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We Are Called to Do Better

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

By Parisa Vinzant
May 19, 2020

COVID-19 has been called the great equalizer because no one is immune. And yet, the virus’s effects have been anything but equal. Certain groups—Black Americans in particular—are disproportionately impacted. Data from Washington, D.C. and 40 states reveal the brutal reality that black Americans are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than their population share and as compared to mortality rates for Latinos, Asians and Caucasians. The statistic does not address the why. This high and unequal death rate has nothing to do with the virus itself. Rather, it has to do with the pre-existing condition of systemic social inequality. Many believe that the end of slavery created equality—it did not. Instead, slavery changed into another form in the South with the forced labor of mostly black incarcerated males, often arrested on trumped-up charges, and the implementation of Jim Crow Laws.

Across the country, discrimination continued to evolve into more refined forms, including the practice of redlining, whose effects—significant disparities in health, economic and educational outcomes—live on by ZIP code in a system largely invisible to most Americans. COVID-19 has exacted a high toll on black Americans, and the discrepancy, if not its underlying cause, has the public’s attention.

But the higher toll of COVID-19—and the burden of inequity in general—is not limited to the minority groups affected. We are so interconnected that it is foolhardy to think that damage to one group does not affect us all. Besides the moral imperative to treat all Americans fairly, it costs society more in the long run to allow systems of inequity to persist. The most recent, stark examples are medical systems overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of COVID-19 patients as well as the cost of delaying care for those with non-COVID-19 conditions. As the pandemic threatens to careen out of control, so will the tally of increased health and economic costs—and death. It is in the best interest of us all to correct disparities and design more equitable systems.  

Advancing racial equity in all aspects of government must be at the core of the pandemic response in both the short and long term. This raises a fundamental question for the field: Are our current and future public servants equipped to take on this necessary systemic change?

The COVID-19 pandemic is a fast-evolving and protracted policy problem, the kind of, “Wicked problem,” Brian Head and John Alford refer to in a 2015 Administration & Society journal article as being, “Beyond the cognitive capacities” of any one individual or organization to manage. Currently, public servants at the local and state level are scrambling to balance the competing needs of managing a still-unfolding disaster and deploying a partial recovery response. At the same time, they are trying to build resiliency of systems, businesses and residents, while also working to maintain crucial and normal public services. Cities, states and the federal government are struggling to manage COVID-19 challenges, which require new skills and approaches from public administrators. Now is the time for public affairs, administration and policy programs to take an honest look at how well their programs meet today’s new problems and those in the hard years ahead.

“Do we have the right mix of programs,” asked Maria Aristigueta, director of the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware, on April 30th during the joint ASPA and Wilder School webinar, “COVID-19, Public Affairs Education and the 2020-21 Academic Year.” While the financial difficulties faced by universities due to the pandemic are very real, there is opportunity in chaos. Four guiding questions may prove helpful for evaluating public affairs, administration and policy programs:

COVID-19’s devastatingly unequal effects underscore how important it is to align the mission of public service education programs with the pressing challenges of today and in the coming years: to identify, reduce and eliminate racial disparities that limit economic growth, restrict innovative potential and damage the strength of the country.

For nearly half a century, there has been a call for a more culturally competent, just and equitable approach to teaching public affairs, administration and policy. As Brandi Blessett, director of the MPA program at the University of Cincinnati, said in a 2018 Journal of Public Affairs Education article, “Many times, public affairs, administration and policy programs are the only orientation many public servants get that empower them to understand their role as not only public servants, but actors that can either promote or dispose of justice for individuals and communities.”

For the current crisis to have any lasting meaning, we must see ourselves at a turning point rather than a bend in the road. Our notion of public service must change, not only to tackle new problems but also to tackle the old problem of discrimination in new ways. We must re-envision government public service so that it truly works in the best interest of the public and all the individuals it serves.

Who among us will heed the call and take on this vital task?

Author: Parisa Vinzant is a consultant, MPA Candidate (UD Biden School of Public Policy and Administration), and technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies a social/racial equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging such as ethics, democracy, technology, and community engagement. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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