Recently, Montgomery County enacted the historic Racial Equity and Social Justice Act. This act is part of a growing trend of conversations around the state on the topics of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).
These conversations started in Baltimore City in response to Freddie Gray — which led to the creation of the Equity Assistance Fund to address inequality. They expanded into Prince George’s County, where new frameworks have been developed to promote equitable and inclusive economic development.
These conversations are now present at the state level, where the ACLU and other advocates are pushing for race to be a central component of the Kirwan Commission’s work to equitably funding schools throughout the state.
Many voters and policymakers talk about the language of DEI but do not fully understand what it means and why it matters. This perspective stems from my experience as a Baltimore Corps Social Equity Fellow, an economic development professional, merchant, and entrepreneurial ecosystem organizer, an educator at the local, state, national, and global levels, and as an individual of Afro-Cubano descent.
The life of a language is in the experience. Words and terminology exist to articulate thoughts, needs, and feelings that exist because of conditions in the world. Here are some data points that highlight the different circumstances faced by Marylanders based on race:
- Within Baltimore City, blacks have roughly 54% of the median income levels of whites. Further, blacks are twice as likely to live in liquid asset poverty. This fact makes it more challenging for black Marylanders to address economic emergencies.
- Within Prince George’s County, during the recession, 25% of the county’s mortgages were subprime, and 15% of homeowners received notes of intent to foreclose. This act was part of a trend where blacks were 20% more likely to lose their homes than whites with similar incomes and lifestyles. Further, high-earning blacks were 80% more likely to lose their homes compared to their white counterparts.
- Within Montgomery County, black and brown residents disproportionately live at or below the federal poverty line and are more likely to be unemployed than people of other ethnic backgrounds, despite relatively high graduation rates.
- Within the state of Maryland, blacks constitute 70% of the prison population despite representing only 31% of the state’s total population. The 70% rate is more than twice the national average.
- Within the state of Maryland, black and brown students have lower access to a college preparatory curriculum and increased access to teachers with fewer qualifications and experiences to teach, including college preparatory coursework.
Collectively, these facts reinforce self-fulfilling prophecies that further entrench racial inequalities within society.
The critical question is, how did these disparities come to be?
First, Maryland was a slave state. Then, Maryland was a Jim Crow state that aggressively enforced that system of economic and political disenfranchisement.
Through this process came redlining. The prison-industrial complex reign then replaced Jim Crow via the War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration. As highlighted by a recent report regarding racial disparities in imprisonment in Maryland based on race, this reign has yet to end.
The common consequences of these practices led to the inability of black people to build up wealth. Consequently, the black community has lower homeownership rates, lower housing value rates, and lower access to credit and banking services.
Because of financial inequity, blacks disproportionately had to rely on the subprime market or turn to the rental market and deal with either slumlords or predatory lending. Both pathways curtailed wealth building.
Further, in the absence of redistribution at the state or federal level, local government services are financed via property taxes. Given the limited and systemically depressed wealth of black neighborhoods, this led to less reinvestment into black communities.
This resulted in lower health care outcomes, lower educational outcomes, worse job prospects economically, and higher crime rates and exposure to the criminal justice system. These results further reinforce each other while refueling and amplifying a system of racial apartheid.
The occurrence of this state of affairs is the result of government action enabling and mandating private market discrimination. The goal then must be to provide racial and economic justice to the historical disenfranchised.
DEI then is not a goal, but a pathway to delivering this justice. Racial and economic justice cannot occur as a matter of policy until there is a firm commitment to equity — the art of doing the most for those who have the least on terms and conditions driven by them. Equity is not obtainable until those who have the least are first present in the room where policy conversations occur.
Ensuring the presence of different perspectives, especially of those most impacted by the outcomes of these justice-oriented sets of conversations, is critical. The securing of this presence is what diversity means.
However, the mere existence of diversity is not enough. Those most impacted must also be the ones most empowered in the conversation to shape the discourse and the decision made. That is inclusion.
Together, DEI provides a pathway for racial and economic justice in Maryland. Providing for justice will correct for Maryland’s legacy of racism while making the state stronger economically. The research is clear-advancing racial and economic justice makes economies more competitive, more entrepreneurial, and collectively wealthier.
The key to succeeding in these initiatives is to understand DEI is about cultural change. Many other jurisdictions and many companies approach DEI as a simple goal without defining the purpose DEI, investing in these initiatives financially, defining and measuring progress, empowering minorities through the process, and provide accountability mechanisms for failing to meet these objectives. If these things do not collectively happen, DEI is doomed to fail.
This is what has occurred in places such as Seattle, Fairfax County, Va., and a multitude of different Fortune 500 companies to date. Maryland cannot join this list.
Racial and economic justice, and the DEI pathway to obtain it, is necessary due to the state’s legacy of facilitating and advancing racism for the financial benefit of a few at the expense of the whole. With even greater zeal and commitment, the state can correct for what occurred under the color of law.
Ronald E. Stubblefield is an attorney in Baltimore.