This column originally appeared in Michigan Advance on March 16, 2019.
I was going to write this for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then I was going to write this for Black History Month.
But twin life happened — I’ve mentioned I’m the dad of multiples, right? — and now it’s March. While I missed out on those more overt ways to talk about racial equity, we’re right in the midst of another one that many might overlook: the state budget.
The discussion still begins with Dr. King, though. On MLK Day this year, I pulled up his “I Have a Dream” speech on YouTube and played it for my infant daughters. (It’s an important lesson, even if learned largely through osmosis at their age).
Listening to it, something caught my ear that I hadn’t really registered before: “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
We’re now going on 156 years later, and economic equity and security for African-Americans sadly still remains an elusive piece of King’s dream.
As an organization focused on curbing poverty, the Michigan League for Public Policy has placed a greater and more intentional emphasis on racial equity in recent years. We have updated our mission statement to specifically name “racial equity” as part of it — and for an organization that has been around for more than a century, changing our mission is no small matter.
Race is not an easy topic to talk about, or to tackle in a policy context, but the dire need to do both outweighs the discomfort and growing pains.
And while we have tried to weave racial equity into our data analyses and reports for some time, the League has also moved be more deliberate in placing racial equity front and center in our work, as well as our mission.
A prime example of this is in our recent Owner’s Manual for Michigan proactive public policy agenda. The plan includes 14 policy goals in four main issue areas — top-notch education, thriving families, strong workers and healthy communities. And each of those 14 fact sheets includes a brief analysis of these particular policy goals in relation to racial equity — reviewing both the historic and systemic issues that have caused racial disparities as well as how making these policy changes will reduce them.
The annual state budget is another big area of our work. The League has outlined our 2020 state budget priorities, including an overarching priority calling on lawmakers to address the racial, ethnic and social justice impact of state budget decisions throughout the budget process. More specifically, we ask that “when making state budget decisions, lawmakers should incorporate and make publicly available an analysis of the impact of budget options on children and families of color.”
While we are a data-driven organization, it’s important to note that every racial disparity or negative outcome has a backstory, often tied back to our state and our nation’s problematic past of discrimination and segregation.
And state budgets are not and should not be “colorblind.” State funding decisions have the power to reduce, maintain or exacerbate current inequities, and policymakers need to understand that.
In addition to making racial equity a cornerstone of our overall budget priorities, many of our specific funding recommendations will also help remedy racial inequities, including: increasing school funding for students academically at risk or living in poverty; improving healthy food access in low-income, urban neighborhoods of color; investing in home visiting services to improve maternal and infant health; providing resources to ensure all kids can read by third grade; and expanding access to higher education and skills training, especially for adults.
Many of these investments are included in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget proposal, as well, and we urge the Legislature to follow suit and uphold these recommendations.
Promoting racial equity in public policy is an advocacy and education effort, as well as a fiscal and analytical one.
Like most states, Michigan faces geographic and political divides in addressing race directly. Public policies have ingrained and perpetuated many racial inequities, and public policies can reduce or eliminate them, too.
All Michigan residents must succeed for our state, our economy and our communities to thrive. By reducing disparities for some Michigan residents, we are increasing opportunity and prosperity for all. And only then will Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream truly have come true.