America is turning a corner. Or so it hopes; so it claims.
We have elected a rational adult to the presidency, thanks in no small part to the turnout of Black Americans in places like Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Detroit. There is now budding hope for a return to some semblance of norms, normalcy, and decency. Much of the public is hopeful that two of the most pressing threats to our nation — racism and the COVID-19 pandemic — may be dealt with in good faith by competent people newly returned to positions of power.
While the public health challenge, by no means easy or uncomplicated, seems a comparatively clear matter of following medical and scientific guidance, the response to our long-overdue national reckoning with systemic racism is rife with disagreement even between those on the same side of the partisan divide.
Yet, given the essential role that Black Americans, including Philadelphia voters, played in returning competence to the White House, President-elect Joe Biden has a duty and a mandate to make meaningful progress toward extinguishing the scourge of systemic racism.
Simply nominating more Black leaders into cabinet positions — while crucial — is hardly sufficient. The challenge calls for a solution on the order of a Marshall Plan for Black America: a recovery plan, on the scale of what the United States provided to post-World War II Europe, to promote economic mobility among African Americans and ensure our equal protection under the law. In recent years, Black members of Congress have championed such an undertaking, along with the likes of the Urban League.
The Biden administration has a historic opportunity and obligation to take up this cause.
Centuries of well-architected oppression have exacted social and economic devastation on the Black community akin to that inflicted on European nations by World War II. The reconstruction of Europe was one of the greatest peacetime foreign investments the United States has ever made — about $135 billion in today’s dollars. Are we not capable of an annual investment of at least as much for our own citizens?
The 2008 bank bailouts amounted to more than $4 trillion. A Marshall Plan for Black America set at around $150 billion would be a rounding error in the CARES Act and other stimulus spending. Do Black lives not matter at least that much?
“A Marshall Plan for Black America set at around $150 billion would be a rounding error in the CARES Act. Do Black lives not matter at least that much?”
To that end, as I have argued, Black minds must matter. Reparations require radical investment in education for Black children and adults. That means decoupling the legacy of residential redlining that segregated housing from the funding of and assignment to elementary and secondary schools, ensuring that Black families can choose public schools that meet their unique needs. It means creating low and no-cost pathways to college and career training. There is also an urgent need to get more Black and brown teachers into our classrooms, teaching curricula informed by the trauma done to Black communities — and highlighting the brilliance, creativity, and resilience we have used to resist white supremacy. We need a culture of learning that does not expect less of Black children and in so doing, resign them to just that.
And still the plan must give more than that.
We should ensure HBCUs are funded on par with predominantly white institutions — and actively supported in their profoundly positive impact on the broader Black economy. It is clear education alone will not solve economic disenfranchisement. A Black person with an advanced degree possesses on average one-sixth of the wealth a similarly educated white person does, per a 2013 report.
Economic empowerment is an essential component of recovery. Median Black household wealth is just a fraction of that for white Americans — less than one-tenth by recent estimates. This, despite our enslaved ancestors having built the economic foundations of this country.
Structural barriers to this empowerment are real and pervasive, even for the most educationally accomplished Black folks. We must build an economic ecosystem that supports Black entrepreneurs and the economic stability of Black families, while decriminalizing the lives of Black men and women. This is a simple calculus of justice — not a “handout.”
A meaningful Marshall Plan for Black America demands not just resources and the right policy changes, but a strategy to ensure it lasts. Here too we can draw on the lessons of history. We must build a functional and durable implementation system, as well as physical security protections for Black and brown communities like the protections enjoyed by the recovering societies of postwar Europe.
Whatever the Biden administration proposes, it must be implementable in four years and difficult to dismantle if — more accurately when — the pendulum swings back toward 70 million Trump voters and their next town crier. We have seen what a determined leader, driven by maniacal personal animus toward his or her predecessor, can do to accomplishments of the prior administration. Attacks on health care, limits on protections for Dreamers (young immigrants who arrived to the U.S. at young age), even the balance of the Supreme Court under the Trump administration are strong evidence of the tenuous nature of presidential legacy and success.
A Black Marshall Plan must also be able to withstand the withering political pressure of white privilege, which is perceived by white America the same way a fish perceives water — it only notices its absence. When something even vaguely threatens that privilege, both the right-wing outrage machine and, to borrow a phrase from Malcolm X, “foxy white liberals” alike can bring to bear unrivaled political pressure to protect or expand its pernicious reach.
Just as the United States did in Europe, we further have to ensure the physical safety of Black and brown people. President Trump legitimized and empowered the violent fringes of white supremacy — the people behind rising white nationalist terrorist attacks. To recover from this, communities of color need the same security guarantees afforded to our World War II allies. We need to be safe in our homes and our neighborhood streets without fear of the randomness of death from police. Safe to vote and speak without fear of militarized officers descending upon us for doing so. And safe to grow and thrive in a country that no longer ignores the disproportionate impact of environmental racism and climate change on Black and brown communities.
The election of Joe Biden, made possible in large part by Black voters, is unquestionably good for our country. Just how good it will be for our Black brothers and sisters is an open question. A Marshall Plan for Black America would be a worthy and proportionate response.
Sharif El-Mekki leads the Center for Black Educator Development and is the former principal of Mastery Charter School — Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia. El-Mekki founded the Fellowship — Black Male Educators for Social Justice. He is one of the members of the 8 Black Hands podcast, blogs at Philly’s 7th Ward, and is a featured voice at Education Post.