Op-Ed: Legislature failed to enact key racial equity measure

Photo courtesy of Minnesota History Center

Public policy is a powerful tool for justice. It drives regional, state and federal investments that impact communities and the economy. When racial equity and economic inclusion are not prioritized and considered with intention in policymaking, the result is often inequitable policies, a loss in economic growth, and harmful impacts to Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian communities.

You do not have to look very far to find examples of policies in housing, transportation, infrastructure, education, business development, and more that have excluded, devalued, and even destroyed the economic opportunity and vitality of Black, Indigenous, Latino and Asian communities, and in so doing harmed Minnesota’s economic growth and competitiveness.

New analysis released last month by the Federal Reserve shows that if we closed racial gaps — in earnings, hours worked, educational attainment, and employment — Minnesota’s gross domestic product (GDP) would have increased by $6.6 billion annually from 2005-19. This equates to $92.4 billion in lost GDP during this period, an economic loss that hurts all Minnesotans.

Minnesota’s policymakers had an opportunity during this legislative session to take action to gain a portion of that $6.6 billion of annual GDP, and they failed. 

Instead, efforts to close racial equity gaps fell victim to polarized and antiquated views of economic growth and competitiveness.

During the session, the Center for Economic Inclusion — in partnership with Voices for Racial Justice, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, and the Racial Equity & Joy Coalition — fought for the passage of “racial equity impact notes” legislation. Just as a fiscal note helps lawmakers understand how a piece of legislation would affect the state’s finances, racial equity impact notes would help them see how a given bill would ameliorate or worsen racial equity. Doing so would be a way to guarantee future policies reflect and ensure racial equity and inclusion before being passed into state law.

Given Minnesota’s global position at the center of a new era of racial reckoning and atonement following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, we believed Minnesota was ready for racially equitable and inclusive policies. Considering the state’s ranking as one of the worst for people of color in almost every dimension of economic prosperity and quality of life, state legislators had every reason to make good on their promises to do everything possible to take meaningful and decisive action. 

In the end, enough of them stood in the way, deciding racial equity was not a priority, and the measure failed.

The reality is that our demographics are changing across the state, and our policies and investments must recognize not only this change but also the historical context alongside today’s systemic barriers when designing policies and targeting investments.

A recent survey of 2,051 likely voters in Minnesota in early 2021 by Data for Progress showed that 61 percent supported funding for racial equity. That is because Minnesotans increasingly recognize the actions and investments needed to achieve our aspirations for racial equity, while too many legislators are maintaining the status quo at the expense of economic growth.

We see, for example, continued intergenerational impact caused by wealth extraction, under-capitalization, and over a century of exclusive policies and practices that have resulted in the nation’s highest racial homeownership gap in the Twin Cities. According to a recent report by the Urban Institute, Black homeownership in Hennepin and Ramsey counties fell 10 percentage points between 2000 and 2018, while the rates for white homeownership remained relatively unchanged. That same report found roughly one-fifth of Black households own their homes, compared with nearly three-quarters of white households.

What actions would Minnesota legislators have taken to narrow that racial homeownership gap if racial equity impact notes would have been in place?

Racial equity impact notes are a powerful, common-sense tool. They would ensure consistent analysis, leverage community expertise, and facilitate informed decision-making through use of a set of guiding questions to determine if existing and proposed policies and investments would increase or decrease racial disparities.

Racial equity impact notes are also about accountability, in the sense that legislation should be data-informed, community-informed, and analyzed to account for potential impacts for the people the legislation seeks to serve, or the problem the legislation seeks to resolve. Unintended consequences come into play for all policy, and trade-offs within policy analyses can and should consider race in the context of ongoing, historic, and deeply rooted inequities and exclusion.

Consider how past policies like the Homestead Act or the construction of Interstate Highway 94, which benefited white communities while devastating Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian communities, would play out differently if we knew from racial equity impact notes how they would affect those communities.

Legislators in collaboration with Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian communities hold a shared responsibility to develop, pass, and measure policies that embody equitable valuation of Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian life, leadership, entrepreneurship and neighborhoods.

Tawanna A. Black is the founder and CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion, which is the nation’s first organization dedicated exclusively to creating inclusive regional economies by helping public and private sector employers dismantle institutional racism and build shared accountability for inclusive economic growth.

Data show the ripple effect of policy decisions rooted in racism, demonstrated by our region’s failure to move the needle in any measurable way on systemic racial disparities in nearly every major facet of our economy, despite the state’s much vaunted prosperity. This promise of a great quality of life is experienced most completely by white residents and families. Until Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian lives are valued as human beings, Minnesota can expect the symptoms of racism to continue to escalate.

Minnesota would not be a test case for racial equity impact notes. Nine states — Iowa, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Oregon, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia — have implemented mechanisms for the preparation and consideration of racial equity impact notes. We have models to provide guidance, with the promise of positive impacts toward racial equity. In Oregon, after passing legislation, they later implemented a racial and ethnic impact statement in their voter’s guide regarding a drug decriminalization initiative. The ballot measure passed, decriminalizing small amounts of all drugs.

A recent poll commissioned by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota found that 42 percent of Minnesotans do not believe racism is a significant issue in our state. Perhaps some of those Minnesotans wonder how a standardized racial equity assessment in policymaking would benefit them.

Policies designed to facilitate access to sustainable jobs, community assets and wealth building, would translate into a stronger tax base and more spending power that benefits all Minnesotans. 

Minnesota has a responsibility to all residents to uproot racism for shared prosperity. Let’s leverage the might of the majority of Minnesotans who believe we must do everything we can to ensure racial equity and inclusion as a first order of business.

This commentary is republished under Creative Commons license as part of our relationship with Minnesota Reformer.

Co-author Brett Grant is the director of research and policy at Voices for Racial Justice. He earned a doctorate degree in education policy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on holistic education in K-12 schools. He is interested in the education of the whole child and in how students define and practice their own learning.

Co-author Vayong Moua is director of racial and health equity advocacy for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. Moua championed Blue Cross’ “Health in All Policies” investment and co-founded the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition. Between 2015 and 2019 he chaired the Cultural and Ethnic Communities Leadership Council (CECLC) that catalyzed the Department of Human Service’s equity policy.

© Minnesota Reformer, 2021