I was an undergrad at the University of Nevada when the Black Lives Matter movement first began to take shape. I didn’t have a deep understanding of race in the United States. I generally thought that since we didn’t use racial slurs directly toward minorities in public and since there were not any visibly active anti-minority groups and movements in the town where I grew up, that racism was over in the country, and no longer contributed to the inequalities between racial groups in America. Of course, I was very wrong.
At a certain point, our country stopped addressing race head on. Policies meant to specifically keep black people out of political power, separate from white spaces, and intended to limit black economic advancement were removed from the books across the country. What we refer to as Jim Crow laws were struck down, however they were never replaced with laws that would explicitly help the black people who had previously been harmed by public policy. What is more, our nation seemed to decide that if we couldn’t have laws directly targeting a racial minority in a negative manner, then we couldn’t have laws explicitly targeting race in any way, even if the laws sought to undue previous injustice and help advance real equality and equity.
The result was not a race neutral utopia where public policy was equal for everyone. The result has been a steady march of laws that appear to be race neutral, but clearly have disparate racial impacts. There may not be a single measure that anyone could point to in order to say, “That right there, is racism in action via public policy,” but the effects and intents of legislation often are not hidden very deeply.
In 2019 I did a mini dive into drug policy in the United States, and author Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream shows how drug policy was designed with explicit racial prejudices, even though drug policy was race neutral at face value. Hari describes the efforts of a man named John Marks, a psychiatrist in the UK, to provide drugs legally to drug addicts. The legally provided drugs were safer than drugs on the street, and when provided free to drug addicts, it prevented harm to the user, and reduced theft as people no longer needed to break into stores or mug people to obtain money for drugs. From this point, Marks could begin to work with the addicts to address their drug use and help them move forward in a more healthy way.
Many people hated his approach to drug addiction, and in the United States, whenever he traveled to discuss his radical approach to addiction, he was blocked by red tape and pressure from a congressman. Hari writes, “Everywhere they [Marks and his colleagues] went, at the end of the meeting, they were told the same thing – that the Republican congressman Jesse Helms had been pressuring the organizers to shut them down and shut them up. Helms didn’t want anybody to interfere with the war on drugs. A few years later, on a CNN phone-in show, a caller thanked him for everything you’ve done to help keep down the niggers, and he replied by saluting the camera and saying: well, thank you, I think.”
More on that call and on Helms can be found here. What I want to highlight from this quote is how race neutral drug policy was understood by people to be explicitly designed to hurt racial minorities. The caller understood that public policy that negatively targeted drug users and people with low socioeconomic status disproportionately affected non-white people, contributing to racial inequalities that presumably advanced the caller while limiting opportunities for people of color. It was not just an unfortunate consequence of drug policy that black people suffered, it was the goal.
Today we need to accept the realities that so many of our public policies have had. We need to accept that race neutral policy can have different impacts on different racial groups, and that such policies are not really race neutral. We need to address the realities that some groups have been politically favored and advantaged over others through out nation’s history, and we need to start implementing policies which will help racial minorities at disproportionate rates. It is important that we be honest about that reality when moving those policies forward. This requires a change in the way we think about race in this country. We have to move beyond the dismissive idea that all lives matter, and specifically address the harms that have been done to racial minorities by recognizing that black lives matter, and that all lives won’t matter until we recognize that black lives do matter. We must use the energy of the present moment to change the ways we think about race and public policy in the United States, and redesign programs that have historically contributed to racial inequality.