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The reckoning: Before privilege, check your results

Black lives do matter. Our nation would not be in turmoil if they did not. As a Minneapolis police officer crushed his neck with a knee and George Floyd used his final breath to cry out for his mother, we heard him — and felt his fear and anguish. Who among us, in our most desperate moments, does not look for someone to save us?  

Today, the world sees a nation on fire, a house divided. But just as fire can destroy, so too can it illuminate. Americans are at our best when we reckon with ourselves, face difficult truths, and unite. We, as always, can save ourselves.

We did it in the civil rights era. An average of 80 percent of congressional Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats came together between 1957 and 1968 to pass civil rights legislation, bringing black Americans more fully into the promise of the Declaration of Independence. Out of the era’s strife came unity.

Those civil rights laws opened the door for hundreds of black elected officials, from committeewoman to President of the United States. They inspired black engineers, professors, doctors, lawyers and Supreme Court justices. Blacks made collective power gains and helped lead the U.S. in succeeding decades.

But civil rights laws did not end racism. Fighting intentional acts of cruelty that exclude and dehumanize blacks is our — and our children’s — life’s work. Many of the liberals who took over most major cities in the post-civil rights era, and many who remain in power there today, believed progressive economic policies would help combat that racism. Instead, they economically systematized it in too many instances.

Too many liberals believe the government knows what is best for people, especially if those people happen to be poor, lacking in education, or minorities. Their solution is an all-powerful bureaucratic state that can remove agency, create unjust systems, and undercut individual rights.

Black unemployment rates became and remain almost double that of whites. Why? Progressive welfare policies too often punish upward mobility, disincentivize marriage, and disproportionately help to mire too many black Americans, especially women, in poverty.

Nowhere has the progressive worldview been more devastating to America’s minorities than in our government-run schools. In 2019, 82 percent of black fourth-graders were not reading proficiently, despite record education funding. In Pennsylvania’s urban centers, achievement gaps continue to grow. Many of these children have found success only through school choice initiatives driven by conservatives, such as charter schools and scholarship programs that help families afford private education.

An inadequate education is the start of the “school-to-prison” pipeline that has devastated so many minority lives for decades. Yet progressives and their unwavering allies, the teachers’ unions, protect this failing system from reform at nearly any cost.

These policies have helped create a larger disparity between black and white incarceration rates today than in the 1960s. 

Progressives’ fealty to labor unions, sealed by millions of dollars in political contributions, also has kept bad cops on the streets and bad teachers in the classroom — with brutal consequences. 

Before checking privilege, progressives should check their results.

Over the past decade, the right began — and continues — this reckoning. We once embraced a “tough on crime” mentality that led to over-incarceration. Our policies delivered neither safety nor justice, and infringed on individual liberty, especially for black Americans. We recognized our mistakes and worked to fix them. 

Joined by progressives such as Van Jones, who conceded the right has been “the leader on this issue of [criminal justice] reform,” we have brought about transformative change. In Pennsylvania, we have decreased the prison population and crime while passing the nation’s first Clean Slate Act and two phases of justice reform.  

But instead of rethinking their policies and finding ways to join with the right on real reforms, liberal leaders cloaked themselves in the mantle of racial sensitivity — literally. Even The New Yorker called out congressional Democrats for their kente cloth virtue-signaling. Said Doreen St. Felix: “[It] felt not just misguided but like an outright mockery. The theatrics … happened to underscore the problem with the reformist legislation … which, like the kente stoles themselves, is largely symbolic.”  

It’s time for action, not photo ops. America is at her best when we forge unity through difficult times. But if we believe every life has value and that all people deserve access to the American dream, we must accept that it is our results, not our intentions, that matter. Now is the time for an honest reckoning.

Jennifer Stefano is the vice president and chief innovation officer at the Commonwealth Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @jenniferstefano.

Tags civil rights Racism

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