“This year has brought these issues [of racial disparities in health, well-being and economic security] into focus more than ever before, with the issue of the pandemic … as well as our national reckoning on race.”
Moderator Jenifer Sarver framed the conversation with these words as two national experts joined NCSL Base Camp 2020 to share their thoughts and experiences, and to challenge assumptions, broaden worldviews and provide potential solutions to racial disparities.
Dr. Camara Jones, family physician, epidemiologist and past president of the American Public Health Association, opened with an allegory that illustrated her understanding of the way in which systems and structures create and contribute to disparities. “When I look at racial disparities in health, education, housing outcomes … I understand racism to be the root cause of all of these race-related differences that we see across sectors,” she said.
Ian Rowe, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that systemic issues create barriers, but argued that when strong family support and educational institutions “help children develop character-based strengths like integrity, resiliency, agency, the belief that you can be a master of your own destiny, then those children can lead life on their own terms, even in the face of structural barriers.”
Rowe underscored the need to highlight African American success stories and emulate the qualities and conditions that led to those successes.
He shared the success of a charter school network he led in creating pathways to prosperity for many low-income families of color by providing access to high-quality education and school choice. Rowe challenged the narrative that racism is the sole cause of every racial disparity because it typically leads to “the universe of solutions to address that disparity [being] narrowed to race-based interventions.”
Jones agreed that individual effort and behavior are important, but she emphasized the need to look at systemic issues that influence individual behavior, such as the fact that certain populations are over-represented in certain kinds of neighborhoods.
“You have to ask, why? When you ask why, you enlarge your scope beyond the individual to look at the context of people’s lives.” Jones argued that it is necessary to “identify the barriers outside of the individual, take those barriers away, and then maybe individual agency will have more power.”
What would they recommend to reduce racial disparities? Jones and Rowe both indicated that the early childhood period is critical and should be a top focus for legislators. While Jones said she would put her money into early childhood education, Rowe said he would look at supporting young families broadly, such as with school choice or reducing non-marital birth rates among young women.
Both experts agreed that there are structural issues as well as individual issues at play, that the early childhood years are a key period for focus and intervention, and that there is power in collective action. You can look to NCSL to host more nonpartisan conversations about the inequities in health, well-being and household economic security—including an upcoming webinar on Oct. 14.