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A Trifecta of Inequity in the United States Boils to the Surface: What are We Doing Wrong?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nathan Teklemariam
June 5, 2020

No one could have imagined the triple threat of economic, social and health inequity to surface from underlying systematic racism within the past three months in the United States, but here we are, and it is not new. As a native African, and now an African-American, I am tired of writing about this—exhausted to be honest. So, I don’t want to dissect, preach or make the world understand the constant vicious cycle that no solution seems to have addressed over several hundred years both in the United States and globally when it comes to race and equity. 

So, instead I will just tell you why I and millions within the global community are angry from my own perspective at this moment in time. My personal experience in 800 words or less…a difficult proposition.

My first encounter with discrimination in the United States started the first time I was called the “N” word. It was during my first year of college, as I was walking on campus at a rural university in Minnesota. I heard students screaming it from their high-floor dorms so we couldn’t even tell who they were. I ignored it but decided to move back to finish university in NYC, where I first immigrated to, and felt most welcomed. However, that was all shattered immediately. My first encounter with the police occurred during my first year back in NYC going to my university in Manhattan and exiting out of the Subway, where I was grabbed and pushed against the wall with a gun at my head. It was in the middle of the day, and I didn’t know it was a cop since he was not wearing a uniform. I was scared and thought I was being mugged, but soon others with uniform joined and I got searched. Notebooks and textbooks in my bag, I was told I fitted a description, and in no kind nor apologetic terms, I was told to go “on my way.” I had to sit through classes that day totally petrified, hurt and ashamed about what just had happened.

I encountered this kind of behavior from NYC police many more times, both alone and with friends. At one point my Puerto Rican and Dominican school mates and I got dragged out of our car with shot guns for “fitting a description” by once again police outside their uniform.  And each time, we were told to “go on our way.” I thought at the time, as I do now, what if we got scared (most of the time they were not wearing uniforms nor driving police cars) and we resisted in some way? Of course, I know now this was the era of “stop and frisk” in NYC, but we were teens or in our early twenties doing our daily routine just like our other white counterparts. We got the message eventually; in the most diverse city in the United States, we “fit the description” because we were not “white.” Period. Where is justice and equity there?

Over the years, how basic healthcare has been denied to most hard working people in the United States (whether by making sure you don’t work even an hour longer a week to deny you that basic human right) by the largest and richest companies that employ a large number of minority groups has not been lost in the mind of most. That fact was made transparent during the current pandemic. Not only are these groups denied basic healthcare that has disproportionately affected decades of health outcomes, but now they are essential workers that are expected to work in the frontlines during a pandemic. Where is justice and equity there?

We are also aware, those that have lost their income because of the pandemic and the closure of certain industries (service & hospitality particularly) employ in large part minority and immigrant populations; a study that is impossible to even begin to unpack because of the lack of data. Let me stress, a lack of data from the most advanced country on the planet on such important aspects of citizens’ life is a disservice to the entire nation. Where is justice and equity there?

If all this is not bad enough, once again the world had to witness a murder of a handcuffed black male pushed against a gutter by a white police officer in broad day light. Yes, human beings across the globe that witnessed the continuing brutality against black people in the United States have had enough. Health, economic and racial induced disparities are not new, but this has been pushed to the surface again. This is ominous in the age of globalization and technological advances, and it has finally made the reality of black people, especially in the United States, available to see for the masses. But we should all ask, “Where is justice and equity there?”

In recent years, public policy and public administration as a science have moved towards “equity and inclusion” as one of their core pillars and principal. This is an important evolution that keeps gaining ground, and we should all be thankful for that. However, there is a disconnect between theory and practice. Millions of Americans, including myself, live in this dichotomous world of “ideals” and “reality.” I am sure most people are wondering the same thing, and I hope we all come out of this either as citizens, educators, policy makers or public administrators, and most of all, as humans with a new paradigm worthy of a new simple question: “What are we doing wrong?”

Author: Nathan (Natan) Teklemariam is a Doctoral student at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. Teklemariam is a 2018 ASPA Founders’ Fellow and a 2018 ASPA International Young Scholars recipient. [email protected]

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