New Justice Amy Coney Barrett poses a real threat to our rights

By Debra Gore-Mann
San Francisco Chronicle

Whatever one thinks of the partisan aspects of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation, she represents a serious threat to civil rights protections, and indeed to the very health of every American.

Recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., claimed a monumental win for Republicans by stating in a speech on the Senate floor, “A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election, but Democrats won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.” The Senate then voted 52-48 to confirm Barrett barely eight days before the general election.

The anger and the distrust over Barrett’s confirmation continues to swell in an already divided America — divided because this was the wrong priority. The priority should have been COVID-19. The forewarned October surge has materialized as the pandemic continues to heat up at a rate that alarms most experts, with new cases setting records and hospitalizations surging.

There was no urgency to name and confirm a nominee. In the not-so-distant past, a Supreme Court vacancy was held open for 422 days when Justice Antonin Scalia died on Feb. 13, 2016 and Neil Gorsuch was sworn in on April 10, 2017. That’s nearly 14 months.

There are serious concerns that Barrett is being pushed through because supporters know that she will advance their agenda, despite the wishes of the American people. The 45th president has been involved in over 4,000 legal battles in some capacity throughout his professional history as real estate mogul, entertainer, entrepreneur and now as a politician. We should not expect anything to change now. At least 126 multistate lawsuits (suits brought by one state and then joined by others) have been filed against the federal government since Trump took office in January 2017. And litigation about voting rights and voter suppression looms.

But amid all the partisan and procedural arguments we need to remember this: Barrett constitutes a clear and present danger to communities of color.

As an “originalist” in the mode of Clarence Thomas, Barrett seems inclined to take us back to an 18th century view of the world — an era that did not look favorably on the rights of people of color or women. In general, her record and writings suggest a narrow, constricted view of the government’s role in protecting those with the least power in society — including people of color, women, workers, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, etc.

Specifically, Barrett’s record suggests she takes a narrow, limited view of civil rights protections. In a case involving racial segregation by employer AutoZone, she joined a narrow majority ruling that “intentionally assigning members of different races to different stores” did not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. As a dissenting judge noted, “Under the panel’s reasoning, this separate-but-equal arrangement is permissible under Title VII so long as the ‘separate’ facilities really are ‘equal.’

”This in itself is troubling. It’s worse when you combine it with Barrett’s apparently greater willingness to overturn precedent than has been traditional for the court, writing, “I tend to agree with those who say that a justice’s duty is to the Constitution and that it is thus more legitimate for her to enforce her best understanding of the Constitution rather than a precedent she thinks clearly in conflict with it.”

Combining the two views laid out above, what civil rights precedents will be safe in Barrett’s hands? This may seem unthinkable, but it’s not beyond imagination to worry whether even the essential ruling against “separate but equal,” Brown vs. Board of Education, might be in danger. Even if a majority of justices find Brown untouchable, which they should, what about more recent rulings affirming the existence of affirmative action programs at colleges and universities, or the rights of same-sex couples to marry?

In one critical real-world example, Barrett has shown hostility to the Affordable Care Act and has strongly criticized a prior Supreme Court ruling upholding it. As important as the ACA is to all Americans during a pandemic, it produced particularly dramatic gains in health coverage for Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous Americans. This is not academic: SCOTUS will hear such a case shortly after the election.

Barrett could be the vote that takes away health care from millions during a global pandemic which just surpassed over 225,000 deaths in the U.S.

Debra Gore-Mann is president and CEO of The Greenlining Institute.

 

Barrett will destroy the Affordable Care Act

By Kelsey Lyles
The Progressive

If Republican senators steamroll Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court, she could become the crucial fifth vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare. That represents a serious threat to families of color.

This isn’t a theoretical discussion. The Supreme Court is slated to hear oral arguments on the Trump administration’s latest attempt to overturn the ACA on Nov. 10, exactly one week after the presidential election. Barrett could be a justice by then.

The Trump team’s latest effort to kill the health care law turns on its penalty for not having insurance, which the 2017 GOP tax bill cut to zero. We don’t know exactly how Barrett would rule, but she strongly criticized Chief Justice John Roberts’ ruling in a prior case upholding the ACA, which involved the same provision.

Barrett has also criticized the ACA’s requirement of coverage for contraception, calling it an “assault on religious liberty and the rights of conscience.”

Ruling against the ACA would end the health care of millions of Americans. And that burden would fall disproportionately on Americans of color, who had the highest uninsured rates prior to the law’s passage and made the biggest gains under its provisions.

The ACA, while not perfect, has reduced barriers to eligibility and enrollment for low- and moderate-income families. It prohibits insurance providers from charging a patient more due to their risk profile, bans providers from refusing to serve patients with preexisting conditions, and allows young adults to remain on their family’s insurance until age 26.

All of these provisions, the Trump administration argues, should be eliminated if the Supreme Court rules in its favor. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, in a brief filed with the court, said the ACA’s other provisions cannot be separated from the individual mandate and that “it necessarily follows that the rest of the ACA must also fall.”

In 2010, according to a report published earlier this year by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 13.1% of white Americans lacked health insurance, the lowest rate of any racial or ethnic group. Asian Americans were next lowest at 16.7%. The uninsured rate for Black Americans hovered just under 20%, while nearly one-third of Latinx and Indigenous people lacked insurance.

Those numbers dropped dramatically for all groups after the ACA took effect, and the racial gaps narrowed substantially. By 2016, the uninsured rate for Latinx had plunged more than 13 percentage points, while the rate for Black and Asian Americans dropped by nearly half.

Distressingly, those gains pretty much stopped after the Trump administration began chipping away at the ACA — for example, by cutting funding and outreach for enrollment. Tossing out the ACA completely would obliterate coverage for millions of Americans, in the middle of a pandemic.

COVID-19 has already left some eight million Americans with a preexisting condition – making it nearly impossible for them to get affordable health insurance without the ACA’s protections. During her confirmation hearing, Barrett tried to talk her way around the preexisting conditions issue in a way that did not inspire trust.

Barrett disingenuously claimed that the issue before the court was “not a challenge to pre-existing conditions coverage or to the lifetime maximum relief remote cap.” In fact, as Francisco made clear, it is exactly that.

But those COVID-19 infections are disproportionately hitting communities of color. In August, the CDC reported that the COVID-19 case rate for Black Americans was 2.6 times higher than for whites, while for Latinx and Indigenous Americans it was 2.8 times higher. That’s millions of people who are potentially about to have their health care safety net taken away.

For Americans of color, Amy Coney Barrett is not just another judicial nominee, but  a direct and potentially lethal threat. Let your senators know what you think by calling the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

Opinion: Prop. 16 gives equal opportunity a much-needed do-over

By Debra Gore-Mann and Eva Paterson
East Bay Express

In November, California voters will be asked to vote on Proposition 16, which will allow state and local governments to use equal-opportunity policies to promote good jobs, good wages and quality schools for everyone. California has needed this for some time, but the Covid-19 crisis made it urgent, and the police killing of George Floyd this spring Minneapolis illuminated the necessity of dismantling systemic racism.

Read the rest at eastbayexpress.com.

When legislators delay housing reform, people of color lose the most

By Adam Briones
CalMatters

At the start of the last legislative session, Californians were assured that 2020 would be the year our representatives addressed our extreme housing shortage.

Early on, both houses introduced 15 bills in packages that were promising, if not the bold reforms needed to fully solve the crisis or close the racial wealth gap. But instead of even these modest fixes, in the end only three bills, each offering important but minor changes, made it to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk due to fierce opposition.

Patricia McCloskey addressed the Republican National Convention months after she and her husband waved guns at Black Lives Matter protesters. She echoed recent comments by President Donald Trump saying that Democrats “want to abolish the suburbs all together by ending single-family home zoning” and that this would bring “crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods.”

McCloskey’s comments are alarmingly similar to those from affluent California neighborhood associations and advocates who have opposed policies that would even incrementally impact single-family zoning.

Fear of people of color moving into white neighborhoods is nothing new in California. In light of court rulings and federal bills that invalidated racial housing zoning and redlining, white communities and NIMBY activists began imposing codes that restricted the construction of multifamily housing in most neighborhoods starting in the early 1970s. Many still exist today.

Single-family zoning laws hold people of color and low-income families back by making homeownership cost-prohibitive. A recent Sacramento Bee headline: “California’s median home price just broke a record. Here’s how much it is” underscored the urgency of housing reform and went on to point to a new median of $700,000. The inability of all but the wealthy to access good schools or accumulate wealth through homeownership has kept generations of Californians in poverty.

Likely the biggest disappointment this year was the death of Senate Bill 1120 in the final moments, despite passing both the Assembly and Senate. The premise of the bill was simple: allow homeowners to turn their single-family lots into duplexes and or split into two parcels. The bill did not remove anyone’s ability to purchase or own a single-family home. It simply ended  the bans on smaller housing units that exist in two-thirds of residential communities in California.

SB 1120 fell victim to the end of session clock, but it never should have been controversial to begin with. The intense opposition campaigns against SB 1120 and other modest reforms demonstrated that any change that allows more working families, who are likely to be people of color, to live in wealthy, exclusive neighborhoods is too much for affluent homeowners in California’s “progressive” cities.

Their excuses are weak tropes claiming that the bill “crushes single-family streets and directly attacks homeownership;” “steals yards from children;” “destroys backyard vegetable gardens” and creates “unhealthy surroundings for children and the elderly.”

Again, these are the comments that came not from far-right actors, but from those in affluent cities that are happy to put a sign in their window supporting racial justice while at the same time employing the same, albeit watered-down, rhetoric to uphold discriminatory single-family zoning.

By blocking the construction of new housing in wealthy areas and preventing affordable housing options in white communities, single-family zoning laws make it disproportionately harder for people of color to own, or even rent homes.

If our Legislature wants 2021 to be the real year we tackle housing, elected officials must reckon with our state’s ugly history of discriminatory zoning and aggressively pursue policies that enable our state’s housing stock to grow and meet the needs of all families.

Until we can abandon the racist attitudes that have underpinned policies and undermined people of color for decades, we will continue to see failures at the state level to pass meaningful housing reform.

Equitable Building Electrification: Energizing Community Needs

By Carmelita Miller
Facilities Management Journal

Building electrification is coming. As nations around the world grapple with climate change and carbon emission reductions, we see increasing recognition from governments and communities alike that the buildings where we live, work, and play represent a major part of the problem–and, therefore, the potential solution. Many localities are already taking steps to encourage switching from gas to clean, efficient, electric appliances for heating and cooking, particularly in new construction.

Transitioning from gas appliances and systems to electric options signals a significant change for the entire buildings sector. It’s critical that we get this right, because ultimately this will affect all communities and all types of facilities, from single-family homes to large apartment and office complexes, factories, hospitals, campuses and more. Facilities managers need to understand the ramifications of this transition and can play an important role in helping to guide it in a way that benefits all.

The Greenlining Institute examined the issues around electrification for our recent report, Equitable Building Electrification: A Framework for Powering Resilient Communities. We found that in California, where we’re based the gas used in our buildings produces about one quarter of the state’s total CO2 emissions. As a result, over 50 U.S. localities from Maine to Seattle have either adopted or begun considering measures to spur a switch from gas to electricity, and that number continues to grow. According to the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, New York City has identified 175,000 buildings as prime candidates to switch to electric heating, and is working with its electric and gas utility, Consolidated Edison, along with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and Mitsubishi Electric to start making it happen.

Although the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, other governments continue to set ambitious climate and CO2 reduction goals: For instance, the World Resources Institute reports that 46 countries around the globe have already offered specific policies to decarbonize buildings. Meanwhile, California is aiming for an entirely carbon neutral economy, and has committed to a completely carbon-free electric grid by 2045, maximizing the climate gains from building electrification.

Climate and Health Benefits of Electrification

Successful reduction of carbon and air pollution requires shifting towards clean electricity in businesses and homes — single-family houses and large apartment complexes alike. This shift presents the opportunity to achieve multiple objectives: cleaning the aging electric grid, increasing our buildings’ energy performance, and creating policies that align carbon reduction solutions with racial equity outcomes to help the most polluted and underinvested communities.

Today’s highly efficient electric heating technologies offer a cost-effective way to reduce pollution from the buildings sector. For example, using clean electricity in buildings, instead of gas, will reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions by between 31 and 73 percent, depending on the size of the solar array and climate zone.

Combining a cleaner source of electricity with energy efficient heat pump technologies can unlock further cost savings and reduced bills. Electric heat and hot water technologies can save households and commercial facilities in energy costs over the life of the equipment, if installed as part of an overall energy efficiency retrofit and consumers take advantage of policies to access off-peak energy pricing. Over the life of a major facility, this can result in significant cost savings. Forgoing the costs to build, connect, and install gas lines and infrastructure in the first place can also reduce the cost of new construction.

Moving away from gas won’t just help reduce carbon emissions. It will also eliminate a major source of indoor air pollution. Burning gas releases nitrogen oxides and harmful

particulate matter. Prolonged exposure to these combustion byproducts can have serious long-term health impacts, especially for children and the elderly, such as triggering asthma attacks, decreasing overall lung function, and increasing chances of serious respiratory illness. This can be a particular concern for schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities and other facilities where vulnerable individuals may gather.

Environmental and Social Justice Communities

The transition away from gas will impact individuals and communities differently, depending on their situation. Renters, for example, will face different issues — and will tend to have less control — than homeowners or building owners. Clean energy movements of the past, including rooftop solar and energy efficiency, have primarily benefited those on the higher end of the income scale compared to those on the lower end, who face compounding barriers to access. Over time, continued reliance upon market-driven, trickle-down solutions that largely fail to deliver for underresourced communities has frayed trust between policymakers and the communities still waiting for their share of previously promised clean energy benefits.

At The Greenlining Institute, our work therefore focuses mainly on what the California Public Utilities Commission calls Environmental and Social Justice Communities. The CPUC defines ESJ communities as communities where residents are:

  • predominantly people of color or living on low incomes;
  • underrepresented in the policy setting or decision-making process;
  • subject to disproportionate impact from one or more environmental hazards; and
  • likely to experience disparate implementation of environmental regulations and socioeconomic investments.

These communities, typically composed of renters, have been mostly left out of clean energy solutions to date, despite often paying the highest prices proportionally in utility bills, transit, and overall health. To ensure that these communities actually benefit from the transition to building electrification, we must consciously design and implement electrification policies equitably.

Residents of ESJ communities face particular concerns as we transition away from gas. While affluent families can switch at their convenience from gas to electricity for heating and cooking — and indeed, some have begun to do so — ESJ communities typically don’t have that luxury. Residents of these communities experience multiple and often compounding economic barriers that make electrification nearly impossible if they are expected to go it alone. In California, for example, one-third of households lack sufficient income to meet their basic costs of living. ESJ household budgets, in particular, simply cannot cover the upfront costs of new technology, equipment, and upgrades required to electrify a home.

However, ESJ communities will also be the hardest hit if they wind up as the last customers

served by the gas distribution system. With a dwindling number of customers to support an aging system, costs for individual customers, be they households or businesses, will increase. These costs will disproportionately fall on those who can least afford the risk of the significantly increased bills needed to support aging infrastructure and stranded assets.

The Equitable Building Electrification Framework

Equity begins by recognizing that not all communities have the same social and economic starting point. African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, immigrant communities of color, low-income communities and others have long suffered systemic exclusion from opportunities such as homeownership, educational attainment, high-road jobs, and the ability to live in a clean and healthy environment.

We developed the following five-step framework as a roadmap for various stakeholders. It presents a start-to-finish recipe for how the current goals of building electrification can align with producing healthy homes and safer buildings; creating high quality, local jobs that cannot be outsourced; and establishing stronger connections between everyday people and climate change policies and goals.

  • Step 1: Assess Community Needs. This should include understanding barriers preventing community members from electrifying their homes, residents’ knowledge levels regarding building electrification, and their specific needs, wishes, and concerns.
  • Step 2: Establish Community-Led Decision-Making. Rich community input and engagement strengthen the overall program design quality with stronger cultural competence, ensure local buy-in and investment, and deliver tangible local benefits rooted in the lived experiences of everyday people. Partner with community-based organizations to develop a decision-making process that ensures that decisions are based on community needs and priorities.
  • Step 3: Develop Metrics and a Plan for Tracking. Metrics should include both clean energy benefits like greenhouse gas reductions and community benefits such as local hires and residents’ ability to pay their energy bills without sacrificing other essential expenses.
  • Step 4: Ensure Funding and Program Leveraging. Current low-income energy programs often fail to deliver maximum benefits to all qualifying households due to short and unpredictable funding cycles, poor program design that inadequately reaches qualifying customers, or lack of coordination and integration with complementary programs.
  • Step 5: Improve Outcomes. Using the tracking and metrics plan described above, ensure that there is a continuous feedback loop to improve current and future programs’ reach and impact in ESJ communities. Consider adjustments to ensure the program reaches the people it seeks to reach and delivers the intended benefits.

Together we can usher in a just transition to a clean energy economy through building electrification, but this process requires deliberate and inclusive actions. This framework can be used by anyone interested in solving problems with a fresh perspective, removing barriers to participation in the clean energy economy, and bringing communities together around shared goals.

Moving Forward

The era of fossil fuels is coming to a close, as indeed it must in order to prevent climate catastrophe. The benefits of this transition can potentially extend far beyond climate to reduced energy costs, improved indoor air quality, and many thousands of new jobs. This shift will eventually encompass every type of building, from single family homes to small and large apartment complexes, commercial facilities, college campuses and more.

But decarbonizing our building stock will meet with resistance from gas utilities wanting to preserve market share, and implementing building electrification fairly and equitably presents significant challenges. Marginalized communities, such as what California calls Environmental and Social Justice Communities, face particular risks if policymakers do not take specific steps to ensure that their needs are considered and their voices are heard.

As more communities navigate this transition, the experience and expertise of facilities managers can play an important role in shaping this process and maximizing the benefits of building electrification for all involved.

Carmelita Miller is Energy Equity Legal Counsel at The Greenlining Institute and author of Equitable Building Electrification: A Framework for Powering Resilient Communities

California’s Diverse Communities Need Real Solutions to the Housing Crisis

By Adam Briones
Los Angeles Daily News

California is in the midst of a profound housing crisis. While reasonable people can debate solutions, no one can argue that today’s housing market works for anyone but millionaires. Even before the COVID-19 recession, skyrocketing rents made it difficult for even middle-income Californians to make ends meet, and astronomical home prices have pushed the dream of homeownership almost completely out of reach for people of color.

For too long California has failed to deliver the kind of effective housing reforms our diverse communities need. Rather than reasonable solutions, a stark ideological choice is often presented to voters: you can support more targeted low-income housing or the production of market-rate housing, but not both. If we want to remain a growing state that welcomes everyone, we need to move beyond simplistic narratives and accept that our state needs all kinds of housing for all kinds of Californians. At the same time, we also need to recognize that Black, Asian American, Latino and other communities of color were purposefully blocked from the way in which most American families have built wealth—homeownership.

Beginning in the 1930s, public and private sector leaders prevented diverse families from renting or buying into White neighborhoods, otherwise known as redlining. When courts invalidated explicitly racist laws decades later, cities and towns across the country restricted the construction of multifamily housing — a more legally defensible way to keep out families that might “change the neighborhood character.” Since systemic racism requires systemic solutions, any path out of our housing crisis has to address the wealth that was stolen from our communities and what reparations could look like.

Today’s housing crisis has profoundly impacted people of color, which make up more than 60 percent of our population. Our state has six of the nation’s 11 most expensive large metropolitan rental markets and more than two-thirds of Californians facing unaffordable housing costs are people of color. The average rent in Los Angeles has jumped 65 percent since 2010 and the real estate research firm CoStar noted in April that “the coronavirus outbreak won’t fundamentally alter Southern California’s severe housing shortage, which continually tilts the playing field in favor of landlords and owners.” The result is low-income, often immigrant families across the state living in unsafe, overcrowded homes, with no path to homeownership.

First, we must dramatically increase targeted affordable housing resources to help very low-income families and those experiencing homelessness. The private market will never adequately serve these folks and it’s important we make that explicit.  At the same time, making the process to build quality housing fairer will lead to more affordable rents and home prices for the nine out of ten Californians who live in market-rate housing. For this to happen we need our elected leaders to pass legislation that will support diverse housing types and end “one-size-fits-all” building restrictions. A number of important bills in Senate President Pro Tem Atkins’ housing production package can help. Senate Bill 902 and Senate Bill 1120, among other current bills, will help create more of the small-scale housing development California needs and they should receive strong support. But more needs to be done to address affordable homeownership.

Earlier this month, Assembly Bill 3155, a bill focused on creating more entry-level homeownership opportunities by streamlining the creation of smaller projects, was sidelined in the Assembly. Specifically, it would have made it easier to build developments with 10 or fewer units—the kind of projects corporate builders turn down but that are a good fit for small firms owned by people of color and immigrants. While that bill is dead, the principles can and should still be incorporated by Pro Tem Atkins into existing legislation, including speeding the creation of smaller buildings aimed at working-class homebuyers.

Public policy excluded people of color from neighborhoods and homeownership opportunities for generations, contributing to a wealth gap where Black and Latino families have only ten percent of the wealth white families have. By 2040, our state will be 70 percent people of color and our leaders must ensure greater opportunities for affordable rents and homeownership now and in the future. There is no excuse for further delay.

Adam Briones is the Director of Economic Equity at The Greenlining Institute, a policy, research, organizing, and leadership institute working for racial and economic justice.

Let’s Bridge the Digital Divide

By Gissela Moya
Newsday

As COVID-19 has pushed many Americans online to work and attend school, we hear a lot about Zoom fatigue and other annoyances. But what about the tens of millions of Americans who either have only limited internet access at home, or no access at all?

Lack of internet access in some households and communities has long been a national problem. The pandemic has turned it into a national crisis.

It’s time to close our nation’s digital divide.

Millions of American can access the internet only through smartphones. That’s better than nothing, but plagued by serious limitations: Data caps and slower speeds greatly limit what users can do. And some important tasks — like filling out complex applications for employment or college admission — are much harder, given the limits of a tiny touch screen.

The nonprofit group where I work has been talking to folks here in California and elsewhere about life on the wrong side of the digital divide, which makes everything harder, especially education. We spoke to a high school student taking business classes who struggles to create and upload web design assignments on her smartphone, and an older woman who had to drop out of a professional management course because she had no way to do the course work online.

Fabiola Espitia, a counselor at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., told us about a recent high school graduate she counseled who couldn’t take an Advanced Placement exam due to lack of internet access. Others had their education disrupted when the pandemic forced the closing of a campus library, their only internet connection.

Unsurprisingly, the digital divide mirrors economic and racial ones. Last year, a Pew Research survey found distinct patterns in who lacks internet access at home. While 92% of families with a household income of $75,000 or more have a home broadband connection, that figure drops to 56% for incomes of $30,000 and below. While 79% of white households have a home internet connection, just 66% of black households and 61% of Latino households do.

Lack of internet access is a problem in urban and suburban homes, as well as in rural communities. And it is especially destructive when it comes to education. Overall, approximately 12 million students nationwide are affected by this digital divide, putting their futures at risk.

“Schools have shuttered and more than 50 million students have been told to head online for class,” wrote Jessica Rosenworce, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, while dissenting from the rosy conclusions reached by the FCC’s Republican majority in its annual Broadband Deployment Report. “This pandemic has demonstrated conclusively that broadband is no longer nice-to-have. It’s need-to-have.”

COVID-19 has shown us that the digital divide isn’t sustainable if we want all Americans to have a fair shot at success.

The FCC needs to do more to bridge the digital divide, especially in urban and suburban homes. Congress must act swiftly and decisively by providing federal funding to build a future-proof, all-fiber network that reaches every household in the nation, and eliminating state-level bans on communities building their own networks.

Ensuring that everyone in the United States has access to robust, affordable, high-speed internet access should be a national priority.

Gissela Moya is the Manny Garcia Technology Equity Fellow at The Greenlining Institute and co-author of Greenlining’s recent report, “On the Wrong Side of the Digital Divide.” This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

Racial inequality and COVID-19

BY DE’ZHON GRACE, CAROLYN JOHNSON and TREVA REID
Capitol Weekly

Both the New York Times and ProPublica have written about the impact of COVID-19, reporting that in states where Black communities make up only a relatively small portion of the population, nearly half — if not majority — of all COVID-19 deaths are members of the Black community.

This is largely due to environmental, economic and political factors that have compounded for generations, putting black people at higher risk of chronic conditions that leave lungs weak and immune systems compromised: asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Redlining and environmental racism, for example, have consigned Black neighborhoods to breathing some of America’s dirtiest air, drinking contaminated water, and living in food deserts.

Black people account for 25 percent of those who have tested positive and 39 percent of the COVID-related deaths, while making up just 15 percent of the general population.

COVID-19 is having  a clearly disparate impact on the Black community, and we have a clear need for data to be disaggregated by race and ethnicity, in addition to resources focused on our most vulnerable communities.

Consider the following:

From a recent New York Times article, we know that Black people account for more than half of those who have tested positive in Chicago and 72 percent of the COVID-related deaths, while making up less than a third of the population. In Illinois, Black people account for 25 percent of those who have tested positive and 39 percent of the COVID-related deaths, while making up just 15 percent of the general population.

In Michigan, Black people account for 40 percent of the COVID-related deaths and just 14 percent of the population. In addition, according to the Louisiana Department of Health, in New Orleans Black people account for almost 60 percent of the COVID-related deaths, while making up less than a third of the population.

Black people are dying of coronavirus at an alarming rate that is about 2.5 to 3 times higher than other groups.

Here in California, African Americans are about six percent of the population but 10.6 percent of deaths.

The AMP Research Lab reports that the Black community is experiencing a COVID-19 mortality rate 2.9 times higher than the rate for Asians, 2.7 times higher than the rate for Whites, and 2.5 times higher than the rate for Latinos.

Currently, the national COVID mortality rate for Black people is 23 deaths per 100,000 residents. In six states and Washington, D.C., mortality rates exceed the national rate, New York: 88 deaths (per 100,000 residents); Michigan: 72; Connecticut: 58; Louisiana: 49; New Jersey: 32; Illinois: 30; Washington, D.C: 27.

Though we don’t have racial and ethnic data from every state, clearly  Black people are dying of coronavirus at an alarming rate that is about 2.5 to 3 times higher than other groups. For the Black community this is like waking up in the middle of a horror film that adheres to the old trope of the Black people dying first, except this is real and we still have no clear sense of when this nightmare will be over.

For many reasons, homeless people are at increased risk from COVID-19.

For years, the Black community has been reported as having, on average, the lowest life expectancy compared to other communities. ProPublica reported “In Milwaukee, simply being Black means your life expectancy is 14 years shorter, on average, than someone White.”

In California, 2017 data indicates that being Black in Alameda County means having an average life expectancy six to nine years less than your White or Hispanic counterparts. We are more likely to be uninsured compared to our White counterparts. and it is not by choice.

When they encounter the health care system, Black patients often get unequal treatment. When assessing pain, for example, clinicians — mostly White clinicians – underestimate, and therefore, undertreat Black patients, partially due to a common misconception that Black people have higher pain tolerance.

According to CalMatters, Black people make up just six percent of the population in California but 30 percent of our state’s homeless population.

In a recent Slate interview, Dr. Uché Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician, mentions an algorithm that is used to allocate resources to critically ill patients, which has been shown to underestimate the needs of critically ill Black patients. So, when it comes time for hospitals and clinicians to ration resources, we can assume Black patients will be at a disadvantage.

For many reasons, homeless people are at increased risk from COVID-19. We see a disproportionate number of Black people experiencing homelessness, and many more are currently at risk for displacement due to several systemic inequalities. According to the 2018 Alameda County  “Plan to End Homelessness,” Black people make up just 11 percent of the county population but 49 percent of its homeless population;  in Oakland, African Americans make up a staggering 70 percent of the homeless population. According to CalMatters, Black people make up just six percent of the population in California but 30 percent of our state’s homeless population. The nightmare continues.

The largest share of Black-owned businesses with employees, 29 percent in total, are in the health care and social assistance professions.

Black business owners are in the center of the fight against COVID-19 for several reasons. First, the median White family has nearly 10 times the amount of wealth as the median Black family, according to the Brookings Institution. This translates to our businesses having less reserves — both financial and operational — than other businesses. Not to mention the impact that negative perceptions of Black-majority neighborhoods held by consumers had on Black businesses last year. In 2019, those perceptions cost these businesses roughly $4 billion in revenue. COVID or no COVID, Black-owned businesses suffer at the hand of underinvestment due to racial and socioeconomic factors. The current pandemic exacerbates this reality.

Black businesses, and the professionals who work in them, have faced the largest impact from social distancing precautions.  The largest share of Black-owned businesses with employees, 29 percent in total, are in the health care and social assistance professions. These firms account for $17 billion in annual revenue, which is the largest share of revenue generation for Black-owned firms with paid employees. These organizations include frontline healers, essential workers, and economically vulnerable workers — the glue currently holding our nation together.

“Of the 2.6 million black-owned businesses, 2.5 million have no employees.” — Ron Busby

Despite their importance, these organizations haven’t received the resources to sufficiently protect themselves and serve our communities, such as personal protective equipment.Based on the experience of the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative, our  community-serving nonprofits in Oakland and the Bay Area, for example, have smaller quantities of Medical Grade PPE supplies, but are uniquely positioned to provide the only care that some of our community members will receive or trust.

To further put things into perspective, the second largest share of revenue generation for Black-owned businesses is the retail trade, which generates $14 billion. Retail is greatly affected by social distancing precautions, compounded by a shortage of resources to market services and products through online platforms.

The CARES Act offers relief to small businesses through the Small Business Administration’s  Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). This program has to-date set-aside  more than $650  billion in funding to allow small businesses to receive forgivable loans for payroll and other employee costs.This is concerning because the majority of our businesses do not have paid employees. In fact, Ron Busby, president of U.S. Black Chambers — a coalition of Black chambers of commerce — was quoted saying, “Of the 2.6 million black-owned businesses, 2.5 million have no employees.”

We need block-by-block support for mutual aid networks as the first line of defense.

The first round of PPP funding only lasted two weeks and small businesses are already suing banks for funneling opportunities to larger businesses. Politico reports that each bank was “reshuffling the PPP applications it received and prioritizing the applications that would make the bank the most money.”  While Congress recently approved approximately $350 billion for the second round of funding, that money is anticipated to last only two to three weeks at most.

One positive sign: The new funding sets aside nearly $125 billion for small businesses that do not have existing relationships with banks. Targeting underbanked businesses is a good start, but we need  an explicit focus on Black businesses to effectively reach our most vulnerable communities.

From Resilience to Recovery
The Black community has proved its resilience time and time again, from slavery, through the Black CodesJim Crow, redlining, to the New Jim Crow, the New Black Codes, the War on Drugs and more. Prior to this pandemic, acknowledging that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and family members has provided the much needed strength to overcome horrific times. Resilience and perseverance are in our DNA, but though they are still essential, right now more is needed.

Although not all nonprofits carry out functions of critical importance to the government, a surprising number of them deliver services that the Black community depends on

What the Black community in Oakland and the rest of California needs is support from our elected officials, at the federal, state and local levels, backed up by concrete actions:

  • In the short-term, we need Gov. Newsom and California elected officials to provide support for the frontline, grassroots nonprofits responding in real time to the crisis and filling in gaps where the public and private sector cannot or will not serve families and individuals in the Black community. We need block-by-block support for mutual aid networks as the first line of defense; testing in our communities without requiring a referral; PPE for frontline healers and essential employees, particularly the economically vulnerable workers; badges for frontline healers/street soldiers; respite for essential workers; access to subsidized and/or free mental health therapy sessions; and tailored support for our seniors (including senior centers, senior housing, service providers and food distribution).Grassroots Black organizations are ramping up service to Black neighborhoods even while their own funding goes down. Organizations such as the Black Cultural ZoneRoots Health ClinicEast Oakland CollectiveAllen Temple Health and Social ServicesBuilding Opportunities for Self-SufficiencyBlack Housing UnionRichmond Housing and Neighborhood Services, and so many more, sacrifice day in and day out in these front lines.
  • Although not all nonprofits carry out functions of critical importance to the government, a surprising number of them deliver services that the Black community depends on. The modern welfare state has largely been subcontracted to nonprofits. Unfortunately, Black nonprofits that fail cannot be so easily replaced or restarted. Few have the type of hard, tangible assets that can survive a gap in income. If they fail, there is no clear motive to fueling a reconstruction. Philanthropy is not good at providing front-loaded, re-start capital at scale.
  • We call on the governor and California elected officials to create specific, tangible supports for our nonprofits. It could begin with the creation of a $100 million community nonprofit grant fund that can be targeted to the Black community and other communities of color, with a common application for individuals, businesses, artists and entrepreneurs. It should provide technical assistance, including translation services, as needed. Such a fund could pre-pay existing state contracts and increase the speed and flexibility in budget reimbursements to small nonprofits to ensure they can focus on serving vulnerable families rather than just keeping the lights on. California could also create a tax credit, similar to what already exists in Massachusetts, to maximize philanthropy to small organizations.
  • We also call on the governor to support another critical component of the Black community’s resilience, our small businesses — our community’s economic engine that risks being decimated due to the pandemic. We need direct relief and call on him and all officials to target the following support to Black businesses: Use supplier diversity and state agency contracting as a tool for economic stimulus directly to Black businesses; make $100 million available for mom-and-pop Black businesses and sole proprietors left out of the federal recovery funds (which in its original iteration ran out in 13 days); create a commercial rent tax credit for restaurants and non-grocery store businesses to ensure Black businesses are not driven out due to rent that was previously high and now is completely unpayable for shuttered businesses; waive annual LLC fees for small business to ensure that Black entrepreneurs, who already have approximately five cents in personal assets for every dollar of the White community’s assets, are able to protect what wealth they do have; use diverse media outlets owned by Black Californians to reach vulnerable Black communities. Also, to accomplish this targeted support and outreach, we ask the governor and legislature to put their full support behind the movement to repeal Prop 209 and stop all race-blind policy making.
  • In the long term, we call on the governor and California elected officials to also address the need for a statewide ban on criminal background checks for rental housing, similar to what already exists in Oakland, and better prepare our formerly incarcerated folks to re-enter society. Our people are being released in the middle of the night without necessary resources, no place to stay, thousands of job restrictions and are being placed into the same environments that provoke recidivism. We also need rent and mortgage subsidies, increased access to banking for our underbanked and unbanked businesses and community members, and a California job corps program for our Black and Brown communities.
  • We recognize that California can’t address our communities’ needs by itself. Therefore, we need a federal government that provides student loan forgiveness, universal health care, targeted long-term commitments to minority-owned communities, businesses, and nonprofits, and works to flatten the curve of racial bias. We also need expanded Community Development Financial Institutions lending for Black owned micro-businesses. There must also be data collection and transparency around the race/ethnicity of businesses that eventually receive Federal funds to ensure that Black businesses, which are on the smaller end of the small business continuum, receive proportionate access, at a minimum, to the financial, technical and marketing support, assistance and resources that are and will become available.

Conclusion
COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity virus. Indeed, it’s shined a spotlight on America’s pandemic of inequality. Everything we know thus far says that its burden falls disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color, especially the Black community.

The Black community is also standing up for, and standing in solidarity with, other communities who are suffering. This is particularly true of the Asian Pacific Islander American community, which is seeing a spike in despicable hate crimes, and the undocumented immigrant community, which has cruelly been denied access to federal economic recovery funds.

We call on the governor and legislative leaders to meet with us and other representatives of the Black community to discuss concrete steps the state can take in addressing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our community, as well as targeting our community in its recovery efforts. Governor Newsom and California elected officials must act immediately to ensure that our community’s economic engine is not decimated due to the pandemic.

Editor’s Note: Carolyn Johnson is the executive director at Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation/East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative (collectively the “Black Cultural Zone”). Treva Reid is a resident of Oakland’s District 7 and on the executive Board for Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA). De’Zhon Grace is the Economic Equity Fellow at The Greenlining Institute, which works to ensure that communities of color thrive and race is never a barrier to economic opportunity.

Congress needs to get the next coronavirus relief package right

By Adam Briones
Miami Herald

The new $484 billion COVID-19 relief bill that Congress passed on April 23 takes some useful steps, but it still fails to deliver substantive relief to tens of millions of Americans. Our leaders must do better, and quickly.

What’s needed is a relief package that matches the scale of the economic disaster now hitting American families. It needs to be far-reaching, and tailored to help those who need it most.

Here is some of what the next COVID-19 relief package should include:

  • Long-term cash assistance. The $1,200 payments now going to some Americans are not even enough to cover a single month’s rent in Phoenix, let alone in pricier cities like New York or Los Angeles. With 27 million U.S. jobs lost in just the last few weeks and states lagging on processing unemployment insurance claims, families need serious cash assistance. The Automatic BOOST to Communities Act — just introduced by Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Minnesota and Pramila Jayapal of Washington — would provide $2,000 to every American immediately, followed by $1,000 a month for a full year after the end of the crisis.
  • A bailout for Main Street, not Wall Street: The $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program, part of the first stimulus bill, was supposed to help small businesses. But while more than 70 publicly traded companies — some large and prosperous — received loans, it’s been estimated that fewer than one in 10 businesses owned by people of color will get this help. We must rescue the small mom-and-pop businesses that anchor communities but don’t have an accounting staff to submit loan applications or high-priced lawyers to restructure their debt.
  • Help for renters and homeowners: While many states and municipalities have a moratorium on evictions (at least for now), people around the country are still struggling to keep a roof over their heads. The economic downturn will disproportionately impact people of color who already spend more of their income on housing than white families. Congress should pass a national housing voucher program to support low- and moderate-income renters and homeowners through the next two or three years.
  • Aid for state and local governments. Astonishingly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has suggested that states should go into bankruptcy rather than get federal help. States, which unlike the federal government cannot print their own money, shoulder an enormous burden in funding hospitals and other vital services even as tax revenues plummet. From 2008 to 2013, state governments shed 170,000 jobs, worsening the Great Recession. Let’s not repeat this mistake.
  • Keep it honest. We need tough, thorough oversight to ensure that help goes where it’s most needed. A provision in the new stimulus bill calls for the creation of an oversight committee to monitor “efficiency, effectiveness, equity and transparency.” Future legislation must make a similar commitment. House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters, D-California, is a legislative champion on this issue.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States already was suffering from a pandemic of inequality. How is it that in the world’s richest country, the people we call “essential workers” often have no paid sick leave or access to healthcare? The coronavirus calls on us to rethink everything, and redouble our commitment to get real help to those who need it.

Adam Briones is economic equity director at The Greenlining Institute.

Extend the census deadline to protect public health

By Gissela Moya and Vinhcent Le
SFExaminer

In 1920, as the world was recovering from the devastating 1918 Spanish Flu, the U.S. Census Bureau told Congress that the “ravages of the influenza pandemics” meant “many cities and towns have been disappointed with the census figures and have filed protests questioning their accuracy.” Nearly 100 years later, we risk repeating history as the coronavirus pandemic undermines outreach efforts for the 2020 Census.

To protect community health, and to ensure we have an accurate count, Congress should act to extend the census deadline by up to one year. Brazil postponed its 2020 Census by a year due to fears that the coronavirus outbreak could risk the health of census workers and the households they survey. Congress should follow suit and allow the Census Bureau to extend its December deadline to complete the census. An accurate census is key to our democracy, since it ensures our cities and towns receive a fair amount of federal funding and political representation.

Census workers who knock on doors and ask residents to participate are responsible for up to 40 percent of responses (you can also respond to the census online, over the phone or by mail). These workers were supposed to begin outreach in May. However, social distancing and lockdown orders will negatively affect that work, resulting in lower participation and possibly a massive undercount — a development that would harm hard to count populations such as Low-income households, communities of color and non-English speakers the most. With a coronavirus vaccine at least one year away, delaying in-person census outreach will help “flatten the curve.”

Prior to the outbreak, the census was projected to undercount up to four million people. However, the spread of the coronavirus means these numbers could balloon. The Bureau has already suspended census field operations twice, first delaying the start of in-person outreach until April 1 and revising it later to April 15.

Outreach to immigrant and low-income communities has also ground to a halt as officials cancel large gatherings and close public spaces like libraries and schools. Closed college campuses make counting students living on campus much more difficult and confusing: Students should be counted where they live most of the time — i.e. in their dorms — regardless of where they may be temporarily.

On a more practical level, the economic uncertainty of this public health crisis will likely depress census participation, particularly among low-income groups who do not have the luxury to telework. Only 16 percent of Latino and 20 percent of Black workers are able to work from home, compared with 30% of white workers. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment claims have begun to rise, and economists expect that to continue.

Amidst this very real economic and health anxiety, census participation may seem relatively unimportant to people just trying to get through their daily lives. However, Congress must extend the census deadline to ensure we have accurate data because census data is used to make important decisions across the country. Medical researchers in 2018 warned that “a census miscount of the population could create challenges for public health surveillance and research activities that inform public health policies and interventions.” We should heed these warnings, as health researchers are using census data to model the spread of the coronavirus and federal and state officials are now scrambling to fairly distribute critical supplies of masks, ventilators and other equipment to hospitals across the country. Call your congressperson and ask them to take action on extending the 2020 Census.

Vinhcent Le is technology equity legal counsel at The Greenlining Institute. Gissela Moya is the Manny Garcia Technology Equity Fellow at The Greenlining Institute.