Editor’s Note for the 2019-20 Volume of the Journal of African American Public Policy By Danielle Simms
Please read the entire HJAAP 2020 volume here.
“Anti-Blackness in Policy Making: Learning from the Past to Create a Better Future”
After an event at Harvard Law School, a White male student shared with me that the further we get from segregation, the less Black people can blame segregation for current disparities. This future attorney, who undoubtedly will be in a position of power during his career, lacked an understanding of the complex history of race in this country. He did not understand that the systemic anti-Blackness that originated with the enslavement of African people did not cease to exist simply because explicit, legally sanctioned racism “ended” in the 1960s. He did not understand that the people who held racist beliefs and upheld segregation in the past are the same people who taught their children, their grandchildren, and the students in their classrooms who are alive today to hate. That this enabled not only systemic racism, but also interpersonal racism.
Though this was a student at HLS, many policymakers around the country hold similar beliefs. For instance, Senator Mitch McConnell told reporters that “he does not favor reparations ‘for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible.’” 2019 marked four-hundred years that Black people have been in this country. The United States subjected Black people to 250 years of slavery, 100 years of de jure racial segregation—legal separation of racial groups based on the law—and fifty years where significant racial disparities continued to persist. In response to McConnell’s comments, author Ta-Nehisi Coates “ticked off a list of government-sponsored discriminatory policies—including those in Mr. McConnell’s birthplace of Alabama —such as redlining and poll taxes” that occurred well after the 150-year marker that McConnell identified. By not understanding race and history, we ensure the systems of oppression that have been in place for the past 400 years will not be challenged, and as a result, will continue. By not understanding race and history, the natural answer to the questions “why are African-Americans overrepresented in the criminal punishment system” and “why are African-Americans disproportionately low-income” will not be systemic oppression, but racial inferiority.
The dominant narrative that the majority of us have been taught to believe is that institutions, like the courts and police officers, are fair, good, and constantly in pursuit of justice. With the twenty-sixth volume of the Harvard Kennedy School Journal of African American Policy, we hope to challenge this belief by highlighting how a diverse set of institutions and policies have historically worked to further marginalize Black people while drawing connections to how similar practices exist today. The majority of the works in this volume also contain recommendations for how we can prevent the creation of anti-Black policies in the future.
The first article in this volume, “Institutional Racism Lives at HKS, Compromising Its Effectiveness as a Public Institution,” was written by Yohana Beyene, Karl Kumodzi, and Danielle Simms, three Harvard Kennedy School students who sought to bring to light the institution’s structural racism in hopes that the exposure would cause change to occur within the institution. The op-ed highlights the need to teach public policy students about race and history to ensure their work after school does not create further harm by perpetuating anti-Black policies.
In “Segregated Healthcare: Past and Present,” James Blum and Kamini Doobay draw parallels between the United States’ history of segregated healthcare based on race and the segregated healthcare that exists today based on class that disproportionately impacts Black people. Blum and Doobay offer ways that we can learn from our past to better understand how we can create an equitable healthcare system moving forward.
In “Vilify Them Night After Night: Anti-Black Drug Policies, Mass Incarceration, and Pathways Forward,” Victor J. St. John and Vanessa Lewis discuss the long-lasting impacts of anti-Black policies through the lens of the “War on Drugs.” St. John and Lewis also propose ways in which current anti-Black policies can be addressed and how future anti-Black policies can be prevented.
Mutale Nkonde describes the way technology can be used to promote anti-Black policies in “Automated Anti-Blackness: Facial Recognition in Brooklyn, New York.” The article explores the introduction of facial recognition technology to a residential building in the Brownsville neighborhood in New York City.
In “Advancing Racial Justice Through Local Governments,” Zoe Bulger introduces a framework for city and county officials to contemplate while they seek to address racial justice issues. She takes leaders through five main stages of racial justice work within local government and communities, provides clear action steps for city and county officials to take while embarking on the work, and reiterates the importance of centering racial justice work within cities.
Miriam Edelman showcases an intimate and masterful knowledge of the voting history of the District of Columbia and its particular modern-day implications for Black residents in “D.C.: The Nation’s Plurality African American Capital and Disenfranchisement in the U.S. Congress.” As Edelman explains, the calls for full voting rights and congressional representation for D.C. have been centuries in the making and must be acted upon now.
In “‘With All Deliberate Speed’: Closing the Black Educator Gap,” University of Chicago public policy student Michael Johnson deftly lays out the causes of the current dearth of Black educators and the consequences this has for Black students. Johnson closes by explaining how targeted investments can make a difference.
Mara Roth analyzes the main arguments against the 2009 North Carolina Racial Justice Act in “Discriminatory Death: An Analysis of the Legislative Advocacy Against the North Carolina Racial Justice Act.” The RJA sought to minimize racial bias in death penalty sentencing by introducing statistical evidence of racial discrimination. She asserts that the main arguments against the RJA are rooted in anti-Blackness. Ultimately, Roth urges racial justice activists to use the findings of the article to better understand the arguments of the opposition.
The works in this volume provide a few examples of how the racism of the past has simply transformed and is still present in today’s society. I encourage you to always seek to understand how policies that are proposed today reflect policies that have come before and the impact of those policies on Black communities. However, understanding the intersection of race and history is only the beginning of the work towards racial equity. We must also actively unlearn and combat anti-Black beliefs within ourselves and the world.