Amicus Brief: CARES Act Funds for the Incarcerated

The Insight Center is part of a historic advocacy effort to unlock pandemic relief for incarcerated people in state and federal prison desperately in need of economic assistance. At the center of the nationwide effort is a lawsuit, Scholl v. Mnuchin, brought by plaintiffs, persons in the United States denied CARES Act funds solely due to their incarcerated status, against defendants including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the United States of America.

In support of the plaintiffs in Scholl, the Insight Center helped research and draft an amicus brief co-authored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and East Bay Community Law Center. The amici, interested parties in the amicus brief, include Insight and organizations representing or providing services to incarcerated persons and their families in California and across the nation. The brief details the cascading economic harms of incarceration, particularly for Black and Brown people and their families, who bear the brunt of systemic overpolicing, structural racism, and harsh criminal fines and fees. Even as prisons remain among the country’s worst hotspots for coronavirus, incarcerated people must often pay the costs of their own imprisonment, including necessities like soap that are especially invaluable during the pandemic. With no end in sight to COVID-19 and its economic downturn, CARES Act relief funds are critical to support justice-impacted people and their loved ones in navigating reentry, finding work and housing, and making ends meet during the unprecedented fallout.

On September 24, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued an Order granting the plaintiffs in Scholl a preliminary injunction to halt the Trump administration’s denial of CARES Act funds to incarcerated persons. 

“The order is a substantial step in the right direction to make sure that the people most in need of CARES relief can access it, regardless of their race, gender, or incarcerated status,” said Aisa Villarosa, Insight’s Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy. 

Debt Free Justice is Alive and Kicking in California

Earlier this month, Governor Newsom signed the Families Over Fees Act eliminating 23 unjust, racist administrative fees within our legal system, and expunging $16 billion of fee debt held by mostly Black and brown Californians. An extraordinary win, the new legislation makes California the first state in the nation to enact sweeping reforms of this kind.

We at the Insight Center are proud to have played a critical role as co-sponsors of the bill and Steering Committee members of Debt Free Justice California, the coalition that led this advocacy and organizing effort in partnership with State Senator Holly Mitchell.

As an economic and racial justice organization that was one of the pioneers in bringing racial and gender wealth inequality to the forefront of the national discourse, it was imperative to us at the Insight Center to make the connection between mass incarceration and racial and gender wealth inequality. Through our work, we see how fines and fees within the criminal legal system extract wealth from Black and brown communities, and we have researched and written about how they serve as a driver of racial and gender wealth inequality.

When the opportunity arose to work on this issue in California a year and half ago, we jumped in with no hesitation. We saw this as an incredible opportunity to movement-build and connect lived experiences to the work in addressing racial and gender wealth inequality — a much needed strategy to build the political and public will to address racial and gender inequity effectively.

Without question, what has made this work so successful and special is the community we created in our coalition. A band of researchers, advocates, legal aid professionals, grassroots organizers, government officials and impacted people, we each brought our unique and important perspectives to the table, and honored each other. We unapologetically centered race in our messaging and advocacy, and held fast to our principles of addressing problems at the root. Our one-pager clarifying the ineffectiveness of Ability-to-Pay measures is a prime example of that approach. It is an absolute pleasure to work with such dedicated, funny, passionate, smart people, full of integrity and spirit.

We are honored to have been a part of this coalition, and look forward to the work ahead in implementing this legislation, telling our story with our lessons learned so it can be replicated nationally, and coming up with new advocacy efforts in California on this issue. These 23 fees were just the first layer of the onion. Much more work lies ahead to ensure that California remains on the forefront of progressive, transformational change in our criminal legal system.

We invite you to read the coalition’s letter to Governor Newsom asking for his signature. It is an excellent primer to understand the issue more clearly.

To my fellow Debt Free Justice California compadres, thank you so much for your tireless work. I look forward to continuing this fight with you all!

Read the full letter from the coalition on Medium here.

Episode 31: Resisting COVID Capitalism with Ursula Price and LaToya Johnson

Listen to Ursula Price and LaToya Johnson of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice discuss advocacy, organizing, and community-led policy change for Black and Brown workers bearing the brunt of COVID-19 impacts in the Deep South.


“People are starting to see that we can’t entrust our lives and well-being to governmental actors unless we’re sitting at the table with them helping them to make decisions.”

New Orleans’ Black and Brown hourly and low-wage workers have kept the city afloat for decades, including fueling its recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Yet they are again fighting for survival and safety amid the coronavirus and its economic fallout.

In conjunction with our latest COVID-19 fact sheet on Black and Brown workers in New Orleans, Ursula Price and LaToya Johnson of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice joined Insight’s Aisa Villarosa on the podcast for a frank discussion on what Black and Brown workers and communities are facing in New Orleans – and how they are fighting for a seat at the table to inform policy and practice.

Ursula is the Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ), and is an accomplished criminal justice reform champion with deep roots in community organizing, including a focus on police accountability.

LaToya is Coordinator at the Workers’ Center, where her work includes addressing policies that affect Black and Brown workers throughout the state of Louisiana.

Touching on the rich but deeply inequitable history of “the Big Easy,” Ursula, LaToya, and Aisa discuss Hurricane Katrina, “COVID capitalism,” and Black and Brown-led policy reform as communities face deep-rooted structural health and economic challenges exacerbated by the current crisis.

They also discuss Insight’s partnership with NOWCRJ to survey New Orleans’ Black and Brown workers to support visibility and advocacy around workers’ rights, health, and economic well-being. Black and Latinx workers in the greater New Orleans area are invited to take the survey in English or Spanish to help inform this effort.

To listen to the full discussion, use the audio player above or subscribe to the Hidden Truths podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or Android. And if you like what you hear, leave a review for Hidden Truths on your favorite podcast platform.

Read the transcript here or download as a PDF.


To learn more about Ursula Price and LaToya Johnson’s work with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, visit nowcrj.org.

COVID-19 Fact Sheet: Black Workers in New Orleans Face Higher Obstacles Than White Workers

A new brief released by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development looks into the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on workers in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana.

As a majority-Black city that was already grappling with deep-seated racial inequality, the global pandemic is dramatically impacting the backbone and soul of New Orleans: Black people.

Not only have Black people in New Orleans accounted for two-thirds of the residents who have died from the coronavirus, but, as workers, they also comprise the lion’s share of the occupations most impacted by COVID-19. Since the pandemic struck, Black people across the US have either lost their jobs or have been classified as essential workers; the latter group has been forced to make decisions between protecting their health or receiving a paycheck.

Policymakers in Louisiana have long ignored the economic security and well-being of the population in its largest city and have now left its residents to work in occupations most at risk of exposure to COVID-19. Black people constitute 79% of all cooks, 87% of all hairdressers, and 84% of home health aides in Orleans Parish, but they only comprise 60% of the population. Women of all races are disproportionately represented in employment as childcare workers, home health aides, and maids and housekeepers. Most working people in these occupations lack paid sick leave or health insurance.

Since the onset of COVID-19, hospitality jobs have declined by nearly 50%, about double the decline of the next closest industry. Cities like New Orleans that rely on tourism and hospitality are likely to experience deeper economic slowdowns, but there is also a growing concern that New Orleans will experience permanent job loss and that Black and Brown people and women will be disproportionately affected.

Click here to read and download the full brief (PDF).

To learn more, listen to our Hidden Truths podcast episode with Ursula Price and LaToya Johnson of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice for an in-depth conversation on “COVID capitalism” and how New Orleans’ Black and Brown workers are fighting for a seat at the table to inform policy and practice.

To Protect Black Joy We Must Re-Imagine Safety

By Anne Price | Medium

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has consistently been rated as one of the most segregated cities in America and one of the worst places for Black people to live. Wisconsin imprisons Black men at the highest rate in the nation; many of them come from Milwaukee. I was raised in an overwhelmingly white suburb just a few miles away.

Living in an all-white suburb doesn’t automatically make you feel safe and certainly does not protect you from unprovoked interactions with police, but I grew up unencumbered by police presence. I never had to think about the police. In fact, I cannot recall even seeing police officers at the mall, at school, or driving by my house. Looking back now, I can see that growing up without visible police presence allowed me the freedom to express myself, find joy, and to make mistakes without traumatic or possibly deadly consequences.

Black people often don’t have the luxury of making silly mistakes as a child or young adult without dire consequences. My lack of contact with police as a child means I can think back now with joy on all of the childhood mistakes I made because, well, I was a child. I have always felt a deep connection to water and unbeknownst to my mom, I would often ride my bike to a beautiful Lake Michigan overlook that was nestled in one of the wealthier neighborhoods in the city, a bit too far from home for a child of my age. I remember the peace and joy it brought me that I would carry into adulthood. One reason I am able to carry that joy into adulthood is that I was never confronted by the police for being in the “wrong place.”

Read and share Anne’s full piece on Medium.

Black and Brown Owned Businesses Hit Hardest by COVID-19 Pandemic

This fact sheet based on data by Robert Fairlie and released by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development shows that across the United States, businesses owned by Black, Latinx, and Asian people have closed down at an alarming rate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent estimates, for example, show that 40 percent of the revenues of Black-owned businesses are more likely to be in sectors most impacted by the pandemic including leisure, hospitality and retail. Between February and April of 2020, more than 3 million small businesses closed dow n across the county. Businesses owned by people of color, women, and immigrants were most severely harmed, closing down faster than the national average. White owned businesses have closed down at a much slower rate, the only group to see a smaller share of businesses close than the national average.

Small businesses serve vital roles in our economy, particularly for people who are denied opportunities by employers and the job market. For Black and Brown people, small businesses are often the only pathway to economic security and/or a job where their dignity stays intact. As federal and state governments work to address the economic fallout of the pandemic, they must center businesses owned by people of color and women to ensure they are able to survive during and after the pandemic.

Click here to read and download the full fact sheet (PDF).

Rules of Our Economy Are Harming People of Color, Women, and Immigrants During COVID-19

This fact sheet released by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development provides an analysis of a selection of jobs most likely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in California.

The jobs most at risk are overwhelmingly low-wage jobs, held primarily by people of color, women, and immigrants. With a median annual income of just $22,900 a year, these jobs pay poorly and have little to no benefits, making it so workers are unlikely to have savings to fall back on while weathering the effects of the pandemic. As California grapples with the necessary disruption to everyday life, communities with the least amount of power are dealing with the worst economic consequences.

Without meaningful interventions from state and federal governments, workers of color and women will be left struggling with the fallout from COVID-19 for decades to come.

Click here to read and download the full fact sheet (PDF).

Centering Blackness: The Path to Economic Liberation for All

Graphic illustration from Insight Center’s Power Learning Community

Before the COVID-19 crisis, there was growing recognition that structural racism perpetuates unequal and adverse life outcomes for Black people. The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 project shed light on how Black people and their needs have been historically exploited, neglected, and undervalued in the creation of our nation’s culture, economy, and democracy. The disproportionate effects of the COVID crisis, along with the ongoing uprising to end police brutality, is now illuminating this fact even brighter. Yet outside of the visionary leaders and organizations shaping the current movement for Black lives, there is still a great deal of reluctance, even among the progressive-minded, to consider the Black experience as unique and foundational to shaping America’s economic and social policies — and our nation’s collective future.

It is time to embark on a serious and sustained effort to center Blackness and the Black experience as a necessary strategy to ensure economic liberation for all Americans.

In these times of extreme racial and economic inequality, we must move beyond “normal” in our COVID recovery efforts. By following the lead of the movement for Black lives, centering Black people in the creation of new policies, systems, and institutions — in the pursuit of economic liberation for all — we can and must reject the ideology grounded in white supremacy and anti-blackness, shift narratives to reinvigorate our shared imagination, and disrupt the imbalance of power in our society.

We as a society are eager for a reboot, a different way of living in connection with one another, and are ready to vision forward. It is time to champion new thinking that is shaped by what we all deeply and collectively value in life — self-determination, dignity, and freedom of choice — to create a society where everyone can truly thrive and experience shared abundance.

This essay is intended to provide the reasoning, vision and framework for our collective well-being that addresses the intentional disinvestment, dehumanization, and exclusion of Black people from economic prosperity by centering the Black experience. While not exhaustive in its scope, it is our hope that this initial essay can spark dialogue and encourage community members, advocates, organizers, researchers, writers, and artists to think and act together toward an aspirational goal of centering Blackness as a means for economic liberation for all.

Black People Are Not a Monolith, and Black Communities Are Not Monolithic

Black people are not a monolith. When we center Blackness, we acknowledge that Black people hold multiple identities. Black people are immigrants, women, LGBTQ, Latinx, parents, business owners, have varying degrees of education, disabilities, and more. When we make Blackness about one thing, we actually play into a white supremacist point of view that narrowly defines Blackness. Centering Blackness means honoring all types of Black people, which makes it an inclusionary strategy that acknowledges how anti-blackness is the tie that binds all Black people, while also validating all the other identities that make up a whole person. Centering Blackness is ultimately about celebrating and honoring the humanity of Black people.

The real-life needs of Black people have been historically overlooked and undervalued in the creation of economic policies. Anti-blackness, the devaluing and dehumanizing of people who are Black, is deeply rooted in American culture and economic policies. Centering Blackness is a lens in which we can see the interactive effects of discrimination, subjugation, and disempowerment on the lives of Black people and how they are baked into our policies, practices, and institutions.

WHAT DOES CENTERING BLACKNESS MEAN?

Centering Blackness takes into account the ways in which our social and economic structures are built on the invisibility and disposability, and yet necessity, of all Black people and Black labor. Simply put, centering Blackness demands that we create and design policies and practices that intentionally lift up and protect Black people. It requires that Black people lead the creation of these policies and practices. It recognizes the uniqueness of economic disadvantage that has come to define the majority of the Black experience, and it puts Black people — specifically Black women — at the core of a vision for racial justice.

This kind of stated intentionality often leads to a false notion that speaking affirmatively about the Black lived experience means that you don’t care about the well-being of other communities. The reality is quite the opposite: Anti-blackness doesn’t only impact Black people; it holds back and harms all Americans and necessitates collective healing. We must consider that anti-blackness ensnares and disadvantages every potential beneficiary of economic-related policies and programs.

The expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is an example of how non-Black people experience the collateral effects of anti-black racism. Medicaid expansion guaranteed access to health care coverage under the law no matter where people live. However, southern states fought against the legislation, eventually making it so states would not be forced to expand Medicaid. According to the National Women’s Health Network, the push back originated from the same racist and discriminatory arguments that were made in 1935 at the onset of Social Security, when southern legislators opposed a universal safety net because the federal assistance provided to Black workers would “upend the racial hierarchy that kept most Southern Black people economically dependent on [w]hite people.” The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that while 11 percent of Black people remain uninsured, 7 percent of white people are also without coverage. In Mississippi, a state where Medicaid was not expanded, white women lack coverage at a higher rate than Black women. To paraphrase a recent book title, white opposition to universal social policies, rooted in anti-blackness, literally equals “dying of whiteness” for millions of poor and working-class white people.

AN OVERVIEW OF THE BLACK EXPERIENCE

The pattern of violence against Black people is unique and foundational to understanding the Black experience in America. When it comes to measures of economic security, indicators related to health, or the criminal legal system, we see that the rules and narratives across sectors and systems were set up to penalize, fail, and devalue Black life.

Anti-blackness explains why Black people often fare worse across many economic indicators than white Americans, regardless of class. Today, white households own 10 times the wealth of Black households. Anti-black racism contributes to the persistence of racial inequality that manifests across many different economic indicators. For instance, the family income gap between Black people and white people today is nearly identical to that of the 1960s. Just after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1968, Black families had a median family income that was 57 percent of white families. Nearly 50 years later, and despite hard-fought gains in anti-discrimination legislation and increased access to housing and education, the income gap between white people and Black people stands at 56 percent. In 2017, Black people with a bachelor’s degree were jobless at about the same rate as white people with only a high school diploma.

We also live in a patriarchal society making it so Black women in particular have some of the lowest wealth levels of any group. Research shows that Black women have far less wealth than white women regardless of their level of education. Single white women without a college degree have $3,000 more in median wealth than single Black women with a college degree. Typical, single white women with a bachelor’s degree have seven times the wealth of their Black counterparts, $35,000 and $5,000 in median wealth, respectively.

Black women also experience the highest infant mortality rates (IMR) among any racial or ethnic group in the United States, and the Black IMR has been roughly twice that of the white IMR for over 35 years. In a tragic twist of fate, the IMR actually rises for Black mothers with a doctorate degree.

Over-policing in communities of color leads to higher, disproportionate arrest rates for Black, Latinx, and Native American communities, and pervasive racism within our criminal legal system results in higher incarceration rates for Black and Brown people. As a result, Black communities have been, and continue to be, the most negatively impacted by the push for mass incarceration in the U.S. As noted in a recent Pew Research brief, “In 2016, Black [American]s represented 12 percent of the US adult population but 33 percent of the sentenced prison population. White [American]s accounted for 64 percent of adults but 30 percent of prisoners.” A recent study showed that the leading cause of death for young Black men in America was getting shot by the police.

Black people deserve more than what we as a society have allowed them to receive. By making a commitment to centering Blackness, we can ensure that all people are able to thrive and not just get by.

CENTERING BLACKNESS: A NEW STARTING POINT

Our work toward greater economic liberation is predicated on abandoning our contributions to centering whiteness and the white experience. When we start from a “dismantling white supremacy” frame, we are actually perpetuating the cycle of centering the white experience. This holds us in a box and puts us in a reactive state of consciousness confined by the story white supremacy tells. Essayist and editor Sherronda J. Brown describes white supremacy in this way: “White supremacy deals exclusively in lies. It does so because the violence it perpetuates can be justified when white supremacy controls the narrative of pain.” It’s critical that in our quest toward racial justice, we start from a place of truth, not lies. Having the starting point be white supremacy does not allow for that.

The antithesis of white supremacy is acknowledging the humanity of Black people who are villainized and regarded as sub-human. If we start from centering the Black experience, it steers our bodies, minds, and imaginations in a whole different direction, which can lead us toward true liberation.

Protest Art in Downtown Oakland, CA: June 2020

Centering Blackness allows us to acknowledge Black genius, art, and joy — things that white supremacy actively works to erase, profit from, or destroy. Black people have always had to both demonstrate and negotiate their humanity in the face of oppression and seek ways to express their joy. Finding joy in the face of trauma and oppression is not only a form of resistance, but it’s also instrumental in dismantling anti-blackness and constructing an alternative world of Black freedom and thriving.

Additionally, centering Blackness allows us to interrogate harmful narratives about Black people and serve as a vehicle to heal from historical and present-day harms and trauma. Insofar as ideas and narratives are a core dimension of how power operates in our society, powerful narrative shifts can serve as a critical component of economic liberation. Alleged dysfunctional behaviors by Black people have long been falsely seen as the basic cause of persistent racial inequality, and these misconceptions serve as the basis of our economic and social policies. Social safety net programs, for example, are predicated on dehumanizing language and negative narratives about Black people as “lazy,” “cheats,” and “criminals.” If we center Blackness in creating a new social safety net, we would reject these narratives and assume the good intent and humanity of Black people, which is the opposite of what we do now.

Lastly, it’s also crucial to understand how historical policies continue to manifest in the lives of Black people, which can help us reveal new policymaking possibilities. Centering Blackness requires us to imagine how our rules and structures would be organized in a society where anti-blackness doesn’t (and didn’t) exist. It forces us to begin to break down a deeply embedded mindset, which in itself is a liberating and radical act.

WHERE DOES CENTERING BLACKNESS TAKE US?

COVID-19 has shown us that our country is broken (by design) and that we need deep, structural change. However, those interested in and committed to progressive change in our country are in a conundrum. We know very clearly what we don’t want: deep, entrenched inequality along racial and gender lines, an imbalance of power where the wealthy and corporations control our economic resources and politics, and an out of control carceral state which targets Black and Brown communities, to name a few.

But what kind of world, especially in light of COVID and renewed energy and attention to the perils of policing, do we want to create and how do we get there?

Graphic illustration from Insight Center’s Power Narrative Learning Community

We need an alternative framework outside the bounds of white supremacy that gets us to shared abundance and a more just and inclusive society where your race, gender, or immigration status no longer predetermines your life outcomes. Centering Blackness allows for a completely different worldview to emerge, free from the constraints of white supremacy and patriarchy. Imagine the possibilities of all our institutions and what it could mean for all of us if we centered Blackness and asked this foundational question: How does what I’m about to create and implement intentionally seek the voices of, lift, and protect Black people? What could we build? What would it allow us to collectively see? And how might we design new rules and institutions with the core goal of enabling Black people to thrive that would also ensure that all people thrive?

Centering Blackness changes the nature of the conversation by providing a pathway to properly diagnose problems and build solutions. It serves as a vehicle to expose the root causes and intersections of multiple anti-black systems in America, including the social safety net, the rules of our economy, the criminal legal system, health and well-being, and voting. It also sets the stage for healing and transformation.

THE FOUNDATIONAL TENETS OF CENTERING BLACKNESS

Notably, the commitment to centering Blackness can help us achieve the following core tenets that Americans are collectively fighting for:

Shared Abundance

The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Contrary to popular belief, we are living in a time of incredible prosperity, but this is not felt by most because our abundance is being hoarded — predominantly through anti-black laws, narratives, and practices — denying Black people, and many others, their rightful share. Centering Blackness allows us to rectify this by bringing those who are most at the margins to the center, creating shared prosperity for all. Specifically, centering Blackness draws our attention to the social location of Black people in the US as the “miner’s canary” of American democracy. In so doing, it allows us to identify the rules, policies, institutions, and systems that specifically harm Black communities and then reimagine bold, transformative policies that lead to racial and economic justice. These policies, although centered in Blackness, end up transforming unjust harms into policies that lead to shared abundance and prosperity for all. For example, Janelle Jones and Jared Bernstein recently called for the Federal Reserve to specifically focus on raising Black unemployment as it traditionally hovers at double the rate of unemployment for white people. By targeting policies to specifically address Black unemployment, we are helping the economy writ large. In other words, other communities of color and white people end up benefiting from a political and policy choice to center Blackness.

Redefine Safety, Justice, and Threats

Centering Blackness can help us reimagine how we think about safety, justice and what is considered a threat in America. Our current narratives of safety are based on protecting white interests and power. As a result, we have built a justice system and policing infrastructure that deeply harm Black communities, two of the most notable and harmful examples of this reality. White supremacy defines what it means to be safe and what is a threat, and all across the country, grassroots organizations led by communities of color, women, and racial justice advocates are working to redefine safety and focus on public health, human rights, and investing in communities. Many of them seek an invest-divest strategy, also known as defunding the police, which includes diverting money away from the police and prisons and directing it toward social well-being programs, such as drug and alcohol treatment centers, housing, and mental health services. This strategy helps successfully reduce crime, violence, and incarceration rates in local jurisdictions. Centering Blackness makes this course of action necessary, and it will allow us to enter into transformative conversations that can break us free from our current policing and criminal punishment system and prisons.

Repair Harm and Embark on a Truth and Reconciliation Process

At the core of a truth and reconciliation process is the recognition that injustice took place and a retelling of history that features the voices and experiences of those who survived those injustices. It is a truth-telling of how things came to be, a naming of responsible parties, and an admittance of consequences — intentional or not.

If we want to see real change in America, we have to come to terms with the fact that anti-black sentiment has permeated our history and led to dehumanizing and paternalistic systems that intentionally subjugate and constrict people rather than lift them up. Dehumanization is linked to support for policies that punish or exclude Black people from economic success, such as the continual use of balancing budgets on the backs of Black and Brown communities through criminal legal system fines and fees. We can no longer ignore the irreparable harms and historical trauma inflicted on Black people through our economic policies. One of the first steps in centering Blackness is to reckon with racist histories, both local and national, and the narratives — built on anti-blackness — that shaped those histories.

Rebuild Trust and Relationships Between Groups

Rebuilding trust and closing the “trust gap” is an essential condition for a multiracial economy and democracy to not only function but also thrive. Centering Blackness provides pathways to do just that. This is important because an important body of social science research shows that building trust among different racial groups in intergroup contexts is much more likely if one holds a “social constructionist” belief about race, as opposed to a biological or essentialist one. On average, Black people tend to see “race” as a social or political construct, not as a biological given, as most eugenics science attempts to have us believe. The experience of Blackness has taught a collective wisdom among Black people that what scholars call “essentialist” or “primordial” constructs of race, rooted in anti-blackness, are fiction, not fact.

Historically, Black workers often led efforts to organize workers across race and ethnicity in manufacturing industries in the early through the mid-20th century. Interracial unions were organized in a range of industries from steel and rubber to tobacco under the slogan “Black and white, unite and fight,” helping to build the power of the American labor movement and thus creating a thriving middle class in this country from which everyone benefitted.

Build Collective Power

Centering Blackness may be one of our greatest hopes to build solidarity and work together to achieve economic equity. It speaks to how power works in America and the role that race, specifically anti-blackness, has played at the center of a system of domination and marginalization. Thus, the liberatory potential of centering Blackness is the light it shines not on Black identity alone; it’s also about exposing the systems of power that operate to marginalize us all, and most important, illuminating the political solidarities needed for liberation. Centering Blackness points us to a notion of “linked fate” and interdependence, which — together with a vision of freedom and a politics of solidarity — provides a strategy of transformation and economic liberation.

Bring Dignity, Wholeness, and Humanity to Everyone

Given that Black people are not just one identity (see our discussion on Black people are not a monolith above), Centering Blackness allows us to see the humanity in all types of people who are currently marginalized, especially Black women. Centering Blackness means centering Black transgender people, Black unhoused people, Black essential workers, Black people with disabilities, and so much more. Within all these groups, Black people fare the worst. Focusing on Black people within them then allows for all transgender people, essential workers, and others to be positively impacted as we bring to the center the most marginalized among us. Centering Blackness allows us to see all facets of Black people as fully human and deserving of a dignified life.

BUILDING ON EXISTING, CUTTING-EDGE WORK

Promising work that centers Blackness already exists by Black led organizations, such as the phenomenal Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which centers the needs and experiences of extremely low-income, Black women-headed households in a guaranteed income pilot. By focusing on low-income Black women, this pilot helps change the narrative on how we as a society see Black women at large.

Last year, we launched The Black Thought Project, which transforms public and private spaces into sanctuaries for the expression of Black thought, making it so non-Black people bear witness to the perspectives, hopes, and dreams of Black people, ultimately challenging previously held views.

There is also the incredible work happening at The Black Futures Lab and Black Voters Matter, organizations working to build Black political and voting power. Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) had been mobilizing and organizing to influence local and national agendas, and BYP100 has also created an agenda to build Black futures.

These are just a few examples of how organizations and movements are leading work that centers Blackness and seeing it as a pathway to liberation for everyone. We can all stand to learn from this incredible work and not shy away from addressing race head-on by centering and honoring Black voices, dreams, and joy.

CONCLUSION

It is becoming increasingly evident that we must ground our work in a proactive vision of what economic liberation means. Anti-blackness is the foundational architecture of the rules that maintain racial oppression and economic exclusion today, so we need a new approach to reassess and reimagine the rules, policies, and narratives that uphold it. In the end, we will continue to be unsuccessful in advancing economic solutions that help all Americans if we are not intentional in grappling with and dismantling anti-blackness. Centering Blackness and the experience of Black people is a framework that allows for possibilities of redemption, reconciliation, and transcendence. It allows us to envision and build a world where anti-blackness does not exist and work toward tangible solutions to benefit all Americans.

Ultimately, this essay is a provocation. It is a calling for an alliance of people and organizations who understand the crucial need to embed a centering Blackness lens and framework into our collective work. Our hope is to build a progressive movement that is not afraid to tackle anti-blackness specifically and racism writ large, and we want to make the impact of centering Blackness — as a framework for policy change as well as a narrative and cultural shift strategy — visible and concrete. We believe that when Black people are made a priority and given the chance to share their true lived experiences, hopes, dreams, and values, our shared understanding of the systems we need to create in and for America will shift. Centering Blackness is the pathway toward an inclusive progressive worldview that actively seeks to dismantle racism and build a better world for all people of all races.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This framework stands on the shoulders of generations of people who theorize and fight for Black liberation, and the incredible thinking and thought partnership of the following people who were a part of the Insight Center’s Power Narrative Learning Community:

Nwamaka Agbo, Restorative Economics Consultant
Sandhya Anantharaman
Mia Birdsong, Pathfinder, Community Curator, and Storyteller
Christa Brown, San Francisco Foundation (formerly San Francisco Financial Justice Project)
Anand Subramanian, PolicyLink
Stephanie Campos-Bui, Berkeley Policy Action Clinic
Brandon Greene, Oakland Civic Design Lab (formerly East Bay Community Legal Center)
Andrea Fernandez, Ella Baker Center
Terrance Long, Ella Baker Center
Nayantara Mehta, National Employment Law Project
Kemi Role, National Employment Law Project
Jim Pugh, Universal Income Project
Alicia Walters, Interdependent Consultant
Kristen Zimmerman, Graphic Organizer

Lastly, we are grateful for the editing prowess of Kendra Bozarth, and are thankful for the thought partnership of the Insight Center and Community Change staff as well as the collaboration with Economic Security Project.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS
SIGNATORIES

The following organizations have endorsed this framework:


Share the original piece on Medium here.

If Black Lives Matter, the ‘Welfare Queen’ Myth Must Go

By Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Aisha Nyandoro, and Anne Price | The Nation

Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson were both killed by the police while inside their homes for the crime of being a black woman in America. Police officers in Oakland, Calif. chose to storm into a home with riot gear and guns drawn where unhoused black mothers from Moms4Housing were providing shelter for their children in the cold winter months.

While there is less national attention paid to black women, police brutality and state-sponsored violence against black women is long-standing and pervasive.

Why do government decision-makers and police officers respond to black women with violence and indifference? Because the ever-pervasive welfare queen myth has taught us to devalue the lives and humanity of black women, making them expendable and not fully human. The term, introduced in the 1970s by Ronald Reagan, refers to women who allegedly misuse or collect excessive welfare payments. Thanks to decades of dog-whistle politics, the term has become synonymous with being black and female in America. That is the uncomfortable truth we have to grapple with.

Along with fueling ever growing inequality on racial and gender lines, the welfare queen myth is literally killing black women at the hands of our nation’s government.

Click here to read the full article.

Alicia Walters

Centering Blackness Fellow

Email Alicia

Alicia M. Walters facilitates transformation through her writing, art, coaching and organizational consulting practice. As the Centering Blackness Fellow at the Insight Center, she is building out the Black Thought Project which transforms public spaces into sanctuaries for the expression of Black thought and is exploring how these interactive community installations can unearth new narratives, put us into right-relationship with each other, and reimagine society in a way that honors everyone’s humanity.

Alicia’s work has long been a practice of centering Blackness for personal and political, cultural and systemic transformation. She is the founder of Echoing Ida which cultivates and uplifts Black women’s thought leadership to shift narratives, as evidenced by the growing collective of more than 30 writers, publishing over 500 articles, a podcast and an anthology of work to be published in Fall 2020.

In the policy realm, she authored groundbreaking legislation to prohibit the shackling of pregnant people in California jails and prisons that has since been replicated across several states. She led the multi-state participatory research project that resulted in Who Pays: the True Cost of Incarceration on Families, which influenced a cultural shift in understanding the damage of incarceration on Black women and families.

Alicia and her work have been featured in the New York Times and the Together Apart podcast, The Guardian, Ebony, and CNN among other places.

She lives, mothers, and builds community on the territory of the Ohlone people in what is also the revolutionary city of Oakland, California.