Around the halls: What should the Biden administration prioritize in a policy agenda that promotes equity for Black Americans?

A pedestrian passes a boarded-up storefront with a Black Lives Matter mural on Capitol Square Wednesday in Madison. Businesses in the downtown area had a difficult year coping with the COVID pandemic and vandalism associated with unrest during protests following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck.MJS-madison00p2

When President Biden took office, he made it clear that advancing racial equity would be a top priority for his administration. From housing to education, digital inclusion, and access to banking, there are many policy reforms the administration could make in pursuit of that goal. In this piece, Brookings experts offer their advice on what the new administration should prioritize in a policy agenda designed to support equity for Black Americans.

For more information, you can read more Brookings experts’ analysis on race and American public policy, watch a recent webinar featuring Congresswoman Joyce Beatty and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr., and subscribe to receive updates with future research in this field.

Ensure access to vaccines and prioritize jobs and income – Camille M. Busette

Camille Busette, Director of the Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative
First, ensure access to vaccines for COVID-19. Second, because income and wealth are so often determinants of the types of options that are open to us, it is important to prioritize jobs and income. Black men do not participate in the labor force at the levels they should or could—so, I would encourage the administration to focus on raising the Black male labor participation rate. Third, Black women should make more money than they do but because of race and gender they make 63 cents to every dollar a non-Hispanic white man makes. So, continue to champion raising the minimum wage and pay particular attention to accelerating the move to a higher minimum wage for the types of jobs that Black women typically perform.

Baby bonds and the child tax credit – E.J. Dionne, Jr.

E.J. Dionne, Jr., W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies

Racial injustice and economic injustice aggravate and reinforce each other. We need policies that begin to address both by confronting the large gap between Blacks and whites in both wealth and in income. And most policies aimed at reducing these disparities will also benefit Americans with low-incomes and low-wealth across racial lines.

The Black-white wealth gap is well documented. A Brookings paper by Kriston McIntosh, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn, and Jay Shambaugh showed that the net worth of a typical white family is roughly ten times greater than that of the typical Black family. Brookings’s Andre Perry, Jonathan Rothwell, and David Harshbarger showed that one important cause of the gap is the under-evaluation of homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

In a blog last summer, I made the case for “baby bonds,” reintroduced in Congress this month by Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Ayanna Pressley. Their bill would give every American child a $1,000 “American Opportunity Account” at birth. The government would add up to $2,000 annually, on family income. At 18, the fund holder could access the account for “allowable uses,” including buying a home, financing higher education, or starting a business. Booker has estimated that by age 18, low-income account holders would have access to nearly $50,000 in capital.

On the income side, President Biden’s version of an expanded and refundable child tax credit that he included for one year in his economic rescue plan would cut child poverty in half and lift more than 2 million Black children above the poverty line. Pushed in Congress by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sens. Booker, Michael Bennet, and Sherrod Brown, expansions along these lines should be made permanent.

We need practical policies that can make a large difference in millions of lives. Both baby bonds and the child credit meet this test.

Enforce higher standards on artificial intelligence – Alex Engler

Alex Engler, David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies

As algorithmic systems proliferate across services in employment, health, finance, housing, and transportation, some continue to perpetrate long-standing biases against African Americans. However, the careful use of algorithms has also shown the potential to reduce discrimination, and thus the Biden-Harris administration has an opportunity to improve racial equity by enforcing higher standards on artificial intelligence (AI).

As I argue in a recent op-ed and upcoming Brookings report, one such area is employment algorithms. Proactive changes by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could provide better oversight of the AI systems that analyze resumes, perform automated interviews, and predict employee outcomes. Tens of millions of job candidates go through these systems every year, and enforcing best algorithmic practices could help reduce employment discrimination against African Americans, which research indicates has remained constant over the past 25 years.

Yet this more fair outcome is not guaranteed, and therefore the Biden-Harris administration must take proactive regulatory steps and intentionally expand the investigatory capacity of oversight agencies. Only by doing so can this administration turn the proliferation of algorithms into a meaningful opportunity to improve the lives of Black Americans.

Economic reforms should redress injustices of the past and provide equal opportunity now – William G. Gale

William Gale, Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Federal Economic Policy and Senior Fellow in Economic Studies

Black households hold significantly less wealth than white households in the United States, even after controlling for household characteristics. Despite educational and income gains by Black Americans in absolute terms and relative to white Americans, the wealth gap appears to be growing over time. Equity can’t be achieved by public policy alone, but policy can reduce wealth inequality. Reforms should aim both to redress injustices committed in the past and to provide equal opportunity now.

First, we need to address the disgraceful national history of structural racism that has denied Black families access to wealth-building resources. Reparations have been proposed since the Reconstruction Era—and recently by William “Sandy” Darity and Kirsten Mullen. Reparations are not novel; notably, Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II received compensation in response to their unjust treatment. Reparations can help Black households build wealth and could be provided in several different forms.

Interventions can target disparities stemming from policies that disproportionately benefited white households, such as access to college and homeownership. Retirement policies reflect larger workplace practices that disadvantage Black workers. Creating automatic IRAs and making the Saver’s Credit refundable would provide access to tax-advantaged savings to workers without employer-sponsored retirement benefits, who are disproportionately Black.

These policies would affect people after they enter adulthood. To affect wealth accumulation more durably, earlier life interventions are needed. Together, investments in a strong social safety net that guarantees high-quality, affordable childcare, employment and training programs, and baby bonds can help Black families build wealth.

Though these proposals only scratch the surface of possible reforms and the Black-white wealth gap will be difficult to eliminate, policy must work for the wealth of Black households.

Ensure Black Americans are included in the COVID-19 vaccination programs and economic relief, and continue pursuing police reforms – William A. Galston

William A. Galston, Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies
I’m going to interpret “prioritize” as urgent matters that are not necessarily of the greatest long-term importance but are vital to save lives and minimize poverty among Black Americans. In this vein, I have three recommendations.

First: organize a national effort to ensure that Black Americans participate fully in COVID-19 vaccination programs. Among other things, this will require outreach from trusted community leaders, signup methods that do not depend on access to the internet, and the use of community-based clinics to minimize obstacles to receiving the shots.

Second: when the COVID-19 relief package is enacted into law, monitor the distribution of its benefits to ensure that Black Americans are able to participate on equal terms. This might require creating community-based one-stop shops to help with filling out required forms and breaking down barriers to access for programs such as extended unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit.

Third: build on last year’s first steps to accelerate the enactment of a broad-based agenda of police reforms. The basic building blocks are well known. Now is the time to negotiate toward agreement on a bill that will require substantial bipartisan support to overcome possible procedural hurdles in the Senate.

Prioritize teacher diversity in public schools – Michael Hansen

Michael Hansen, Herman and George R. Brown Chair, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy, and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies

I urge the Biden-Harris administration to prioritize teacher diversity in public schools as a policy lever to both advance the status of students of color and promote a more inclusive, multicultural democracy for all. The demographics of the nation’s student body crossed the 50% nonwhite threshold in 2014, becoming officially “minority majority” status overall. Yet, the nation’s public teacher workforce remains disproportionately white—roughly 80% according to the latest data.

In recent years, the empirical evidence drawn from many rigorous studies across many different schooling contexts has coalesced around an important finding: exposure to teachers of color increases many short- and long-term outcomes for students of color and promotes greater tolerance and empathy among white students. School systems nationwide should capitalize on this evidence base and start using teacher race as a policy lever for stronger and more equitable public education.

Since the waning days of the Obama administration, many states and districts have taken actions to promote diversity among teacher ranks, though often these efforts are targeted to urban settings, often with high shares of nonwhite students. The problem, though, is that student diversity is growing more diffuse, quickly increasing in the suburban and rural areas that previously served almost exclusively white student bodies; thus, current efforts likely misdirect teachers of color away from the areas where they could be most impactful.

Beyond recruiting greater numbers of teachers, school leaders also need complementary strategies both to provide more exposure opportunities to nonwhite teachers for all students, and to help train existing teachers to work with and support students of color without projecting their unconscious biases onto them. Fortunately, the evidence base on these areas is deep enough to point to the strategies leading to more inclusive schools where all students can learn on a level playing field.

A policy agenda to support Black America must prioritize drug reform – John Hudak

John Hudak, Deputy Director of the Center for Effective Public Management and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies

Any administration committed to a policy agenda to support Black America must prioritize drug reform. Drug policy in the United States was born from deeply racist roots and for more than a century, our nation’s drug laws—especially cannabis laws—have disproportionately impacted Black Americans, Latinos, and immigrant groups. Black Americans are more three times more likely than whites to be arrested for a cannabis offense, despite similar usage rates between those groups. The Biden-Harris administration must address this history.

As America arrests more than half a million individuals per year for cannabis crimes, subsequent convictions follow people for life—limiting social, educational, employment, and other opportunities. Over the course of decades this has institutionalized a lack of economic advancement that affects individuals, families, and the communities in which they live. As those arrests and convictions concentrate geographically—particularly in urban areas and neighborhoods of color within those urban areas—a systematic attack on the economic opportunity of Black Americans manifests in disastrous ways.

We know that in states that have legalized cannabis, the number of arrests plummet for charges related to that substance. We know that conviction expungement in states can help some individuals find opportunities that would have otherwise been beyond reach. However, reinvestment in the communities devastated by racially-drafted laws and racially-motivated law enforcement practices must be part of the broader conversation. The Biden-Harris administration cannot do this alone, as the vast majority of cannabis arrests in the United States happen at the state and local levels. It is critical for the administration to have a nationwide conversation about transforming cannabis and other drug laws, and that conversation must engage governors, mayors, other local leaders, civic groups, law enforcement, and the variety of stakeholders necessary to use drug policy to advance, rather than oppress, Black America.

Require all banks to offer very low-cost basic accounts – Aaron Klein

Aaron Klein, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies
Require all banks to offer very low cost basic accounts. One out of seven Black households in America does not have a bank account (for whites it is one out of 40). The number one reason people do not have bank accounts is cost. Bank accounts are free to those who always have a thousand dollars or more in savings, but to those without they are expensive with a combination of high monthly fees and overdrafts. One out of twelve Americans with a checking account are paying over $300 a year in overdraft fees and, given the distribution of who lives paycheck to paycheck, Blacks are paying more in bank fees.

Realizing the problem is cost, not access, is a key step forward. Less than one in 20 unbanked people cite a bank’s location or hours as the main reason they are unbanked. The growth of smart phones, smart ATMs, and the surprising resilience of the branch network (banks haven’t gone Blockbuster) provides opportunity for real connections. Cost is the barrier to access, not geography.

Every bank in America is chartered, and with that charter comes a duty to serve their entire community. Requiring low-cost basic bank accounts will put more money in the hands of Black families. It will also help build greater wealth and expand access to credit on better terms. Even the American Bankers Association believes these low cost accounts, without overdrafts or high monthly fees, are best practice. The Biden administration needs to go one step further and mandate these accounts at every bank and credit union, making them the default account for new consumers.

To embrace Black humanity, the Biden administration must embrace restitution – Rashawn Ray

Rashawn Ray, David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies
The Biden presidency will ultimately be judged by how it addresses systemic racism. Similar to Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy before him, President Biden seems to recognize the importance of this moment in American history. Issuing a series of important Executive Orders, the Biden administration has prioritized racial equity. To truly have long-lasting impacts beyond his presidency, Biden needs to prioritize three items:

  1. 1.John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act
  2. 2. Reparations and Truth and Reconciliation
  3. 3. George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

    First, democracy is working. Permanently establishing the Voting Rights Act and naming it after John Lewis will ensure that the clock is not rolled back on racial progress in order to allow everyone to more equitably participate in the political process and reduce the likelihood of voter suppression and gerrymandering. This is particularly important in states like Georgia where a series of bills are being presented this legislative session to make it more difficult for people to vote.

    Second, aiming to address problems in housing and business ownership only addresses racial inequalities moving forward. To truly address the racial wealth gap, President Biden should support reparations, including using federal land, for descendants of enslaved Black Americans to finally heal the soul of America.

    Third, transforming policing in America is paramount and it starts with accountability and funding. While Biden ensures that private prison companies and their investors cannot become wealthy by purchasing stock in mass incarceration that disproportionately falls on Black bodies, he needs to take the same approach to police funding. Since the early 1980s, federal spending on law enforcement has increased over 350%. Over the past five years, over $2 billion was spent on civilian payouts for police brutality. My research suggests there needs to be an evidence-based, market-driven approach to police funding to ensure that law enforcement personnel have what they need but are operating in a fiscally-responsible manner that equitably benefits all community members. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act can pave the way and police department insurance policies may be a better use of tax payer money.

Focus in particular on the barriers to opportunity faced by Black men and boys – Richard V. Reeves

Richard Reeves, John C. and Nancy D. Whitehead Chair, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies, and Director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative
The new administration should focus in particular on the barriers to opportunity faced by Black men and boys. On many social and economic measures, Black men fare worse not only than white men, but also white and Black women. As my colleague Rashawn Ray points out, “Black men have a different social reality from their black female counterparts.” They need, as Camille Busette writes, a New Deal.

The new Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys will be key here. The Commission, which has yet to be formed, is charged with recommending policies to “improve upon, or augment, current government programs.” Key areas of focus for policy are:

  1. 1. Reducing the exclusion of Black boys and men from key institutions of education and employment, through the reform of disciplinary policies and practices in school, and of course the criminal justice system.

  2. 2. Improving college completion rates for Black men where they lag almost all other demographic groups. Black men are only half as likely, for example, to get a master’s degree as are Black women (4% vs. 9%).

  3. 3. Higher wages. Both Black women and Black men lag behind white workers in terms of earnings. Black men now earn $378 less per week than white men and $125 less than white women. This means sound macroeconomic policy to keep the labor market tight, lifting minimum wages, and much greater investments in “earn and learn” programs.

  4. 4. Better health. The pandemic has exposed, like an X-ray, the existing fractures in society—and not least for Black men, who have been dying of COVID-19 at a rate 2.4 times that of white men. Black men suffer disproportionately from many of the pre-existing conditions for the virus, as well as long-standing vulnerabilities to mental health challenges.

Breaking the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage for Black boys and men requires both a deeper understanding the gendering of their race—and the racialization of their gender—and a battery of specifically tailored policy interventions: a New Deal for Black Men, no less.

Ensure Black Americans have access to the ballot box – Molly E. Reynolds

Molly Reynolds, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies
Ensuring that Black Americans have access to the ballot box in order to send representatives of their choice to Washington is the foundation on which advancing the various specific policy proposals necessary to support Black Americans is built. But that access has been significantly eroded by various policy changes in individual states and at the federal level—including the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in “Shelby County v. Holder” that gutted a requirement that certain jurisdictions that had previously discriminated against racial minority voters get approval before altering their election administration practices.

Congressional action to renew and strengthen the Voting Rights Act is a key step in ensuring equitable access to voting, and the Biden-Harris legislative affairs staff should prioritize working with Democrats in Congress to get a bill moving through the legislative process. Given the very narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, however, passing voting rights legislation will either need bipartisan support or—as former President Barack Obama suggested last summer at the funeral of Representative John Lewis—eliminating the legislative filibuster. Given that debates about eliminating the filibuster are shaped by underlying views about policy, the Biden-Harris team—perhaps leveraging the experience of both the president and vice president as former members of the Senate—will need to assess the positions of Senate Democrats to determine whether support for the policy is unanimous and strong enough that they would be willing to eliminate the filibuster to get it passed.

Address exclusionary zoning laws and encourage pathways to build wealth outside homeownership – Jenny Schuetz

Jenny Schuetz, Senior Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program and Future of the Middle Class Initiative
Two actions from the Biden-Harris administration would substantially improve economic well-being for Black Americans: challenging local governments that enact exclusionary zoning laws, and using federal tax policy to encourage wealth-building outside homeownership.

For most of U.S. history, Black families faced explicit barriers to where they could live, including restrictive covenants and racial discrimination in mortgage lending. Today, a more subtle type of barrier limits Black households’ access to high-opportunity communities: zoning laws that block construction of apartments and other moderately-priced housing. The Biden-Harris administration should withhold federal transportation, housing, and infrastructure funds from local governments that persist with exclusionary zoning.

Housing market discrimination has excluded Black households from building wealth through homeownership, while white homeowners benefitted from federal tax subsidies. To close the racial wealth gap, the Biden-Harris administration should support a more balanced wealth-building approach, including child development accounts (baby bonds), individual development accounts, and short-term emergency savings.

Create a “Tech New Deal” for Black America – Nicol Turner Lee

Nicol Turner Lee, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies and Director of the Center for Technology Innovation
The Biden-Harris administration needs a Tech New Deal for Black America. More than 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed during the pandemic with nearly half of Black-owned businesses in urban areas ceasing operations at the peak of the pandemic, compared to 17% of white-owned establishments. Black workers have also been devastated by higher rates of unemployment over the course of the pandemic, while being more susceptible to COVID-19 as a result of their frontline work. Black K-12 students have also been disproportionately connected to schooling, largely due to not having either home broadband or an internet-enabled device. These and other concerns are exacerbated by the lingering legacy of historical racism and the miscarriages of justice seen through the discriminatory policing of Black communities.

Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced similar economic and societal declines in the 1930s and responded with the New Deal, a variety of social and economic programs to stabilize the market and encourage worker security. President Biden needs a like-minded revival and one that directly benefits Black Americans and their businesses to address the rapid unraveling of Black lives and opportunities during the pandemic.

The Tech New Deal, which I have previously written about, involves accelerating Blacks’ access to broadband infrastructure and related jobs, establishing formal credentialing and apprenticeships for underrepresented Black workers in 5G and other technology jobs, advancing a new national digital service corps, and investing tech resources into community-based organizations and start-up enterprises within Black communities. Ensuring that digital opportunities are available to Black people, who have traditionally been consumers rather than producers of existing and emerging technologies, can close the digital divide and embolden communities to create new pathways for economic viability and social survival.

Without formal redress and the use of new technology to drive economic recovery, Black communities will face the deepening of systemic inequalities that come with being both Black and digitally invisible, the topic of my forthcoming book, “Digitally invisible: How the internet is becoming the new underclass” (Brookings Press).

Reduce the barriers to entering the legal profession – Clifford Winston

Clifford Winston, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies
The legal profession fails to serve 80% of the public and continues to build access barriers for people seeking legal services. The problem is particularly acute for Black Americans, whose median household earns 61 cents for every dollar that the median white household earns, while the median Hispanic household earns 74 cents.

David Burk, Jia Yan, and I argue in our new book, >Trouble at the Bar: An Economics Perspective on the Legal Profession and the Case for Fundamental Reform(Brookings Institution Press), that the American Bar Association’s monopoly on determining the type of legal education that is acceptable and states’ licensing requirements have limited the supply of lawyers who could provide low-cost legal services without providing any benefits. Entry barriers to the legal profession have contributed to a lack of diversity among lawyers, with only 5% of active attorneys identifying as Black or African American, and resulted in prices that many Black litigants cannot afford. For example, a simple contract can cost as much as $1,500; a simple bankruptcy $5,000; an employment dispute $50,000; and so on.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to significantly improve access to justice for Black Americans by eliminating both the ABA’s monopoly control of legal education and states’ licensing requirements. Alternative legal education programs would proliferate, including vocational and online courses of study that could be completed in less than a year and college programs that enable undergraduates to major in and receive a bachelor’s degree in law. These programs would significantly reduce barriers to entry into the legal profession, increasing diversity and the supply of lawyers who could provide effective, low-cost civil legal services.

With his 3,500 lawsuits that continue to grow, Donald J. Trump has greatly benefited from access to justice. It is time for the most disadvantaged members of society to benefit as well.