Barriers: Conversations from the 13th Annual Black Policy Conference

Elizabeth Morehead, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives 

The Harvard Kennedy School hosted their 13th annual Black Policy Conference this past April 7th-9th and it was not a hair shy of amazing and inspiring. The conference was filled with speakers who shared knowledge, provided encouragement, and highlighted the great need of mobilization and action in the black community. Specifically, panelists identified barriers that are standing in between where we are as a community today and where we want to be. These barriers include the grim outlook on the black community, the housing market, the lack of African Americans in or running for office, and the need for an inclusive diaspora around the ideal of “blackness.”

Words Matter

Being black in America is at times thought of in a discouraging manner. And it’s a picture painted from both within and outside of the black community. First, we must acknowledge the role that titles play in our community. Just as job titles have an effect on self-identity in the workplace, they matter when discussing relationships and race.  Questions such as “what race are you?” or “what are you mixed with?” allude to the idea that being black is not enough. Answers often come in two simple words: “just black,” with the idea of being “just black” undermines the value in being black.

The second problem lies in the political picture painted of the black community. At a campaign rally in September, Donald Trump claimed that “African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever.” In Trump’s eyes, blackness was portrayed as a structure of social class defined by desperation, poverty, and crime. This is not to say the black community does not have problems that need to be acknowledged, but our struggle cannot be the only defining characteristics of our community. Therefore, one of the main barriers facing the black community is verbal warfare from the titles associated with our race and facing the psychological effects it has on the community. It does not come in the form of facts and figures, but rather the need for a shift in the mindset of those outside and inside the community.

The Housing Market

The housing market  is another underlying factor that restricts the black community from propelling forward. Housing markets greatly affect what individuals can get access to in terms of opportunity (i.e. education and jobs), goods and services. Excluding foreign-born Americans, US-born blacks have the lowest homeownership rates of any group in the country. Because segmented housing markets limit blacks’ ability to own homes relative to whites, this effect could, in turn, stiffen upward mobility. In 2012 the Department of Housing and Urban Development studied housing discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities. The study concluded that minority home seekers are told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than whites and that these forms of discrimination raise the cost of the housing search and restrict housing options. In the past affirmative action dealing with housing policy has been demonstrated by the Fair Housing Act of of 1968 that there cannot be discrimination (in regards to race, gender, religion, etc)  in the sale, renting, or financing of dwellings. Another action taken was termed the “final rule” establishing new terms and conditions that local governments are required to meet if receiving federal funds to advance their local housing policies. Unfortunately, these actions have not been able to successfully make things equal. The policy question surrounding this barrier is: In what way could affirmative action housing policies fix this?

Positions in Office

There are increasing numbers of black leaders within the House of Representatives and Presidential Cabinets, but there have only been four black Governors in US history. Clearly, there is need for greater African American participation in political leadership. Of course, that statement is easier said than done. The cost of running for office has been increasing over the decades. In 2014, the average winning House candidate spent $1.5 million, and that record is on track to be broken by the 2016 cycle. The high cost needed to successfully run for office can be a problem in the African American community because oftentimes their constituents are not as affluent. African Americans have far less wealth than their white counterparts (i.e. the racial wealth gap). The median wealth for white families in 2013 was $141,900, while blacks was $11,000. Looking specifically at savings, 67% of blacks lack adequate savings, compared to 34.7% of whites. African American’s are not as financially wealthy and cannot as easily financially support Black candidates running for office.

Being Critical about Blackness

When we say #blacklivesmatter who is included? A final barrier is the lens of our movement. There is a need to better create a space that is an inclusive diaspora around blackness. The U.S. Civil Rights movement was a time of notable legal changes and constitutional amendments that affected the opportunities available to African Americans and others. Brazil was another country where millions of African slaves were taken, and they have had movements of their own (though none on the same scale as the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.). For example, there was a movement called Movimento Negro that took place in the mid 1900’s and another movement after the dictatorship in Brazil ended which gave momentum to the black rights movement throughout the 2000’s. Following Martin Luther King’s leadership, many countries organized for racial justice. Britain had bus boycotts following the Montgomery Bus boycott.  A meeting with Dr. King in 1960 inspired a civil disobedience campaign in Northern Rhodesia, leading to Britain granting independence to the Republic of Zambia. Black people all over the world have fought for their rights on many different levels and even in America black comes in different forms.

The labeling of black as a “minority” focuses a spotlight on the position we have in our nation. We are outnumbered, but it is important to recognize that this lens only focuses on one Nation and not the entire world. Shifting the outlook from “just black” or our “minority” status to our position in the world changes the title. The world perspective creates a place for black people in the “global majority.” The continents of Asia and Africa make up more than half of the world’s population. Here, the term “global majority” includes other colors than just black, but it creates a title and outlook for the black community that we matter and are impactful. Breaking the barriers to launch our community to the next level means changing our titles, being critical of the definition of blackness, and restructuring African Americans’ access to housing and political positions.

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