Photo: The author and his wife, Sue Toigo, with Michelle Obama.
In the Winter/Spring 2021 issue of Inroads, I ended the first part of this article with these words: “Obama’s election and two terms in office were hailed by many as the coming of a postracial America, but this was never true. Deep-seated, persistent racism did not disappear with his coming, something Donald Trump instinctively understood.” I sat down to start to write this second part on a more upbeat note.
On January 5, my wife Sue Toigo and I stayed up late to follow the returns from the two runoff races in Georgia that would determine control of the United States Senate. When all the returns were in, we could hardly believe that the two Democratic candidates, a Black pastor and a 34-year-old Jewish filmmaker, had prevailed in a southern state. The changing demographics of Georgia and the years of grassroots organizing led by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams brought a narrow victory, aided by President Trump’s attacks on Georgia’s election officials for certifying Biden and Harris as the winners of the state’s electoral votes.
The previous summer we had watched Rev. Raphael Warnock preside over the funeral of Congressman John Lewis at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King had preached. During Warnock’s campaign for the Senate, Republicans attacked him as a dangerous Black radical. His campaign responded with humour, airing TV spots of Warnock with a lovable beagle named Alex – if the man likes dogs, how scary can he be? Warnock became the first Black person elected to the Senate from Georgia.
On January 20, a brisk, sunny day with a few snow flurries, Joseph Biden’s lifelong dream was realized when he was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, and Senator Kamala Harris of California became the first woman and first woman of colour to become Vice President. A 22-year-old Black poet from Los Angeles, Amanda Gorman, read the Inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” bringing tears to our eyes. Dressed in a bright, canary yellow coat she recited an evocative call to reform and redemption. She had gone to school in Santa Monica at New Roads, a progressive private high school where the international programs director is a former student of mine. Her mother, a single parent, teaches middle school in Watts.
President Biden explicitly mentioned systemic racism in his inaugural speech, pledging to defeat “white supremacy.” A woman of colour was Vice President. A Black man had been elected to the Senate from Georgia. After Trump’s four years in office, signs of hope for a more perfect union were evident.
Black athletes take a stand
Athletes play an oversize role in American life as role models and heroes on the playing field and as endorsers of consumer products, but rarely as political activists.
During the Clinton-Trump presidential race in the fall of 2016, my wife Sue, who established a foundation that supports minorities working in finance, hosted a lunch meeting in our back garden which included former National Basketball Association star Grant Hill. We knew Grant because his father Calvin, a former star player in the National Football League, had been at Yale with me. His mother Janet was a classmate of Hillary Clinton’s at Wellesley College.
Before lunch began, I asked Grant whether LeBron James might be supporting Hillary. Grant was cautious. “Most athletes aren’t political,” he said, citing Michael Jordan’s famous quip that Republicans buy sports shoes as well as Democrats. Then he took out his phone and sent a text to James’s right-hand man. A reply came immediately: “Of course, LeBron supports her.” I went inside and called the Clinton campaign. A week later, LeBron publicly endorsed Hillary and appeared at a campaign event in his home state of Ohio. A handful of former athletes like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar had spoken in favour of Clinton, but only a few active players other than LeBron took a stand in the campaign.
That same fall, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, took a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest racism, igniting a firestorm of condemnation. Candidate Trump attacked him and, once in office, continued to call for his firing and the firing of any NFL player who joined him. Few did. Most NFL team owners were unsympathetic and Kaepernick became a pariah. After he left the 49ers, no team would sign him. Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham famously told LeBron James “to shut up and dribble.” When the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship, Trump disinvited the team from the White House because star player Steph Curry and team coach Steve Kerr had publicly criticized him.
Trump’s refusal to condemn the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville led other athletes to speak out, but it was the murder of George Floyd that revived the Black Lives Matter movement, leading thousands of professional Black athletes to take a knee during the national anthem, wear jerseys saying Black Lives Matter and pressure team owners to provide resources to fight racism and promote equality. Suddenly, antiracist activism by Black athletes was the rule, not the exception. During the 2020 Senate race in Georgia, members of the Atlanta Dream of the Women’s National Basketball Association publicly supported Warnock although the Republican candidate, Kelly Loeffler, was the team’s co-owner.
In the 2020 presidential race, LeBron didn’t simply endorse Biden and Harris – he established and funded an organization to register voters in Black neighbourhoods across the country. NBA and NFL players pressed team owners to make their sports stadiums available as super voting sites. On opening day, the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons knelt during the national anthem and made the late Congressman John Lewis the honorary team captain. The team’s social justice committee, made up of Black and White players, promoted voter registration and voter turnout. Black race car driver Bubba Wallace called for the Confederate flag to be banned at racing events – and NASCAR adopted the ban. In baseball, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, son of a Black father and a Japanese mother, spoke out against racist attacks on Asian-Americans fostered by Trump’s rhetoric about the Kung Flu and the China Virus.
Nor was it only professional athletes who stood up for racial justice. Black college women’s basketball star Naz Hillmon and her University of Michigan teammates wore “Wolverines Against Racism” on their uniforms and participated in voter registration drives. Michigan’s men’s basketball team sported BLM patches, and many other teams in the NCAA March Madness playoffs had “equality” stitched on their jerseys.
Because the NFL, NBA and NCAA continued playing during the pandemic, millions of viewers have seen antiracist messages delivered on stadium floors, on jerseys and in ads sponsored by the league owners. There will be no going back to the days of the apolitical Black athlete who stays quiet in the face of racial injustice and inequality.
Real progress toward diversity
Joe Biden has said that the riot by White Power groups in Charlottesville and President Trump’s equivocal response convinced him to run again for President. When his campaign seemed stalled, he was endorsed by influential Black Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina and rescued by Black Democratic voters in that state’s primary. He selected a woman of colour to be his running mate. He made a Black politician, former South Carolina Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison, head of the Democratic National Committee.
Biden’s cabinet is the most diverse in American history. He appointed a Black former Army general, Lloyd Austin, to head the Department of Defense; a Black Foreign Service officer, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, as Ambassador to the UN; a Black economist from Princeton, Cecilia Rouse, to head the Council of Economic Advisers; a Black former top environmental official in North Carolina, Michael Regan, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency; and Black Congresswoman Marcia Fudge to head the Housing and Urban Development Department. He appointed a Latino, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services; a Jewish Latino of Cuban origin, Alejandro Mayorkas, to head the Department of Homeland Security; a Latina, Isabel Guzman, to run the Small Business Administration; an Asian-American lawyer, Katherine Tai, as U.S. Trade Representative; the first woman, Janet Yellen, as Secretary of the Treasury; the first woman, Avril Haines, as Director of National Intelligence; the first openly gay cabinet member, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as Transportation Secretary; and the first Native American, Deb Haaland, as Secretary of the Interior.
More than half of Biden’s subcabinet posts are filled by people of colour. More than half of his cabinet and subcabinet posts have gone to women. Biden’s initial judicial nominations include three Black women, the first Muslim district judge, the first Asian American to serve as judge for the District of Columbia Circuit and the first woman of colour as a federal judge in Maryland.
The Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to diversity is not just party politics. Biden and Harris understand that in a multiracial immigrant nation diversity is strength, not weakness. For over 30 years, the foundation that my wife established has worked with men and women of colour to support getting an MBA and providing leadership support as they pursue careers in finance and business. More than 1,700 Toigo Fellows have passed through the program, whose goal is to diversify who decides how capital is invested.
Diversifying who holds economic and political power is not simply a matter of equity and justice. Including the underrepresented leads to better decisions for society and a more productive use of human capital. Hidden Figures, the 2016 Hollywood film about three Black women mathematicians at NASA who helped successfully launch John Glenn into space, is an example. A recent McKinsey & Company study found that racial inequality in the film and TV business costs Hollywood over $10 billion a year. Numerous academic studies show that diversity is an economic and social multiplier.
I’ve experienced firsthand the benefits of diversity at Occidental College. My colleagues in the Department of Diplomacy and World Affairs include a South African woman of colour, a Vietnamese-American woman whose family left Vietnam on a boat the day that Saigon fell, a Cambodian-American man whose mother escaped Pol Pot’s murderous regime, a Colombian-American who studied Arabic in Damascus and became an expert on human rights in the Middle East and an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan who is a leading authority on global corruption.
The new President of Occidental College is a Black scholar from Stanford, Harry Elam, an expert on Black dramatist August Wilson; his wife Michele is a leading authority on American Black writer James Baldwin. President Elam’s aunt, Harriet Elam-Thomas, is a career Foreign Service officer and former U.S. Ambassador to Senegal.
Elizabeth Alexander, a friend of the Elams, is the new head of the Mellon Foundation, the largest humanities philanthropy in the United States, providing grants that promote social justice including a $250 million Monuments Project to assist cities and states in rethinking the way communities honour public figures. The American Academy of Arts and Letters recently announced a host of Black writers and artists as new members including author Ta-Nehisi Coates and composer Wynton Marsalis.
In taking its distance from Trump, the business world has made some progress at diversifying. At Walgreens, Roz Brewer became the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In response to the BLM demonstrations, more than 60 firms appointed their first diversity officers. Of the top 100 U.S. corporations, 85 now have chief diversity officers, though still only half of the S&P 500 companies have such positions.
The newly elected 117th Congress is the most diverse in American history, an almost 100 per cent increase in representation of racial and ethnic minorities over the past 10 congresses.
But still a long way to go
In Congress, however, there is only one Black chief of staff in the Senate and only four Latinos. Only two communications directors in the Senate are Black.
Rank-and-file police officers continue to be Whiter than the communities they serve. Of more than 450 police departments with at least 100 officers reporting data between 2007 and 2016, over two thirds became Whiter relative to their communities. A few big-city departments like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Dallas narrowed the gap, but they were the exception. Racial incidents involving shooting of unarmed Black men during routine traffic stops, as well as the pepper spraying of a Black soldier in uniform, continue to rile the nation.
While over 40 per cent of the U.S. military is minority, of the 41 most senior commanders only two are Black. Only 2 per cent of partners of U.S. law firms and under 5 per cent of all attorneys are Black. Just 3 per cent of the U.S. Foreign Service is Black. Of 417 economists at the Federal Reserve in D.C., only two are Black. In 1998, McDonald’s had 377 Black-owned franchisees; now there are 186. While corporations have increased hiring of Black employees, they too often fail to support their rise within the company to salaried jobs and management positions.
A new McKinsey study concludes that the headway companies are making in advancing Black employees, while well intentioned, is so slow that at current hiring and promotion rates it would take nearly a century for every level of corporate America to reflect the Black share of the population. “It’s not just about hiring 10 extra people from an historically Black college,” says Lareina Yee, head of diversity and inclusion at McKinsey, “It’s also about creating a culture that if you recruit them that they want to stay.”
Equity and the pandemic
Biden and Harris have come to power at one of the most fraught moments in U.S. history. The issue of race permeates multiple crises in health, the economy, law enforcement and the environment.
“We’ve created a separate and unequal hospital system and a separate and unequal funding system for low-income communities,” says Dr. Elaine Batchlor, head of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles. “And now with COVID, we’re seeing the disproportionate impact.”
The pandemic has unequally affected Americans. Front-line workers – bus drivers, nurses, grocery clerks and others – are overwhelmingly people of colour and they have suffered from the coronavirus in greater numbers. The hodgepodge nature of the American health system and Trump’s politicization of public health measures like mask wearing resulted in more than 500,000 deaths, many of them avoidable.
Neighbourhoods in Los Angeles County have not suffered equally from the pandemic. The rate of new cases from October through January was 1 in 5 residents in Pacoima, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, all communities of colour, while in the mainly White west-side neighbourhoods of Brentwood and Santa Monica only 1 in 23 residents had been infected. To mitigate the pandemic’s inequities, Biden has taken forceful steps, sending more than 1,000 active-duty military troops to five federal vaccination centres run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One of these super sites is at Cal State Los Angeles, a branch of the state university located adjacent to Black and Brown communities east of downtown LA. In rural areas, California’s Latino members of Congress have pushed for an aggressive vaccination program for the state’s farmworkers.
A priority for the Biden presidency is to vaccinate a diverse nation unequally hit by the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans are nearly three times more likely to die from the coronavirus. The inequities of the health system and scepticism about the vaccine in many poor communities mean that there must be extra effort to get the vaccine into the arms of Black and Brown Americans.
Shipments of the vaccines to pharmacies and community clinics located in poorer communities of colour hard hit by the virus have been stepped up. Vice President Harris received her second dose on camera at the National Institutes of Health as part of an effort to convince Black Americans to get vaccinated. Black clergy have stepped up, getting publicly vaccinated, hosting town hall meetings with Dr. Anthony Fauci and speaking about the virus in church. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has pioneered the use of mobile vaccination clinics and door-to-door vaccination teams.
A worker-centric economy
During the 2020 presidential race – along with my longtime co-author Martin Carnoy, a Stanford economist, and University of California Berkeley economist Michael Reich, an expert on the minimum wage – I organized a letter of support for the Biden-Harris economic program Build Back Better, garnering over 250 signatures from leading economists. We recognized that in addition to an explicit commitment to racial equality and to combating climate change, the Biden program embraced a strategy of industrial policy and infrastructure investment that would create well-paid jobs – a progressive approach that can appeal to White workers in West Virginia or the midwest as well as to workers of colour. Investments in a sustainable economy, a Green New Deal, can create good jobs in the United States – for example, by converting all U.S. postal service vehicles to electric.
Biden endorsed a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour and an increase in paid family leave and daycare. The broad appeal of such measures was underlined by the November vote in Florida, where 60 per cent approved a state minimum wage of $15. Approximately 40 million workers in the United States earned less than $15 an hour in 2019. Black and Hispanic women are more than twice as likely as White men to be stuck in low-paying labour – and their share of low-paying jobs has increased.
Biden is the most pro-union president since FDR. He is making pro-union appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. His administration has announced a worker-centric trade policy. Janet Yellen, the first Secretary of the Treasury to decry inequality, announced a $9 billion Emergency Capital Investment program to provide funds to community lending institutions doing business in minority communities and in poor rural areas.
Green and blue justice
Numerous studies have found that race is the best predictor of proximity to hazardous waste sites. Three of five Black and Latino Americans live in polluted communities. Black Americans today are one and a half times more likely to breathe polluted air and drink unsafe water than the overall population. Studies also show that Black and Brown urban communities are warmer in the summer and have fewer parks and shady areas than White neighbourhoods.
Biden is the first U.S. president to commit to making environmental justice a focus of federal action. He has promised that 40 per cent of the benefits of the $2 trillion he wants to spend on climate change will go to neighbourhoods that have suffered most from pollution. In an Executive Order in his first month in office, Biden promised to protect more land, create a new civilian conservation corps, deliver help to declining coal-producing states and direct almost half of spending to disadvantaged communities, mainly of colour, for investments in clean energy and energy efficiency, green transit, affordable and sustainable housing, workforce training and the reduction of legacy pollution. The Office of Management and Budget will be required to publish a public accounting of economic justice projects.
Between 2015 and 2020, police in the United States shot and killed more than 5,000 people. A disproportionate number were people of colour, killed up to three times as often as Whites. The graphic death of George Floyd in May at the hands of the Minneapolis police and the subsequent massive nationwide demonstrations organized by Black Lives Matter brought policing to the forefront of American politics. While American public opinion strongly favours maintaining police funding, support has grown for reforming police practices.
Several reform-minded district attorneys were elected across the country in 2018 and 2020, including new Black prosecutors in Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama. In February, Illinois became the second state after New York to eliminate cash bail, which disproportionately affects Black and Latino defendants. A sweeping legal reform bill was signed by Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker. In March, California Governor Gavin Newson appointed Rob Bonta, a Filipino-American legislator and strong advocate of criminal justice reform, as the state’s new Attorney General, replacing Xavier Becerra who joined the Biden cabinet.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, sponsored by LA Congresswoman Karen Bass, passed the House on March 4. The legislation, which reforms policing practices – banning chokeholds – and sets national standards for law enforcement accountability, has met Republican opposition in the Senate on the claim that the Democrats want to “defund the police.” The conviction of former policeman Derek Chauvin on April 20 for the murder of George Floyd by a racially diverse jury might provide impetus for the passage of the bill, pressuring recalcitrant Republican senators to support it, or at least a compromise version.
Reforming legal practices won’t happen overnight, however. In California, new DAs in San Francisco and Los Angeles are facing pushback from police unions, traditional prosecutors and judges. In 2020, bills reforming police practices failed to pass the state legislature, despite the high-profile killings of Floyd and other Black Americans. Police reform bills failed in Minnesota and Georgia as well.
The Big Tent
As a child in public school, every morning I would stand with my classmates facing the American flag, put my hand over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, with its conclusion “One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Making good on this pledge has meant political struggle for every generation.
President Biden and the Democratic Party, along with allies and activists in cities and states, are pressing forward with a Big Tent strategy of embracing diversity around a sustainable equity and justice agenda for the country. They face a Republican Party that wouldn’t impeach former President Donald Trump for inciting insurrection and still embraces his politics, while continuing to try to suppress voter turnout, resist economic reform and regulation, deny the science of climate change and oppose Obamacare.
Pursuing a strategy of voter suppression, Republican legislators in more than 40 states have introduced hundreds of bills to restrict voting (under 3 per cent of Republican state legislators are non-White). On March 4 the House passed H.R. 1 – a revised version of the For the People Act which is designed to counter Republican voter suppression by establishing national voting standards including weakening restrictive state voter ID laws, requiring automatic voter registration, expanding early voting and restoring voting rights to felons after they serve their sentences.
In his first presidential press conference, Biden labelled Republican efforts to restrict voting rights “un-American.” Leading Black executives including Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, former American Express CEO Kenneth Chennault and Starbucks chair Melody Hobson published an open letter calling on business to oppose restrictive voting laws. On April 2, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred announced that this summer’s All-Star game would be moved from Atlanta in response to the passage of a restrictive voting law by the Republican-controlled Georgia state legislature. Texas-based companies American Airlines and Dell Technologies are publicly opposing similar measures in their state legislature.
The obstacle to passage of the For the People Act is a 50-50 Senate. Under current Senate rules, 60 votes are required to end debate and call for a vote on almost all legislation – the so-called filibuster, a legacy of systemic racism which southern senators used for decades to stall civil rights legislation and to prevent abolition of the Electoral College. Currently, at least two moderate Democratic senators are opposed to ending the filibuster rule. One solution would be to exempt voting rights legislation from the filibuster rule, as is now done for judicial and executive branch appointees. Another would be to make the District of Columbia a state. H.R. 51 would give D.C. residents two senators and one House member rather than the current nonvoting House delegate. However, it’s unlikely to pass the current Senate, and if it did, Republicans would challenge it before the conservative-majority Supreme Court.
In 2022, the Democrats face the challenge of midterm elections, when the party in power traditionally loses seats. The margin of error is small; it will depend not only on the success of Biden’s ambitious programs of recovery from the coronavirus and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but also on getting credit for them. Passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package in March was a major achievement which was effectively publicized with a series of nationwide events, winning 70 per cent support in the polls. Still, not a single Republican voted for the bill.1 The plan is aimed at helping those hardest hit by the pandemic. Deputy Treasury Secretary Adewale Adeyemo will oversee a racial equity review in the disbursal of funds.
The House also passed two immigration reform bills creating a path to citizenship for some immigrants, but the bills face united Republican opposition in the Senate and open Biden and the Democrats to attacks from Trump and the Republican Party on nativist issues which resonate with White working-class voters and with some Latinos and Asians. Genuine immigration reform is going to require a sea change in the Republican Party.
Biden will make enacting his $2.3 trillion infrastructure program of jobs and economic investment a vital piece of his midterm strategy, fighting for passage in Congress and taking the issue to the voters. His American Jobs Plan is to be financed by raising corporate taxes slashed by Trump and imposing a global minimum tax on multinational corporations. It includes public investment in racial equity, including an expansion of broadband internet service to underserved urban and rural communities and an environmental cleanup program in Black and Brown communities. In April, a ruling by the nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian raised the possibility that most of the jobs agenda could be passed by a simple majority.
Whatever the fate of the plan, the Democratic Party will have to mount a nationwide get-out-the-vote effort to counter Republican cries of socialism and efforts at voter suppression. This is an opportunity that must not be missed.
Biden’s Big Tent initiative, underpinned by progressive economics and voter mobilization, can bring substantial progress. His strong antiracist stands can change minds and the law. It will not be easy, but with a right-wing Republican adversary waiting in the wings, the soul of the nation is truly at stake.
While you’re here, click to read part 1 of this article, Growing Up White.
1 The American Rescue Plan provides cash payments of up to $1,400 to low- and middle-income individuals and families, extends employment payments of $300 a week through summer, allocates funds for COVID testing and vaccine distribution and provides economic assistance for cities, states, schools and small businesses. The legislation also combats child poverty by expanding tax credits for families with children, increases subsidies for child care, expands food stamps and rental assistance and broadens access to Obamacare. The $15 an hour minimum wage was removed because of the Senate’s parliamentary rules.