Policies are race-neutral. They are applicable to all people regardless of their hue or ethnicity and are put into law to safeguard and protect the rights and services offered to all Americans, right?
Maya Wiley, founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion, doesn’t think so. At a town-hall style conversation Wednesday, Wiley told lawmakers and community activists that some policies implicitly exclude certain races and are only “race-neutral on their faces.”
Wiley’s case in point was the racially-coded Social Security Act of 1935 which denied African-American workers benefits.
“The Social Security Act of 1935 excluded from coverage about half the workers in the American economy. Among the excluded groups were agricultural and domestic workers—a large percentage of whom were African Americans. This has led some scholars to conclude that policymakers in 1935 deliberately excluded African Americans from the Social Security system because of prevailing racial biases during that period,” according to U.S Social Security Administration.
This act, passed 77 years ago, not only shows that racial disparities have been around for a long time, but that they are also what Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, calls “systemic” or rooted in our political system.
Holder-Winfield told the audience about his mother’s recent June death and his newly realized connection to her. A connection that made him realize he wasn’t as independent as he thought he was, but instead part of something collective.
“We do have a history that started before us,” Winfield said.
That history is racialized.
To reconstruct policies and perhaps invent new ones, the issue of race and its systemic roots in American society must be addressed. To achieve equality, we need to realize that we are all different, Wiley said.
“We are trying to support prosperity for everyone,” Wiley said. “But we also have to acknowledge that we are not all in the same position so we have to be looking at how we are different…we have to talk about race.”
To achieve this shared prosperity, Janice Flemming, CEO of Voices of Women of Color, says activists need to “be a little more inclusive.”
Flemming says relationships need to be formed with the advocates and the population they serve to evoke change.
“We need to engage in conversations with the people we service not to bring back information that the grantees want to hear but to bring back info to support the best argument to the grantees on how to move forward,” Flemming said.
“We need to develop community organizers to bring forth correct information to our legislature,” she added.
Wiley found some intervention points to hinder these disparities and promote equality while studying research done by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit organization devoted to innovative policy solutions.
The Brookings Institute conducted a study on each races’ chance of becoming part of the middle class and what factors go into how those people achieve that status. The study, broken into age groups, says that at age five whites, blacks and hispanics all have a relatively equal chance of achieving middle class status if they are born to a mother who isn’t poor and has a high school diploma.
But by at age 11, whites and latinos’ chances increase while blacks’ chances decrease by four percent, and one of the most prominent indicators is whether a child was math and reading ready.
As the ages increase, the percent of blacks who will achieve middle class status plummet with indicators like not being able to read or calculate numbers and having a criminal record.
By the age of 40, only 34 percent of African-Americans will achieve middle class status.
Wiley said opportunities at each of those milestones are racialized, but provide activists intervention points.
Not only should school policies be altered, but judicial policies as well.
“We [Blacks] don’t get forgiven when we are caught with a nickel bag of pot,” Wiley said. “Blacks don’t get to recover from minor offenses.”
Wiley jokingly added that she doesn’t know that from experience.
She says we must “face race” since is it a social construct that we can change.
But before we do Wiley says we must ask ourselves: “Are we collectively investing in our shared opportunity and authoring our future together?”