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Our Window of Opportunity to Tackle Racism

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

By Parisa Vinzant
August 29, 2020

Objectives matter because they dictate policy and determine outcomes. The United States is struggling under the major pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, and yet, the public policy responses to these enormous problems could not be more different. According to Susan Gooden, dean of VCU’s Wilder School, the strategy for the problem of COVID-19 is to “solve” it while the objective for racism is to “manage” it as a “condition.” Gooden shared these insights during the recent webinar convened by the ASPA Section on Democracy and Social Justice that explored, “The Dual Pandemics: Fostering Equity in the Face of COVID-19 and Racism.”

More money, resources and a sense of urgency have been deployed in the fight against COVID-19, while position statements and non-substantive actions have largely been the norm in the fight against systemic racism and the recent police killings of people of color. The unequal treatment by police of people of color, especially Blacks, and the disproportionate use of force and violence against them is not new and can be traced to the beginning of modern policing in the United States. Michael A. Robinson’s 2017 Journal of Black Studies article uncovers similar objectives by slave patrols and early police departments, as, “They were born out of the need to police enslaved Africans and control the behavior of Black people.”

Nothing short of an urgent, well-funded, and sustained approach to solving the entrenched problem of systemic racism will bring about substantive and equitable outcomes. Based on the ASPA Code of Ethics and its accompanying practices, public servants have an ethical responsibility for strengthening social equity, opposing all forms of discrimination and improving and eliminating laws and policies that are unethical to promote the public good.

At a time when Black people are dying at 2.4 times the rate of White people to COVID-19 (nationwide) and Black people are 3 times as likely to be killed by police than White people, we must ensure that decisionmaking and policies view both of these pandemics as urgent and necessary to solve. From a public policy perspective, to continue to manage racism as a condition perpetuates discrimination and brutality of government actors against innocent people of color. To pursue a strategy of managing rather than solving sends the revolting message that Black lives do not matter.

With the highly visible, heinous killing of George Floyd at the hands of police on May 25, 2020, millions of Americans began to see the scale of racism and harm inflicted on Black people. Many were galvanized into action, facing the dangers of COVID-19 to march in the streets and call for systemic change. As a result, there was an explosion of interest in learning about the Black Lives Matter movement as millions of Americans began to search Google web and news for information on the movement. An analysis of Google Trend data reveals a tenfold increase in new web and news searches for the term, “Black Lives Matter,” between May 2020 and June 2020 (from a score of 11 in May to a score of 100 in June), which represents a period of peak popularity of the term. To put this in context, during the preceding seven years, the average score for interest in the term, “Black Lives Matter,” was five.

Despite the unprecedented levels of public interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, including the widespread protests against police violence, there has been roughly a 60% decrease in new web and news searches for the term, “Black Lives Matter,” between June 2020 and July 2020.

Without sustained public outrage and action to push for racial equity and racial justice, public leaders will be unlikely to act with the urgency or degree of substantive action necessary to correct inequitable, unequal and harmful policies. Such an outcome should be repugnant and unacceptable to all ethical public servants and administrators, for a weak response at this point would only make the problem worse.

If we are to sustain the public’s attention and will to push leaders to take up meaningful and systemic changes for racial equity and racial justice, then step three in Anthony Downs’ issue-attention cycle must be strengthened. Here are two suggested interventions:

  • Expand the recognition of the cost of change to include its benefits as well, and bring to light the cost of racism so the public more clearly understands what the country has lost and is losing and what is at stake for its future.
  • Focus messaging to clearly: 1) call out the responsibility of people to champion racial equity and justice and create a shared language of commitment for the common good; and 2) advance the core belief that achieving transformational systemic change and racial equity is possible.

We are at a critical point and cannot allow self-serving forces for the status quo, and systems of anti-Blackness and white supremacy, to prevail. We must act with resolve to advance racial equity while the public’s attention remains active in support of the Black Lives Movement. The change we hope to see—equitable and just policies—will expand the potential of the country by unleashing the full potential of its people. It all starts with a shift in thinking and acting with the mind-frame that that systemic racism is a problem to solve.

Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, is a consultant and technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. She enjoys serving as the newsletter editor and social media manager for the ASPA Section on Democracy and Social Justice (DSJ). Parisa applies a social/racial equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, democracy, technology, and community engagement. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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