Normal is what got us here

May 5, 2020 Medium

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed how racial inequities are baked into our economic and health systems, in large part due to anti-blackness. One thing is for sure, we didn’t end up here by accident.

Nationwide, as a result of the rules we’ve created and the narratives we hold dear, Black and Latinx Americans are testing positive and dying of coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates. These communities are overrepresented in jobs that put them at risk of both becoming infected and of being laid off. In California, Black and Asian women have the highest daily risk of exposure to COVID-19. The hotel and restaurant industries have been hit particularly hard by the virus, and Latinx Californians make up 80 percent of dishwashers and housekeepers.

What we are witnessing today is the result of pervasive structural racism, and a worldview professing that profits are a higher priority than the actual needs of people and that government should protect markets at the expense of investment in public goods.

Let’s take the labeling of grocery workers, cooks, and home care aides as “essential,” for example. Even the term “essential worker” can distract us from the reality that many of these working people are paid low wages and can be subject to harsh working conditions, along with being placed under increasing surveillance.

This moment should force us to reckon with economic exclusion that is highly racialized and gendered. We must take a hard and honest look at how, through intentional policy decisions, Black and Latinx people are sorted into jobs that are often excluded from federal protections and strip them of power, dignity, and benefits. The reality is that Black and Latinx working people are forced into the most devaluing work and kept there to maintain economic dependence and subordination.

We are now called to expose not just the inequities in our labor market, but also to push for the creation of new systems that center the needs of our most marginalized during our rebuilding process. The question for us going forward is how do we begin to address the racial inequities that were in place long before COVID-19? We know all too well that we can’t return to anything even resembling “normal.” As Angela Hanks of the Groundwork Collective asserts, “We can’t go back to normal. Normal is what got us here and we can’t afford to simply go back to the ways things were.”

What was normal prior to the crisis was outsized corporate concentration that has eroded public power and public goods; massive racial wealth inequities; and a criminal legal system that disproportionately locks up Black and Brown people. This is not a normal we should aspire to achieve. We can and must do better if we care at all about justice and shared prosperity, and believe that freedom and dignity are for everyone.

We have a choice to make in the coming weeks and months. Either we return to the status quo — which will put us right back on a loop to where we are now — or we work toward tackling the root causes of racial exclusion, subordination, and predation.

For the past several years, the Insight Center has addressed structural and racial inequities at their root. While not easy, this work is more important than ever.

Earlier this year we called for a new framework for working on racial wealth inequities that included looking at issues of corporate power, criminal legal debt, and deep, long-lasting narrative change. We have advocated for and won changes in our criminal legal system that siphons wealth from struggling Black and Brown communities. We will continue to tackle harmful narratives about people of color that are steeped in anti-blackness.

We can’t ignore the role that deservedness will play in the months and years ahead. We know that who is seen as deserving of being bailed out in a crisis bears little difference from those who are deemed as worthy during the best economic times. The deployment of race neutral language and a focus on toxic individualism will continue to shape policy decisions.

We have seen both small and major victories as steps to a North Star before COVID-19 and we can continue our progress. In the time ahead you can look for Insight to continue to explore:

  • The cascading effects of job loss on wealth and its multigenerational impact in communities of color;
  • How new narratives about deservedness, particularly ones built on addressing anti-blackness, influence proposed solutions to rebuild the economy;
  • Strategies to increase worker power and dignity and broadening the definition of job quality; and
  • Policy advocacy and research to end unjust government sponsored debt such as criminal legal debt and public child support system debt.

We at Insight see that our work on racial, gender, and economic justice is not just evergreen, but absolutely imperative. As we seek to redefine our collective understanding of “normal,” we’re not looking back but firmly ahead — to opportunities to build an economy that works for everyone.

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