This weekend the National Governors Association gathers in Washington to discuss budget cuts, stimulus funds and a litany of state policy proposals. Things have changed dramatically since President Obama’s election. Many observers embraced the moment as the start of a post-racial era. But that same morning 52 percent of voters in Florida chose to cling to the past by refusing to repeal a 1926 constitutional amendment prohibiting property ownership by Asian Americans. The convergence of societal shifts around race and the reality of institutional racism embedded in our laws is an ever-present challenge for elected officials, from the White House to the statehouse.
The findings of a report by Applied Research Center and our partners in eight states bear this out. In Racing the Statehouse we found when elected officials consciously considered the racial impacts of policy proposals and budget measures, they increased the state’s ability to address racial disparities and prevent unintended consequences that harm whole communities. Countering the myth of colorblindness, the report suggests using racial equity as a standard for measuring government effectiveness redirects the focus of legislation from political intent to an explicit evaluation of the impact of laws on communities of color.
To some the idea that you have to acknowledge the existence of racism to eliminate it is a jarring concept. But for decades we have fought numerous civil rights battles in order to reverse unjust laws. So why not get it right in the first place? That is what racial equity means. Meeting the need while doing no harm. The findings from Racing the Statehouse show it is possible to write effective laws with equity in mind.
In Nevada, where high-interest home loans were concentrated in Black, Latino and Native American communities, they passed a law that delays the eviction of foreclosed homeowners until the completion of mediation. Washington state legislators funded a community health care program where 61 percent of recipients were from communities of color. In Denver graduation rates for Blacks and Latinos are under 50 percent. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter Jr. signed a bill that provides technical assistance to high-needs school districts.
But sometimes lawmakers may, intentionally or not, reinforce institutional racism and aggravate existing racial inequities. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty bypassed legislative consent via his allotment and line item veto powers to cut funding to General Assistance Medical Care, Renters Credit programs and state aid to local municipalities, all of which disproportionately serve the state’s Native, Latino, Black and immigrant communities. In California, where communities of color comprise the majority of the population, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes a $2.9 billion cut to health and human services, and the complete elimination of cash assistance and the state’s welfare program.
If we believe the rhetoric of politicians who say everyone has to tighten their belt in these tough times, this should mean not leaving multi-billion dollar corporations out of the equation. In California this would require elected officials to have the fortitude to mandate companies like Wal-Mart to pay their fare share of property taxes. This is not a novel idea. Last month Oregon voters agreed to increase corporate taxes on those making $125,000 or more. Through a proposed Fair Share Tax reform, New York state could add $6 billion in revenue for healthcare, education and the desperately needed safety net.
Racial equity is finally about creating a society where we are not pitted against one another because we all get our needs met. It is a concept that every state governor should remember as they balance budgets and levy taxes.
Racing the Statehouse is available along with the eight state-level report cards at arc.org/reportcards.