An anti-racist agenda for a more equitable LA County
by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Special to the Los Angeles Daily News
Like the opening salvo in the Battle of Concord, the horrific video of George Floyd’s death ignited a collective awakening at the life or death inequities Black people face every day.
The widespread demonstrations for racial justice are not just in the realm of law enforcement. (Though it is mainly these visceral images posted from camera phones to social media that have finally helped many to be heard, and others to be believed.) This reckoning has called for reform in every sphere of American life. Universities have changed the names of campus buildings in acknowledgment of the namesake’s ignorance and racism. Corporations have donated funds, created diversity pipeline initiatives, and phased out offensive product images and advertising.
Longstanding institutions of American exceptionalism are now being asked in earnest: how much do Black lives really matter?
Our institutions reflect society, and our society is the sum of our collective history; the vestiges of this history—slavery, our country’s original sin—continue to run deep. Healthcare, education, public safety, employment, housing, and technology; no sector has gone untouched. Each system has produced significant racial disparities in way that cannot be easily ignored.
For instance, African American women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die of complications from pregnancy; an experience Serena Williams so bravely and clearly articulated. In a recent report on COVID-19 testing and collection efforts in south Los Angeles led by Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, nearly 10 percent of the more than 60,000 people tested since early April were COVID-19 positive.
In 2017, in Los Angeles County alone, 27 percent of the 688 people shot or seriously injured by law enforcement were African American. African American small businesses, one of the economic engines for Los Angeles County and a pillar of economic strength for the African American community, find themselves less likely to receive coronavirus aid or other financial assistance amid this pandemic. And during a decade-long economic expansion, one of the greatest in our nation’s history, African American unemployment was still nearly double the national average.
Today’s current economic realities have only exacerbated this. After the furloughs, layoffs and bankruptcies of COVID-19, African American unemployment stands at nearly 17 percent.
Not since the civil rights movement and societal upheaval of the 60’s have we seen such a sustained push for fairness and justice of civic consequence in the name of African American lives.
As the most diverse county in the nation, with the third highest African-American regional population in the fifty-states, Los Angeles County must also ask itself the same question that has been asked of others: How is institutional racism manifesting itself in the context of governance, policymaking, and service delivery? Is it truly investing in the lives, safety, health and well-being of African Americans in a substantive way that demonstrates they matters?
While we cannot rewrite history, we do control our response to the present.
Recently, the Board of Supervisors voted on a motion that I have authored to establish an antiracist policy agenda for Los Angeles County. This motion focuses on the actions that I hope will produce real systemic change to improve educational outcomes, better physical and mental health care, increase housing and housing stability, create meaningful employment opportunities, and an equitable and fair criminal justice system. And while African Americans are the focus of the motion, in the same way the fight for voting rights has benefited all communities of color and strengthened our democracy, this policy agenda is similarly focused to benefit other communities as well.
It is simply not enough to declare that racism is bad, because the issues we are dealing with are systemic in nature. Change requires change. This change demands that we declare racism against African American people has reached crisis proportions that results in large disparities in family stability, health and mental wellness, education, employment, economic development, public safety, criminal justice and housing in Los Angeles County.
That we establish as a high-level priority the elimination of racism and bias through a strategic plan and underlying policy platform articulating goals, actions, and deliverables. Align the performance incentives for our County leaders and Department heads in a way that strengthens organizational capacity for cultural competency to reduce racial stigma, inequality, and implicit bias within their respective departments. And to advance the overarching strategies and 67 recommendations put forward by the Ad Hoc Committee for Black People Experiencing Homelessness, and more.
Some would say that, sadly, after the Black codes and Jim Crow laws, the condoned practices of lynching, voter suppression, the myth of separate-but-equal schools, state-sanctioned housing discrimination in the form of red-lining and enforcement of racially restrictive covenants, as well as mass incarceration, this would the best time be Black in America.
But we cannot ever allow that to be the truth.
Just as racism can be learned, it can be unlearned and replaced with the beliefs, and policies to oppose it. While the arc of a moral universe bends towards justice, its march is not inexorable. Right now, LA County has an opportunity—and responsibility—to dismantle systemic inequities and racist structures that have long plagued us and set the national standard as a leader on racial equity and anti-racism.
A brighter day awaits us should we take up this most worthy democratic pursuit.
Mark Ridley-Thomas is a Los Angeles County Supervisor for the Second Supervisorial District and the author of the motion. He will hold a virtual forum on Monday, August 3, 2020 to discuss the role of LA County in redefining systems and structures to create a more equitable environment. Register here: https://tinyurl.com/AntiRacistLA