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Antiracism, Economic Dignity, and D.I.Y. Reparations

August 23, 2020

Dear Constituent:

This has been a very strange year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed deep inequalities in American society, with marginalized Black, brown, and poor people experiencing disproportionate suffering. As the economy contracts, these groups are facing job losses and eviction at higher rates, those who still have jobs are less likely to be able to work from home and therefore more exposed to the virus, and this is compounded with limited access to health care. Data show that Hispanic/Latinx and Indigenous people are dying at one-and-a-half times the rate of White Americans, while African Americans are dying at two-and-a-half times the rate.

In 2017, I facilitated a Community Conversation on Poverty and Racism and learned a lot from that process. Now, three years later, I am realizing how much more there is still to understand about the forces of systemic racism and economic injustice... And how much work lies ahead before Martin Luther King's 'Beloved Community' will become a reality.

Most of us believe everyone should be valued equally, and so we need to do this work. It must be done at all levels of society and government, including the City of Columbia.

Antiracism in Every Action

Racism springs from the simple idea that some races are fundamentally superior or inferior to others.

Although there's no basis in fact for this belief, it was widely accepted for centuries, creating a self-sustaining vicious cycle. So-called 'inferior races' were systematically deprived of resources and opportunities, leading to fewer accomplishments and successes, thereby reinforcing the notion of 'inferiority,' and justifying further racial discrimination.

In reality, racial disparities are the result of a historical imbalance of power. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, more than 10 million African natives were forcibly transported across the Atlantic by European colonists and enslaved in the Americas. Around the same time, millions of indigenous people were killed or forcibly driven off their land, which was then stolen from them.

In the years since those sinister times, the cycle of racism has become entrenched as a social construct, in which those of us descended from White Europeans are considered to be superior. No one is born believing in superior and inferior races, but we all acquire conscious and unconscious racial biases from our social environment, and most of us are in denial about our own beliefs about race. At the same time, 76% of Americans think racial discrimination is a big problem and want to eradicate it.

According to historian and New York Times best-selling author Ibram X. Kendi, antiracism is the thoughtful and intentional effort to disrupt the cycle of racism and create racial justice through communications, public policies, and systems change. For example, segregationist housing policies such as "red-lining," racial covenants, and exclusionary zoning have created low-wealth, high-minority neighborhoods in cities all across the United States. Concentrated poverty, low educational attainment, lack of political engagement, and violent crime lead to public- and private-sector disinvestment, and so the self-reinforcing cycle continues. An antiracist policy would break the cycle by desegregating neighborhoods so that Black, brown, and poor children grow up surrounded by families with more privilege and resources, which has been shown in studies to improve educational, career, and economic outcomes.

Racism and economic injustice are inextricably connected. Because of the cycle of racism, the average White household has almost twice the income of the average Black household, and owns a stunning thirteen times the wealth of the average Black household. This massive wealth disparity is a significant driver of the cycle of racism which, in combination with numerous policies and systems (housing, education, career advancement, health care, policing, etc.), makes it virtually impossible for anyone to escape poverty.

While the racial wealth gap is critically important, there are also millions of poor White families in America. The dynamic of discrimination works in the same way – a vicious cycle creating an almost insurmountable barrier to social and economic mobility. And the solution is the same – disrupt the cycle with policies and system changes which create racial and economic justice.

Those of us with privilege have the power to create change that leads to justice. I intend to ensure that all my decisions as a City Council member are based on my firm commitment to antiracism.

Economic Dignity and Survival

Guaranteeing economic dignity and survival for Columbia's most vulnerable residents is an antiracist strategy, and a critical need at the present time.

Historically, the American economy has created a divided system of winners and losers. Most of us are "winners," benefiting from the privilege of high levels of education, well-paying and satisfying careers, and comfortable lifestyles. However, there are tens of millions of "losers," living in poverty and enduring shortened lives of tremendous hardship.

As we entered the pandemic, about one-quarter of all residents of Columbia were living below the federal poverty level ($25,700 annual income for a family of 4), and almost one-half of children qualified for free or reduced-price lunch at school because of food insecurity at home. About 13,000 rental households (56% of all renters) and more than 3,000 owner-occupied households (27% of all owner-occupiers) were "cost-burdened," with housing and utility costs higher than 30% of household income. Pandemic-related job losses have hit this group hardest – with unemployment benefits declining and moratoriums on evictions expiring, the situation is going to get much worse and expand to include small business owners and entrepreneurs, State workers laid off as tax revenues have plummeted, new graduates with student loan debt, working parents with child care expenses, and those who work in the arts, entertainment, hospitality, travel, and sports sectors.

In an attempt to mitigate the worst impacts of this growing economic catastrophe, I have worked with Mike Trapp (Ward 2 Councilman) to develop an Economic Dignity and Survival proposal for Columbia. We see economic dignity as access to basic needs – food on the table, secure housing with running water and electricity, affordable access to health care and other services, and opportunities for employment and advancement. Unfortunately, for hundreds of unsheltered homeless residents, mere survival may be the best we can hope for.

While Columbia's most vulnerable residents are going to suffer extreme financial hardship, most of us (predominantly White, highly-educated, and property owners) are going to be largely protected. With that in mind, Mike and I believe this is the right time for Columbia's most privileged residents to take the initiative and do something to level the playing field. From our conversations with all of our constituents, we know there is great concern for the welfare of our poorest neighbors and a desire to help them become contributing members of society. We hear support for an act of solidarity, not charity.

Therefore, we are proposing that voters in the City of Columbia should enact a Property Tax Increase for Economic Dignity and Survival in 2021, which would support basic needs:

  • Homelessness services
  • Housing support and utility assistance
  • Health care (especially mental health treatment)
  • Public transit improvements
  • Small business support
  • Job training

Property owners currently pay $0.4075 per $100 of assessed value to the City of Columbia in property tax. As an example of what could be accomplished with a small increase, an additional $0.30 per $100 of assessed value would raise approximately $6 million annually for these essential services and cost the average home-owner just $120/year or $10/month.

In upcoming newsletters, Mike and I will offer details and proposed budgets for specific programs that could possibly be implemented, such as a City-sponsored Homeless Day Center and expanded hours of transit service. But we also want your ideas so please let us know how we can best achieve Economic Dignity and Survival.

D.I.Y. Reparations

Finally, I invite you to take ten minutes to read this powerful essay on D.I.Y. Reparations, in which the author (a Fourth Ward constituent who asked to remain anonymous) analyzes his own unearned privilege and resolves to use it to help level the playing field. Here's an excerpt:

"Reviewing all this in 2020, the year of the great disruption, I saw clearly why I was "better off" than most people in a troubled world. It wasn't because I had played my cards well, or even because chance had dealt me a good hand. It was because the deck had been stacked, again and again, in my favor. I realized, too, that my situation was common—in my family, in my town, in our nation. How was I to think about this situation? What was I to do about it?"

I'm interested in your feedback on all you have read in today's newsletter – the author's plan for D.I.Y Reparations, whether it might influence you to do something similar, and/or whether you would support a Property Tax Increase for Economic Dignity and Survival in 2021.

Constituent Conversations

Please join me for Constituent Conversations Online so we can continue to discuss these important community concerns. The next scheduled gathering is on Sunday, September 6th from 2-4 pm - here are the videoconference/dial-in links:

Zoom Meeting or phone 1-312-626-6799, Meeting ID: 992-3849-4086

Upcoming dates are always available at my web site.

Cheers, Ian