Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, the Executive Director of NETWORK, discusses systemic racism rooted in law...
I, as a white woman, have bit by bit come to understand how racism is at the heart of much of our legislation and has been for all of our history. As a young person in the late 60’s I thought that changing our laws could create equality. As a Catholic Sister dedicated to social justice, I went to UC Davis School of Law with this in mind. When I led the Community Law Center in Oakland, California for 18 years, many of my clients were low-income people of color that faced barriers at every turn. I learned that while laws helped open voting to African Americans, there is so much more that was left out. Today as an advocate in DC, I have seen even the Voting Rights Act of the 60’s dismantled by the court and not taken up in Congress. We need to awaken to the deeper truth. Many of our laws, though seemingly neutral on their face, have perpetuated racial discrimination.
In this moment of hope and promise that Black lives do matter, we must do all we can to root out the laws and practices that destroy Black lives. These problems were not an accident – they were the result of systemic white supremacy. Laws that have been hailed as progressive achievements have been discriminatory at their core. Over time, the impact of these policies has created the racial wealth gap we see today. As of 2016, white families had 10 times the wealth of Black families, and that’s a conservative estimate. The result of this wealth gap has been the perpetual oppression of Black people. It all starts with our nation’s original sin—slavery.
Slavery existed before the founding of the United States and was foundational to the formation of the nation that we see today. Enslavement of Black families for more than 250 years was the originator of the racial wealth gap. After the Civil War, 4 million newly-freed Black people largely resorted to renting the farmland of their previous master in exchange for a “share” of their crop. This system of “sharecropping” tied farmers to their former master because they were legally obligated to buy and sell from them. Generations of Black farmers were unable to accumulate wealth, widening the racial wealth gap.
Today, housing is the largest driver of the racial wealth gap, and this is no accident. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established as a part of the New Deal to regulate interest rates and mortgage terms after the banking crisis of the 1930s. The FHA guaranteed loans to white people and legally refused loans to Black people through the process of redlining. Redlining, the designation of neighborhoods where it was too “risky” to lend because of racial economics, resulted in the creation of areas of concentrated poverty, causing lower income levels and countless lost opportunities to move out of poverty.
Other New Deal legislation has also left a history of inequality. The Wagner Act of 1935 is regarded as the most important piece of U.S. labor legislation in the 20th century. The law established the legal right for workers to join labor unions, organize, and to use collective bargaining. It helped millions of white workers enter the middle class. However, the Wagner Act intentionally excluded the work of the majority of people of color at the time: agricultural and domestic workers. It also allowed unions to exclude people of color, thus denying non-whites access to higher-wage jobs and union benefits.
World War II transformed the American economy, and in 1944, Congress passed the G.I. Bill. This legislation largely created what we now know to be the American middle class. The law was designed to provide veterans with low-cost home mortgages, low-interest business loans, tuition assistance, and unemployment compensation. These opportunities could have been transformative for Black families, but instead most of the G.I. Bill benefits were unavailable to Black service members. The white middle class grew, but left Black families behind.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, setting off a historic redistribution of wealth away from Black communities. Over 3 decades, 48,000 miles of road and highways were built in an attempt to connect suburbs and rural areas to the city. This policy literally paved the way for white families to move away from urban areas into segregated suburbs. The creation of the highways also led to the destruction of many predominantly Black and other non-white neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal. Black communities lost business and home values fell dramatically.
Since 1971, the War on Drugs and over-policing has exacerbated the racial wealth gap with practices that inherently target Black and Brown communities. Incarceration of a family member increases a Black household’s chances of falling into poverty. On average, Black families go into $13,000 in debt from paying fines and fees alone, and this doesn’t account for the income lost from the family member who used to provide for the family. These “war” policies have fostered police tactics that continue to destroy Black families today and are directly responsible for the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and so many more.
Centuries of policies, from before the founding of our nation to this very day, have created and perpetuated the racial wealth gap that lies at the heart of America’s oppressive system of white supremacy. Inequality begets inequality, and our federal policies have made sure of that. Until we reckon with the discrimination at the heart of our laws, we will never have the imagined equality under law. Justice has turned a blind eye to this discrimination, and this must change.
I pray that a new day has dawned across the globe as millions march in protest, amid a pandemic, for an end to the assault on Black families. We are called to reexamine every aspect of governance to root out white supremacy. Failure to act now would be an abdication of our moral and civic duty and a blatant disregard for humanity. Black lives matter and our laws need to ensure that is so.
Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, is the Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice and leader of Nuns on the Bus. She has led six cross-country Nuns on the Bus tours.
Suggested Citation: Simone Campbell, Our Laws are Discriminatory at Their Core, JURIST – Professional Commentary, June 22, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/06/simone-campbell-discriminatory-laws/.
This article was prepared for publication by Brianna Bell, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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