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The Problem With Race-Neutral Policies

A new report argues that America needs to re-think its plan for racial equality.
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Franklin Roosevelt.

Franklin Roosevelt.

Try tracing the history of America’s most racially discriminatory policies, and you’ll actually wind up starting with a man hailed by many for his perceived progressiveness.In the 1930s, in desperate need of any sort of remedy to the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted a sweeping package of social safety net programs and workplace reforms known as the New Deal. Under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (just one piece of the New Deal), American workers gained historic protections, including the right to organize and bargain collectively. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, meanwhile, established the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, and overtime protections.

But these protections didn’t extend to everyone. The New Deal purposefully excluded domestic and agricultural workers, “as a race-neutral proxy for excluding blacks from statutory benefits and protections made available to most whites,” as law professor Juan Pereawrote for the Ohio State Law Journal. The legacy of those New Deal-era racial exclusions persists today. There is still an agricultural and domestic worker exclusion in the National Labor Relations Act, which means millions of low-wage workers—many of them minorities—are denied the most basic of labor protections.

While the 1960s and ’70s brought significant, measurable progress, many of the most hard-won victories of the Civil Rights Era have been reversed in recent decades. Schools are re-segregating, the unions that guaranteed a reliable standard of living for many middle-income black families are in decline, and voting rights are under fire in conservative states across the country. The United States’ depressing racial history isn’t a secret, but the extent to which the discriminatory policies of our past (as well as the implicit biases of our present) continue to limit opportunities for black and minority Americans today is the topic of a fascinating new report from the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank.

In the report, the Roosevelt Institute argues for a radically different approach to racial equality and inclusion. If we want to understand and eliminate racial inequality today, the report contends, we need to understand how social policies—even race-neutral policies—affect black and white Americans in profoundly different ways.

By almost any measure — income, wealth, mobility, education, health — there are substantial gaps between minorities and non-minorities in the U.S. Worse, recent evidence suggests that, in at least some respects, progress toward racial equality has stalled, or even reversed. “Half a century after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the arc of history is no longer bending toward justice,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves earlier this year.

For much of the 1960s and ’70s, the U.S. made a concerted effort to improve the opportunities available to women and minorities. Schools were desegregated, many of the blatantly discriminatory policies of the Jim Crow era were eliminated, and the number of women and minorities in government jobs increased. But by the early 1980s, amid a conservative resurgence and a backlash against race- and gender-based policies, both political parties changed course, turning instead to race-neutral policies meant to “increase opportunity for all.” Combined with other economic trends and a growing movement to downsize government and decrease regulation, the denial of race-based policymaking was a major mistake, the Roosevelt Institute argues.

The Roosevelt Institute’s report examines the historic and current drivers of the racial disparities in six different categories: income, wealth, education, criminal justice, health, and democratic participation. Consider, for starters, wealth. The racial wealth gap is at its highest level in 25 years. The average white family in America today has a net worth of $141,900; the average black family has a net worth of only $11,000. The historic roots of the wealth gap are well understood — first there was slavery, then there was redlining and the sanctioned discrimination of the pre-Civil Rights era. Even after the end of overtly discriminatory policies, researchers have demonstrated time and again that black Americans face discrimination when applying for jobs and mortgages (to name just two examples).

And wealth gaps pile on from one generation to the next, affecting entire communities. Black families are less likely to have a friend or family member they can borrow money from in an emergency, and are more likely to face financial pressures and requests from family members. This lack of financial security makes it harder for black families to start businesses or go to college. In other words, the lack of wealth makes it harder to ever build wealth.

“[W]ealth inequality will continue to perpetuate large disparities in economic security,” says Andrea Flynn, one of the report’s authors. “We felt like it was important to take that on and come at this idea that, you know, slavery was a long time ago and we’re all sort of starting on equal footing and let’s move on. Given the truths of the racial wealth gap, we can’t just tackle income; we also need to tackle wealth.”

The Roosevelt Institute report makes a number of specific recommendations across all six categories, some of which are not very politically feasible. To combat the racial wealth gap, for example, the report proposes a program of “baby bonds,” in which every American, rich or poor, is granted a small trust fund they can access on their 18th birthday. (It’s worth noting that the total estimated annual cost of such a program, $60 billion, is less than the government spends annually on the mortgage interest deduction, a tax perk that primarily benefits wealthier Americans and which economists almost universally hate.)

Other recommendations, however, aren’t so non-traditional: criminal justice reform, a public infrastructure investment campaign, stronger labor protections for excluded workers, better health-care services in low-income communities, a reversal of the re-segregation trends in education in recent years. A public infrastructure investment campaign, for example, is long overdue and would be a boon for both the affected communities and the larger economy in general (as economist Larry Summers has argued on many occasions).

But above all else, the report is a call to both acknowledge the subtle, pervasive effects of racism, and to commit to a comprehensive plan to address racial injustice and inequality. It should be required reading for politicians across the political spectrum this election season, the majority of whom, unfortunately, don’t spend much time exploring the ways in which race and poverty intersect in this country.

“It is not just an accident of history that we got here,” Flynn says. “Rules were written in a very specific way and have had very negative outcomes. We need to acknowledge what the process has been for writing these rules and try to correct them.”