it lasts. Here too we can draw on the lessons of history. We must build a functional and durable implementing infrastructure as well as internal and external security guarantees for Black and brown communities like those enjoyed by the recovering societies of post-war Europe.
First, whatever the administration proposes, it must be implementable in four years and difficult to dismantle if and, more accurately, when the pendulum swings back from the thrust of 70 million Trump voters and their next town crier. We have seen what a determined opponent, driven by maniacal personal animus toward his or her predecessor, can do to discrete accomplishments of the prior administration. Health care, protections for Dreamers, even the balance of the Supreme Court are strong evidence of the tenuous nature of Presidential legacy and success.
Reform must be enduring to be effective. We must entrench it even deeper than the inequity which it seeks to unravel is planted.
Second, it must also be able to withstand the withering political pressure of white privilege.
It must be “white proof”.
White America perceives white privilege in the same way a fish perceives water–it only notices its absence. And when something even vaguely threatens the abeyance of that privilege, the outrage machine of Right Wing Media, social conservatism and their allies – and even “foxy white liberals” – can bring to bear unrivaled political pressure to either forestall further efforts to undermine their privilege or, as we saw starkly during the Trump administration, to expand its pernicious reach.
Just as we did in Europe, we must also ensure the physical safety of Black and brown people. President Trump did not simply inflame the passions of the worst of white America, he legitimized and empowered its most violent fringe. In the wake of that and to recover from it, communities of color need the same security guarantees afforded to our World War II allies.
We need to be safe from threats both foreign and domestic. Safe in our homes and on our neighborhood streets without fear of the randomness of death from a militarized police force. Safe to vote and speak without fear of modern-day brownshirts descending upon us for doing so. And safe to grow and thrive in a world and country that no longer ignores the disproportionate impact of environmental racism and climate change on Black and brown communities.
The election of Joe Biden, made possible in large part by Black voters, is unquestionably good for our country. Just how good it will be for our Black and brown brothers and sisters is an open question. A Marshall Plan for Black America would be a worthy and proportionate response to that question.
The original version of this blog was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.