This moment is about police brutality, but it’s not only about police brutality. The word I keep hearing is “exhausted.”
People are exhausted by and fed up with the enduring wealth disparities between white and black, with the health disparities that leave black people more vulnerable to COVID-19, with the centurieslong disparities in violence and the threat of violence, with the daily indignities of African Americans and the stains that linger on our nation decade after decade.
The killing of George Floyd happened in a context — and that context is racial disparity.
Racial disparity doesn’t make for gripping YouTube videos. It doesn’t spark mass protests because it’s not an event; it’s just the daily condition of our lives.
It’s just a condition that people in affluent Manhattan live in one universe and people a few miles away in the Bronx live in a different universe. It’s just a condition that many black families send their kids to struggling inner-city schools while white families move to the suburbs and put on black T-shirts every few years to protest racial injustice.
The response to this moment will be inadequate if it’s just police reforms. There has to be a greater effort to tackle the wider disparities.
Reparations and integration are the way to do that. Reparations would involve an official apology for centuries of slavery and discrimination, and spending money to reduce their effects.
There’s a wrong way to spend that money: trying to find the descendants of slaves and sending them a check. That would launch a politically ruinous argument over who qualifies for the money, and at the end of the day people might be left with a $1,000 check that would produce no lasting change.
Giving reparations money to neighborhoods is the way to go.
A lot of the segregation in this country is geographic. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, early-20th-century whites-only housing covenants pushed blacks into smaller and smaller patches of the city. Highways were built through black neighborhoods, ripping their fabric and crippling their economic vitality.
Today, Minneapolis is as progressive as the day is long, but the city gradually gave up on aggressive desegregation. And so you have these long-suffering black neighborhoods. The homeownership rate for blacks in Minneapolis is one-third the white rate. The typical black family earns less than half as much as the typical white family.
To really change things, you have to lift up and integrate whole communities. That’s because it takes a whole community to raise a child, to support an adult, to have a bustling local economy and a vibrant civic life. The neighborhood is the unit of change.
Who has the expertise to lift up whole neighborhoods? It’s the people who live in the neighborhoods themselves. No outsider with a foundation grant or a government contract really knows what’s going on in any neighborhood or would be trusted to make change. The people who live in the neighborhoods know what to do. They just need the resources to do it.
A few weeks before the lockdown I was in and around South Los Angeles. In Watts I interviewed Keisha Daniels from Sisters of Watts, which helps kids and homeless people in a variety of ways. I interviewed Barak and Sara Bomani of Unearth and Empower Communities, which helps educate and nurture young people in nearby Compton.
Daniels and the Bomanis are experts in how to lift up their neighborhoods. If we got them money and support they would figure out what to do.
How can government focus money on formerly redlined neighborhoods and other communities?
National service programs would pay young people to work for these organizations. A National Endowment for Civic Architecture, modeled on, say, the National Endowment for the Arts, could support neighborhood groups around the country. A Social Innovation Fund would be a private/public partnership to fund such organizations. Moving to Opportunity grants and K-12 education savings accounts would help minorities to move to integrated schools. Collective impact structures could coordinate local action and use data to find what works.
In the progressive era, governments built libraries across the country, which remain vital centers of neighborhood life. We’re about to have a lot of empty retail space. Why can’t we build Opportunity Centers where all the groups moving children from cradle to career could work and collaborate?
It’s true this has sort of been tried before. The Great Society had a “Community Action” project that professed to redistribute power to neighborhoods. But it did it in the worst possible ways. A lot of what it did involved sending disruptive agitators to stir up conflict between local activists and local elected officials. The result was rancor and gridlock.
This tumultuous moment offers a chance to launch a new chapter in our history, and reparations are part of that launch. They offer a chance to build vibrant neighborhoods where diverse people want to live together, where the atmosphere is kids playing on the sidewalks and not a knee in the back of the neck.