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Racism Is a Public Policy Crisis

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity.

There are approximately 361 new Republican-sponsored voter restriction/suppression bills in 47 states, with 70 in Texas and Arizona. President Biden and Democrats have highlighted that these bills, arriving after the 2020 election, have been likened to Jim Crow era voter suppression aimed at populations of color, as the Biden win “reveals [the] power of Black voters.” These efforts to roll back the clock are deeply rooted in American history, predating the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which Black men demanded to gain the right to vote beginning in 1870.

The root cause of pernicious policies is the structural and systematized racism that supports a dominant narrative of white supremacy.

Public policy has fueled inequity in America throughout history. The root cause of pernicious policies is the structural and systematized racism that supports a dominant narrative of white supremacy. Historic examples of these policies warrant repeating and include redlining, discriminatory and predatory lending, peonage, convict leasing, policing systems, exclusion of Black veterans from receiving GI Bill benefits, and much more. With the Biden Administration’s recent efforts to promote racial equity, including an attempt to end child poverty, there has been institutional acknowledgment of the systemic nature of racism. The time to declare racism as a public policy crisis is now, particularly in the face of current legislative efforts at the state level to restrict ballot access. These policies risk a return to the Jim Crow era of public policy in America.

White Violence and Black Subjectioni
In her article “Structural Racism, Health Inequities, and the Two-Edged Sword of Data: Structural Problems Require Structural Solutions,” Nancy Krieger connects the January 6th attack on the nation’s Capitol with Black subjection.ii This could equally be racism as a public policy crisis, not just a public health crisis—anchored and buoyed in a soulless political economy. Historically rooted white supremacy is meted out through policies. Such policies exist to maintain a world order where Blacks are to be suppressed for whites to retain economic and political power. Conceptually, by defining Blacks perpetually as inferior, violent, and stupid, whites can make the population believe Blacks are responsible for the inequity gap. Krieger suggests that the erasure, omission, and misrepresentation of racial data are ways that these myths are perpetuated. Indeed, aspects of this may explain growth in inequity gaps. To call attention to the gap, communities across the country are responding to the call to name racism a public health crisis. However, public health functions through public policy, dependent on the philosophies and interests of elected officials.

Krieger’s solution is to ask researchers—and we should add policy makers—to (1) explain and justify their conceptualization of racialized groups; (2) include societal inequities when including racialized groups, including socioeconomic positions for individuals and communities as well as access to voting, social security benefits (e.g., downstream workers and farmworkers), residential and occupational segregation, incarceration rates, and political representation; and (3) center equity work in data governance, namely asking who has input in what data are collected, included, and reported, including lived experiences (i.e., participatory equity).

“Health inequities are not about defective people; it’s about social problems.” – Mary Bassett

To address societal inequities, we must hold elected officials accountable so that free and fair elections can usher in ethical representatives with a moral compass. We must stop the erasure of historyiii and promote knowledge of the contributions of this ingenious multicultural American experiment toward a fair and just democracy and representative governance.

Inequity is growing because it was designed to perpetuate the self-fulfilling prophecy and myth that one group is superior. The myth is buoyed through policies, laws, and corrupt or absent data. The data stigmatize subjugated populations, justifying exposure to inferior air, water, education, jobs, housing, and self-determination, creating a vicious cycle of discrimination and oppression.

“What stands in the record of human callousness and cruelty is the ease with which we can disregard the suffering of any group we regard as inferior, just as we tend to portray as inferior any group we are opposed to.” – Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson

Daniel Dawes’ book, The Political Determinants of Health, quotes several lines from Lin Manuel Miranda’s “The Room Where It Happens”:

No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made . . . No one really knows how the Parties get to “yes,” the pieces that are sacrificed in every game of chess (Miranda, 2015, track 28).

But we know, don’t we? The pieces that are sacrificed are too often the “faces at the bottom of the well,”iv unless we each have access to and faith in our individual vote. As scholars, practitioners, and activists, we must all denounce voter suppression and persistent efforts toward Black oppression. Racism is a public policy crisis, rearing its face through the recent numerous voter restrictions/efforts. We need to lead the way, call it for what it is—RACISM—and address the root causes through our courses, research, and policies.



i See Saidiya Hartman’s 1997 book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Race and American Culture) for the forms of terror and resistance that shaped Black identity.

ii Hartman’s book provides a thorough discussion of Black subjection.

iii Forthcoming IERE principles will address racism as a public policy crisis.

iv This is a reference to civil rights activist and legal scholar Derrick Bell’s 1992 book Faces at the Bottom of the Well.

By Maria Madison, IERE Director