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To Assets and Beyond: Crossing Disciplines and Cultures to Address Inequities

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

We all know the image. A young black person is making their way through the flooded streets from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Juxtaposed are two photographs of individuals in similar circumstances. The black individual is described as “looting” while the other two individuals are “finding bread.” One group is more likely to get the resources they need and the other more likely to end up in jail. The second group is also more likely to experience discrimination in finding employment, fair wages, access to quality education, health, and health care, and hence face a gauntlet of barriers to upward mobility for themselves and their children.

Bold, holistic remedies must be designed to reduce the pernicious effects of structural racism.

Heller’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) addresses the myriad determinants of inequity, including racism and other forms of discrimination. As the new director of IASP, I see this moment as an opportune time to expand IASP’s multidisciplinary, multicultural staff, faculty, and researchers, as well as build an advisory board. As IASP has shown over the years, solutions for closing the inequity gap vary, often by discipline. Bold, holistic remedies must be designed to reduce the pernicious effects of structural racism. To achieve efficacy, these efforts require interdisciplinary, community-partnered research teams, including investigators from diverse backgrounds and life experiences (e.g., race, gender, class origin/first generation college, LGBTQIA, disability, ethnicity, national origin).

Social epidemiologists, economists, journalists, nutritionists, historians, sociologists, public and social policy researchers, educators, physicians, mental health counselors, lawyers, and demographers each have their frameworks, theories, and recommendations. These range from providing reparations[i],[ii] to ending segregation—particularly in housing and education—improving early childhood education, and increasing access to transportation and health care. Some suggestions include structural adjustments to the minimum wage[iii] or increasing access to insurance as the answer to reducing inequity in America. Others suggest addressing discriminatory policing policies or facilitating entrepreneurship and financial literacy. Further suggestions include building healthy families through marriage or a college education, or improving access to a lifetime of work.

However, independently taken, these suggestions do not address the root cause of this nation’s racial disparities, which impact subsequent generations of marginalized people. As Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues have observed, compared to whites, Blacks and Native Americans experience a disparity in intergenerational mobility, or the relationship between their income as an adult and their parents’ income at a similar age. One reason for this is that even when raised in high-income families, Black children are far more likely to experience downward mobility. A 2019 study published by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth found that “the economic racial inequality facing Black Americans has not improved over time despite rising education levels and a growing national economy. That is because economic racial inequality is due to intentional public policies of discrimination, segregation, and incarceration.” IASP is poised to expand its bold and multidisciplinary approach to understanding and addressing these challenges.

Racism kills.

Racial discrimination also has consequences for health outcomes and life expectancy. Transgenerational chronic stress,[iv] which disproportionately affects marginalized populations, will continue to impede the quality of life and shave off life expectancy unless we address racism and discrimination. Stress and dehumanization from racism and discrimination change the shape of our hearts[v] and can be carried down from generation to generation.[vi] Some of the earliest evidence comes from studying the descendants of Civil War veterans. Imagine the findings if data were available from the enslaved and generations of their descendants. There would be evidence of resilience and downward mobility resulting from centuries of targeted trauma and discriminatory policies.[vii]

Racism kills—and the body count continues across centuries, from the ‘door of no return’ origins of slavery to being thrown overboard slave ships, from infinite accounts of murder and torture, including Ida B. Wells’ scrupulous documenting of lynching, and countless lives lost, symbolized by the deaths of Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Walter Wallace, and Quawan “Bobby” Charles. The body count is infinite.

Instead of focusing on the individual (or one program), move toward transforming social structures

This crisis requires solutions. Jonathan Metzl and Helena Hansen suggest creating structurally competent health care systems, for example, to heal communities. Instead of focusing on the individual (or one program), move toward transforming social structures, as seen in initiatives in Chicago, Milwaukee, and elsewhere, which begin by calling racism a public health crisis and reimagining policing. For many, this requires addressing race and restorative as well as transformative justice. Acknowledge and repair the harm. Restore broken relationships. Rebuild communities. Identify and name causes and consequences of inequities in the built and natural environments of communities, social networks, access to resources, quality of education, and interactions with police and public policies affecting the lived experiences and health outcomes of populations.

To build on our racial and economic equity work, IASP must expand on a multidisciplinary, holistic framework with partners and communities to identify meaningful policy responses. The next stages for IASP include 1) leveraging current demonstrated excellence, 2) adding pedagogies and partnerships, including a multidisciplinary, interracial advisory board, and 3) promoting holistic approaches to addressing racism and discrimination and contributing to closing the inequity gap. The multidisciplinary advisory board will include historians, economists, educators, social epidemiologists, physicians, criminal justice experts, lawyers (e.g., immigration and civil and human rights), and demographers and others to work with communities toward holistic solutions to the growing inequity gap.

Maria Madison
By Maria Madison, Director of the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity (IERE)

[i] Reparations are supported based on the recognition that human rights were violated.

[ii] List, M. (2020, July 16). Providence mayor signs order to pursue truth, reparations for Black, Indigenous people. The Providence Journal.

[iii] New Zealand is demonstrating how a feminist prime minster can lead an entire society to close the gender pay gap through its new law on ‘pay equity,’ demanding “equal pay for work of equal value” or “comparable worth” instead of the U.S.’ “equal pay for equal work.”

[iv] First described by researchers such as Sir Michael Marmot or Peter Sterling.

[v] Jauhar, S. (2018). Heart: A history. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[vi] Carey, N. (2012). The epigenetics revolution: How modern biology is rewriting our understanding of genetics, disease, and inheritance. Columbia University Press.

[vii] Ungar, M. (Ed.). (2012). The social ecology of resilience: A handbook of theory and practice. Springer. 10.1007/978-1-4614-0586-3