By Aysha Pamukcu and Angela P. Harris
Multiple crises creating a “wet cement” moment
In the U.S., racism has repeatedly stymied progress toward the good governance of necessities. Anti-racism, therefore, must be at the core of solutions to our present crises.
One of the most powerful applications of anti-racism is through policy. By enacting and enforcing anti-racist policy, we can govern more of life’s necessities as public goods.
Achieving this requires a robust coalition of advocates who are organized, interdisciplinary, and prepared to promote the equitable governance of vital goods. The “civil rights of health” — a partnership of civil rights, public health, and social justice advocates — can help provide the change infrastructure needed for this paradigm shift.
Policymakers and their constituents are increasingly understanding that inequality hurts everyone. Building on this, we have an opportunity to reimagine how we govern the necessities of life so that they are treated as public goods that benefit all. During this pandemic, for example, essential goods like health care, housing, and paid sick leave have served as front-line public health defenses against the virus.
Our nation has entered a “wet cement” moment where institutions and norms previously thought intractable have become malleable enough to be reshaped, before quickly hardening again. The current moment has been brought on by a series of unprecedented collective crises: the novel coronavirus, climate change, and racialized state violence.
These crises have laid bare the reality of overlapping unjust systems that for too long have been resistant to change. So how can we use this wet cement moment to promote health equity and shared prosperity?
Dismantling racism to promote the good governance of necessities
Thanks to a neoliberal faith in market forces, wet cement moments often become opportunities for what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.” Consider, for example, New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina and the electric grid in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria: these previously publicly-managed goods of education and energy were converted into private goods, with racialized and unjust consequences that persist today.
The pronounced disparities from COVID-19 in the U.S. are a product of a similar reliance on the market to govern and allocate goods. Health care and even health itself are commonly considered private goods under individual control. This perspective persists despite being contradicted by literature on the social determinants of health — a public health term that encompasses the factors that influence our health, including necessities like income, clean air, and housing.
Today, the governance and allocation of such necessities is determined by a wide range of public and private actors. K. Sabeel Rahman refers to this ecosystem as the “infrastructure of provision,” and explains that it is plagued by three problems:
- bureaucratic exclusion, whereby policymakers intentionally hinder some communities’ ability to access public goods or services;
- privatization of public goods, which shifts control to corporations incentivized to maximize short-term investor profits; and
- fragmentation, or decentralizing goods in such a way that hinders equal access.
These three roadblocks to the good governance of necessities have something in common: racism.
Take, for example, bureaucratic exclusion. Today, many in the U.S. struggle to access public benefits like unemployment insurance and food assistance. These federal programs have been structured defensively, to exclude a wide range of people and to impose stringent eligibility limits and benefit caps. These limitations and exclusions are a direct response to the deeply racialized fear that “undeserving” people might claim public benefits.
Racism and the bureaucratic exclusion that it produced has ultimately harmed people from all walks of life. The existing unemployment benefits infrastructure, for example, has hindered federal efforts to alleviate pandemic-related economic distress.
What’s needed is a recognition of the public nature of necessities and a robust infrastructure of provision, rooted in justice and inclusion.
Anti-racist policy as a public good
Racism and a long history of racist policy has hindered our ability to treat necessities as true collective goods. As Ibrahim X. Kendi argues, there is no such thing as race-neutral policy in the contemporary U.S.; policy is either racist or anti-racist.
With this understanding, we can map the struggle between racism and anti-racism onto the struggle between public and private goods. We can approach anti-racist policy itself as a public good — not only morally imperative, but also a pragmatic project that benefits everyone.
We are already seeing bright spots of progress. Policymakers are beginning to govern the necessities of life as public goods, from housing to fair working conditions. Explicitly anti-racist policy is also being enacted across the U.S., as government entities pass resolutions declaring racism to be a public health crisis and take up calls to defund the police.
The civil rights of health can accelerate this progress. This approach equips public health advocates with the power of law and policy, and helps civil rights advocates harness health data to reveal and dismantle oppression. Along with justice movements, this coalition can help us use anti-racist policy to govern the necessities of life as public goods.
With a civil rights of health approach, we can achieve more than a treatment for COVID-19 — we can work to cure the virus of racism which has rendered us collectively sicker and poorer. We can govern vital social goods for public benefit rather than private gain. And we can build a just infrastructure of provision by recognizing and confronting racism through anti-racist policy.
Angela P. Harris is a Distinguished Professor of Law at the UC Davis School of Law.