For centuries, Black Americans have been denied access to economic opportunity, criminalized, and blamed for systemic divestment. When opportunity was promised to all Americans, it was only a reality for white Americans. For example, the nation made bold and transformative investments in the wake of the Great Depression to lift millions of poor white Americans into the middle class. Yet policymakers intentionally left out Black people and other communities of color.
Continued divestment and discrimination have resulted in a staggering percentage of Black families navigating poverty, living in overpoliced but underserved and underresourced communities, and often experiencing much greater rates of unemployment or jobs in low-paying industries. These issues are rooted in many of the exclusionary and racialized policies and practices used throughout history to limit access and opportunity for Black people. These practices and policies have included Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, exclusionary restrictions in legislation like the New Deal, voter suppression, redlining, school segregation, and employment discrimination.
Regardless of efforts to pass more expansive federal legislation and enact widespread public benefit programs, Black people today still face the generational impact of poverty at greater percentages than their white counterparts. For instance, the Census Bureau reported that the median Black household in 2020 earned just 61 cents for every dollar of income the median white household earned.
In its entirety, the Build Back Better agenda can reshape the economic landscape for many communities of color that have struggled to access well-paying jobs, fair pay, and adequate benefits. Build Back Better can also assist in reshaping neighborhoods by providing jobs—creating safer, more vibrant, well-resourced communities. In addition to establishing paid family and medical leave and investing in child care and universal pre-kindergarten (critical supports that all communities of color lack access to), the proposed bill would make a transformative investment in good jobs and workforce training for historically oppressed communities.
The proposal would make large and long-overdue investments in the public workforce system, incentivize proven wealth-building strategies such as subsidized and transitional jobs for young people, and direct significant resources in workforce training services to those impacted by our nation’s racist criminal legal system. The proposal would establish a civilian climate corps to mobilize communities and invest in the fight for environmental justice. Furthermore, Build Back Better would make community colleges free and dedicate nearly $30 billion to historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. While not a panacea, this groundbreaking investment would significantly bolster the skills and education of Black communities, allowing them greater access to economic opportunity and generational wealth.
Unfortunately, policymakers continue to weaken the transformative proposals and once again create obstacles to racial justice and economic opportunity. They’ve taken what was once a $3.5 trillion investment in our nation’s social fabric and whittled it down to under $2 trillion as moderate Democrats refuse to stand with the majority of Americans. Members of Congress are currently making plans to weaken—or even eliminate—investments in free community college, paid leave, and climate justice provisions, all of which are devastating compromises to Black Americans and other communities of color.
Congress must recognize that the full Build Back Better agenda is a long-overdue lever for racial justice and must deliver results for Black communities and other communities of color. The pandemic has only exacerbated existing racial inequalities, with Black people once again bearing the brunt of inaction. The historic turnout of communities of color during the 2020 election assured Democratic control of the House, Senate, and White House. And that turnout was prompted by an urgent demand for policymakers to institute the kind of massive investment represented by the full Build Back Better agenda. Yet we have only seen a weakening of the promised agenda. Without a prioritized focus on dismantling systemic and structural racial barriers in employment and building wealth, there is no building back better. It’s time we build back Black.
Dr. Jamie R. Riley has worked as a racial justice and social change agent in higher education and/or non-profit administration for the past 15 years.
Duy Pham is a policy analyst focused on CLASP’s justice portfolio and sits on the youth team.
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