First, the new administration should organize a diverse group of scholars who will be charged with offering a comprehensive and holistic portrait of America’s racial history. The Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones offers an important template in this regard, but one that — even as it has been debated among historians — has also been attacked on ideological grounds by conservatives and neo-Confederates for being overly critical of the nation’s long political and cultural embrace of White supremacy.
A major lesson of 2020 is that the past is not past. Relics and artifacts of White supremacy — from Confederate monuments and flags to statues of generals who wanted racial slavery to continue forever — still help shape the present, including policies that disenfranchise Black voters that were first promoted during the Reconstruction era.
America’s racial history remains, now more than ever, deeply contested. President Donald Trump’s appointment of a “1776 Commission” to teach “patriotic education” in our school systems attests to this. It is past time for national leadership that helps us clearly establish our past in all of its complexity. Understanding, for instance, racial slavery’s expansive reach — North and South — into the creation of American capitalism gives students, citizens and leaders a more holistic appreciation of the stubborn afterlife of structural racism. The stickiness of America’s current racial divide is rooted in a history that we continue to distort, gloss over or ignore at our very nation’s peril.
Second, 2021 must see a coordinated effort at the local, state and national levels to eradicate the thousands of racist policies that keep too many Black Americans at the bottom of the well of this society. Criminal justice reform is the tip of the iceberg on this score. Eliminating the cash bail system and disparate sentencing for crack versus powdered cocaine, releasing non-violent drug offenders and transforming a juvenile justice system that disproportionately harms Black children should be at the top of the policy agenda.
And we mustn’t stop there. The national racial healing that many long for cannot be purchased on the cheap. This commission must endorse and devise strategies to pursue policies for a living wage, housing reform, mental health and education programs and a universal basic income.
They must look to provide affordable health care for every American. While some major Democratic candidates for president in 2020 favored a Medicare for All plan, President-elect Joe Biden has vowed instead to add the public option to Obamacare — reviving a measure that failed to pass in 2010. But we are long past the time for policy tinkering with the health of Americans. Of those who insist that Medicare For All is unaffordable we should ask another question: How can we afford not to? Medicare For All would increase jobs, employment and tax revenue through massive public investments that could increase worker productivity, economic mobility and ensure that families and children’s health care would not be tied to a single job or eliminated amidst a pandemic.
This commission would work closely with governors and mayors at the state and local level to establish priorities, design implantation strategies, and innovate solutions that are based on the challenges, wants, and needs of grassroots communities across the nation.
But there’s more.
The commission must explore targeted programs to repair the purposeful injury to Black Americans caused by racial slavery, Jim Crow bigotry, inequality in federal housing policies and the GI Bill and predatory lending during the Great Recession.
Third, racial healing requires more than anti-racist hashtags from corporations, sports teams, philanthropists and public officials. Leaders in tech, philanthropy and higher education, along with elected officials, must pledge concrete action toward racial justice and equity, with measurable indicators of progress and accountability. The technology, finance capital and entrepreneurship sectors, in conjunction with local, state and federal government could invest in eco-systems that prioritize wealth creation, talent development and access to capital in Black communities on an unprecedented scale.
2020 will exist in American and world history as a watershed: the shared trauma of a global pandemic unfolded alongside Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a political reckoning with racism’s grip on American life. This year served as an inflection point that illuminates the challenges ahead for a new presidential administration in Washington and the collective hopes and will of the nation.
This new year offers Americans a next step in this unprecedented generational opportunity to confront the simmering political rage rooted in structures of racism, economic inequality and violence that have poisoned our politics and created divisions that imperil our democratic institutions.
The Covid-19 pandemic has cast a harsh spotlight on racial disparities in health care, employment, public-school education and the criminal justice system. The coronavirus has upended the very fabric of American life by amplifying the breadth and depth of inequality in our nation.
2021 must be an opportunity to rectify our national failures. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris must do their part but so should ordinary citizens. Every city, town and hamlet in the nation should look inward at their histories of racial inequality, acts of truth-telling that can form the basis for local, state, and regional policy solutions that can pave the way toward healing and reconciliation across the nation.
We must look to the new year not as the end of the crises that befell us in 2020 but as the beginning of a new chapter that might finally address the roots of the divisions that threaten our collective future. The eloquent words spoken in 2020 against the backdrop of racial crisis must be matched by deeds in 2021 if we are to move forward together.