In Maryland, we have taken the challenge of inclusivity and justice — not simply equality — seriously.
We, as a state and a nation, have had the tendency to focus on criminal justice reform and affirmative action programs as the only ways to advance justice for Black Americans. While we need structural change from addressing harmful policing practices to reforming our youth justice system, we also need to lay the groundwork for future prosperity by providing excellent public education and postsecondary options for all Black students, expanding access to affordable housing and preventing harmful redlining and eviction practices, and ensuring full participation in corporate America for Black Americans.
The data is clear — greater diversity leads to greater prosperity. Greater prosperity and a better economy help every American, regardless of race. But we have tried band-aid efforts for decades that have not lifted up communities of color in a meaningful way.
With the Maryland General Assembly enacting a comprehensive COVID-19 relief bill a few weeks ago and President Biden signing the American Rescue Plan into law, Marylanders experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 economic crisis can be assured help is coming. Moving forward, we must ensure these efforts address the needs of Black Marylanders, who we know have suffered more significantly in both health and wealth during this pandemic.
This legislative session, Maryland has a chance to be a national model for what it takes to make racial equity a reality with policy changes that will improve the quality of life of more Black Marylanders for generations to come. We are proud that with the input of advocates, experts, and Black communities from across the state and the nation, the legislature can pass a Black economic agenda that empowers Black Marylanders to seek out opportunity, to build businesses and build generational wealth.
Indeed, racial injustice existed before the pandemic. That’s why it’s not enough to just return to the February 2020 status quo. Before COVID, nationally, the median wealth of Black families was less than 15% of the median wealth of white families, 73% of white parents (35-54) owned their own home compared to just 51% of Black parents (35-54), and even before the pandemic, the Black unemployment rate was twice the white unemployment rate. And then COVID-19 brought on an economic tsunami: more than 400,000 small businesses have closed since the start of the pandemic and many more are struggling to stay afloat. In Maryland, 2020 saw the loss of nearly 125,000 jobs with a disproportionate impact on people of color.
Access to capital is one of the greatest financial barriers minority entrepreneurs and families face on the path to achieving generational wealth by starting a new business or purchasing a home. The racial wealth gap — the roots of which lie in slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and discriminatory practices like redlining — has caused multi-generational impacts that have prohibited Black Americans from turning brilliant ideas into successful businesses or purchasing their own homes. The Black economic agenda will make it easier for Black Marylanders to overcome these barriers by requiring creditors to consider alternative metrics for creditworthiness like history of rent or utility payments or school and work attendance. The state can also assist first-time homebuyers by allowing the creation of tax-free savings accounts for accumulating the capital needed for a down payment and closing costs. We are also asking state government to look at the historic disparities in housing values and appraisals that could help provide immediate financial safety nets to homeowners across Maryland.
If we are truly committed to advancing racial equity, government must do its part. This agenda leads statewide advancement toward greater equity by ensuring that companies doing business with the state have diverse boards and leadership teams, underserved workers have a stronger opportunity to compete for state contracts and that our government agencies are adequately staffed and effective in providing technical assistance to minority-owned businesses.
Good health is fundamental to accessing economic opportunity, but too often health outcomes differ dramatically based on race. Women of color are nearly three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. A package of bills now before the General Assembly acknowledges racism as a central factor in the public health crisis and begins to address long-standing racial health disparities. These common-sense measures include requiring implicit bias training for health professionals, publishing health data broken down by race and ethnicity, and closing gaps in access to health care by incentivizing the positioning of primary care providers and prevention services in high-needs communities.
With a robust Black economic agenda, we can make true progress not just for Black Marylanders, but for the future prosperity of our state. We hope the Maryland General Assembly supports the nation’s first truly comprehensive statewide policy agenda for racial justice and economic progress. Our work is far from done in addressing systemic oppression, but it is urgent that we take important actions now for Black justice in our state and our nation.
Adrienne Jones is speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates — the first Black and first woman to lead in that role. John B. King Jr. is former U.S. secretary of education under President Obama and founder of Strong Future Maryland — a progressive organization working toward a more equitable and just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.