Senator Kamala Harris is the Democratic Party’s nominee for Vice President. As a Black woman, I’m ecstatic about Harris’s breakthrough. As a sociologist who studies racial inequities and a former legislative analyst at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations, my sanguine feelings are sobered by the reality of what it takes to create social systems allowing all Americans to thrive.
While membership in a marginalized group often sensitizes one to the needs of that community, membership does not in itself overcome embedded power dynamics shaping racial inequities. In America, the cumulative weight of “racialized capitalism,” the government policies and market practices that have led to stark imbalances in resource access among racial and class groups, require we put forth energy commensurate with the effort that led to such disparities.
We must have an action plan to eradicate racism that is not excessively reliant on the results of the 2020 presidential election.
An ongoing case in point: since COVID-19 began, America’s 600 billionaires have increased their wealth by $700 billion, while increasing numbers of Americans await another round of federally-sponsored relief to forestall eviction and put food on their tables. And we know these burdens are most severe among African and Latinx Americans due to their health status prior to the virus’s onset and having jobs requiring them to leave their homes. These disparities illustrate the downstream of decades of racial discrimination.
Race and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts reminds us in Fatal Invention that race is a “political category” – a set of relationships between social groups and dominant institutions, such as markets and governments. Under racialized capitalism, White powerbrokers have differentiated people based on their physical features (most notably, skin tone), even though there’s no biological basis for this. Corrupt racial theories “rationalize” and normalize how benefits and burdens are experienced among racial and ethnic groups. COVID-19 exposes the consequences of racial caste. How else could Black and Latinx Americans die at twice the rate of White Americans without a full federal mobilization to close this gap?
We, as a citizenry, must have an action plan to eradicate racism that is not excessively reliant on the results of the 2020 presidential election. To be clear, all eligible voters should vote and the Biden-Harris ticket does far more to move us toward life-affirming policies. And I have cast my ballot accordingly.
But the work ahead remains greater than the 2020 presidential election. There are core questions we must ask ourselves: Are we ready to push for major shifts in how we spend our tax dollars to ensure health care, decent housing, and quality schools, among other core needs? Are we ready to raise taxes to fund programs to build social and physical infrastructure at the scale necessary to meet demand? Are we ready to “follow the money” through federal, state, and local agencies, until the resources meet the needs of every American household? Certainly, each of us has a different role in this process. St. Paul reminds us in Scripture that the church is made of many members of one body and so it is with the American body politic. The through-line that must unite us is an unyielding commitment to policy grounded in the socio-historical truth about how racialized capitalism grossly distorts our social relationships, allowing White elites to hoard material resources with impunity.
Scripture is instructive here too, showing our deepest truths are often two opposite truths held in tension. Micah 6:8 declares we are “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Justice means ending racism…full stop. We must account for and remedy the harms, past and ongoing. Mercy means charting paths forward where all racial and ethnic groups can flourish by investing in social systems—and not seeking anything more, including vengeance—that’s the “humbly” part.
The good news is that many are already doing this work—from organizations creating mutual aid funds, such as has been done at Barnard College, where I’m a professor, to support furloughed employees, to local governments investing in land trusts to increase affordable housing options and green space in underserved neighborhoods. And there are national organizations pursuing these ends as well, among them: Black Futures Lab, Color of Change, and Poor People’s Campaign. As we absorb the 2020 election results on Tuesday (and likely for days afterward), let’s remember what it will take to realize an America where “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)