By Robin Stephenson
COVID-19 has exposed ugly truths about the effects of systemic racism.
Headlines report that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are dying at disproportionate rates compared to their white counterparts, and many wonder how this can be. Yet, it is no surprise to people who live under the burden of systemic racism or to those who are working to end hunger.
That is because discrimination is a root cause of hunger.
The Biden administration is pulling off the blinders. Within the first two weeks in office, President Biden issued four executive orders aimed at reducing racial opportunity gaps, stating, “advancing racial equity is everyone’s job.” This whole-of-government approach, a first for any administration, uses a racial equity lens in crafting policy, collecting data, and allocating resources to address systemic racism.
This is a big deal at Bread for the World. Years of discriminatory policies and practices have denied opportunity to people of color, creating environments of persistent hunger. An equity lens is the only way to unweave a system engineered to oppress.
Bread for the World’s domestic policy expert Chonya Johnson said the administration’s commitment to equity gives her hope. “It helps to level the playing field and pays attention to those who have historically been impacted by the lack of access to resources,” she said.
However, it is Congress that holds the purse strings. Johnson, who spent years on Capitol Hill, has no allusions change will be easy. “People don’t always want to play fair if they think they are losing the power that they think they have.”
She hopes that with the administration laying the groundwork, members of Congress will be more open to addressing racial equity and allocating the necessary resources. “It sends a clear message,” said Johnson, “but at the end of the day, it’s about us on the outside holding them accountable.”
The next stimulus bill provides an opportunity to act on the administration’s goals.
“We can address hunger but also set a foundation for recovery—a foundation that supports everybody,” said Johnson.
Bread for the World has recommended that the COVID relief bill now being negotiated should not only provide immediate relief to people affected by the pandemic; it should also include provisions to increase the minimum wage, expand low-income tax credits, and support and protect essential immigrant workers—all policies that would especially support communities of color.
The stimulus is just a tiny step. It will take more than a single bill to dismantle the structures of racism. According to Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith, who leads Pan-African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World, the opportunity for meaningful change is possible but not inevitable.
“I think we have to learn from history,” said Walker-Smith. For example, the years after the Civil War and the Great Depression were periods of rebuilding that missed the mark in leveling the playing field for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.
“Here we are on the eve, again, to do better,” said Walker-Smith. She hopes the theology of inclusivity and hospitality will overcome the warring factions that divide the nation. “Racial equity is an opportunity to get it right for everybody.”