The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How we can start dismantling systemic racism

People march to the Minnesota governor's residence in St. Paul on July 7, 2016, in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile after a traffic stop in a St. Paul suburb. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

We are in the midst of a health crisis, an economic crisis and a social crisis — and systemic racism is at the heart of each. The day after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, the covid-19 death toll in the United States passed 100,000. Two days after that, the unemployment number passed 40 million. Throughout the pandemic, black people have been infected and have lost their jobs at higher rates than white people.

If we are to have any hope of creating real solutions to these three crises, we must dismantle systemic racism by restructuring those systems that allow it to perpetuate.

This is, of course, a complex task. But Dorian Warren, the president of the Center for Community Change Action, has put forward an important idea for how we can begin: redistribution for reconstruction. According to economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the United States spends twice as much on “law and order” — prisons, courts and police forces — as we do on cash welfare programs such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The events of this year highlight the urgency of fixing that imbalance.

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

With fewer buys of expensive military-style equipment for police departments, fewer people in expensive jails and fewer expensive legal defenses for police officers who commit crimes on the job, our criminal justice system would better serve the people. Better yet, these cuts could fund reconstruction in black communities, so that they aren’t as vulnerable to health and economic shocks like those we’ve faced this year. Funds freed up from overly powerful police departments could be used to improve health care, housing, education and more in communities of color.

Nsé Ufot of the New Georgia Project urges protesters to connect what they are demanding in the streets with what they are choosing at the polls June 9. (Video: Joel Adrian/The Washington Post)

Proposals for this kind of restructuring are gaining ground. In Minneapolis, the city council announced that its veto-proof majority will vote to disband the police department, and the local school board voted to end its contract with the local police department. In New York, current and former staffers of Mayor Bill de Blasio penned a letter calling for, among other reforms, $1 billion to be transferred from the New York Police Department (NYPD) to essential social services. On Sunday, the mayor pledged to cut an amount to be determined ahead of the July 1 budget deadline from the NYPD. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti responded to similar calls by proposing cuts to the police department of up to $250 million. While that’s a step in the right direction, it amounts to just an 8 percent cut in a police department that commands nearly a third of the city budget.

The hesitation we are seeing to call for systemic change, even from supposedly progressive mayors such as de Blasio and Garcetti, makes it clear: If we want reform, we need to elect insurgent reformers. We need to put people in power at all levels of government who are ready to take on the difficult work of changing the system.

For years, organizations such as Real Justice and the Collective have been fighting — often successfully — to elect progressive candidates to offices that have the power to fix broken criminal justice systems. We are already seeing significant changes come from reformer district attorneys including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago and Rachael Rollins in Boston. For instance, last week, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin called for a ban on police unions donating to the election campaigns of prosecutors who are supposed to hold them accountable.

State attorneys general, too, can be powerful drivers of reform. It was Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison who upped the charges against the officers involved with George Floyd’s homicide. And following the death of Eric Garner, in 2015, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman established an independent special investigation and prosecution unit for police killings of unarmed civilians.

Of course, while we vote in people who can check the power of law enforcement, we also need to vote in people who can transfer power to communities of color. We need mayors and other city leaders who will invest in the well-being of these communities. We need legislators to pass relief packages that see the racial inequities at the core of our nation’s present threats, like the People’s Bailout recently proposed by a broad coalition of progressive groups.

Last week, Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight Action, wrote, “Vote because we deserve leaders who see us, who hear us and who are willing to act on our demands.” As this year draws to a close, Americans will have the opportunity to elect such leaders (if needed funding comes through so voters in the era of covid-19 don’t have to risk dying to exercise their right to vote).

When ballots go out this November, we can choose to perpetuate the same broken systems that got us to this place. Or we can let these crises spur us to choose leaders who will dismantle these broken systems and reconstruct something stronger and more equitable in their stead.

Read more:

Christy E. Lopez: Defund the police? Here’s what that really means.

Antonio Delgado: I know how painful racism is. But we can’t give up on voting.

Ruth Marcus: The problem of policing isn’t bad apples. It’s a diseased tree.

Tracie L. Keesee: After this crisis, policing should never be the same

Wil Haygood: The police no longer need the cover of darkness to kill innocent black people