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Legalize it! But also, do it right

In recent years, calls to decriminalize and legalize recreational cannabis have exploded in number. For perhaps the first time ever, many high-profile elected officials have publicly stated their approval of what was once a left-wing fantasy.

Many states are moving forward with legalization proposals because of the revenue implications. Honestly, it’s hard to blame them. Five years after being the first to legalize recreational cannabis, Colorado surpassed $1 billion in state revenue from marijuana sales.

Last month, New York became the most recent state to follow in Colorado’s footsteps.

But much of the driving force behind these reforms are activists and advocacy groups focused on social justice. The criminalization of marijuana and resulting mass incarceration of minorities is a pillar of the systemic racism that plagues our communities. Demonstrators who marched against this inequality in the summer of 2020 may have been chanting about police brutality, but their mission extends to this policy debate as well.

The substance’s criminalization has set the United States down a regrettable, horrific path of mass incarceration. The “War on Drugs” has dramatically diverged from its admittedly debatable intent to combat addiction in inner cities while our legal system thrives on the incarceration of individuals from marginalized groups. It’s come to the point that corporations are profiting by keeping jail cells full.

inmate laying in bed

 

But don’t just take our word for it. Despite using marijuana recreationally in comparable rates, people of color are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for it. In 2017, Black people made up over 27% of total drug violation arrests, despite constituting only 13.4% of the population.

When it comes to drug-related crime, there are two different Americas.

Reforming a system that incentivizes locking up Black and Brown Americans and throwing away the key will take time. Legalization is a good first step. But to live up to its potential, social justice must be at the heart of the legislation.

Any meaningful reform will not only legalize recreational cannabis but expunge records of those convicted of some related crimes. To keep this group locked up while dispensaries operate would be cruel and unusual, even for our criminal justice system.

There are also economic considerations.

The legal cannabis industry is almost entirely white. A 2017 survey found that only about 4% of dispensaries were owned by Black entrepreneurs. Even though legalization has gone mainstream, white business owners continue to dominate the marketplace at 90% ownership. The lack of Black influence in marijuana company boardrooms relates to the high barriers between people of color and business ownership. But many states don’t consider this disparity during the legislative process, and they should.

 

In Pennsylvania, legislators have taken this to heart. The recent push to legalize marijuana has included the caveat of examining business board membership in the licensing process. In other words, the state can decide which businesses are legally allowed to sell cannabis within their borders and give preference to those with diverse leadership. In this way, this progress comes from a place of intending to alleviate systemic inequality.

The legalization of recreational marijuana is largely a good thing. It will help prevent more generations of Black and Brown people from occupying a disproportionate number of jail cells. However, we cannot pass up the opportunity to make a dent in the deeply embedded inequality of our country.

Let’s pressure lawmakers to make equity the driving force behind legalization and to consider the rest of their agendas with the same mindset.

 

NF LEGISLATIVE ROUNDUP: WEEK OF APR. 12, 2021

Amid a number of issues that affect marginalized communities, we’re paying attention to the action that states are taking – or lack thereof. Take a look at some highlights!

California

  • SB2
    • Why we’re watching: Even as the trial of Derek Chauvin unfolds, officers still feel emboldened to murder Black and Brown Americans. Often, they face little punishment for their misdeeds. California, however, wants to institute a citizen panel with the power to decertify any officers found to have used unnecessary force in the line of duty.

Colorado

  • HB1209
    • Why we’re watching: Our criminal justice system is the most enthusiastic the world has ever seen. We imprison more of our citizens than Soviet Russia did in an authoritarian regime. This bill will help those who committed crimes at a young age return to life outside of a prison cell.

Connecticut

  • SB956
    • Why we’re watching: There are millions of undocumented individuals living in America. Not all of them live in Connecticut, but the state is considering expanding Medicaid insurance coverage to any that do. Despite some debate over the bill’s age restrictions, this would be a massive sign of progress in immigration policy.

Maryland

  • Maryland Police Accountability Act
    • Why we’re watching: Maryland’s legislators rebuked Gov. Larry Hogan last weekend, overriding his veto of this sweeping reform bill. The legislation strips old legal protections for law enforcement, institutes modern use of force policies, and creates a citizen oversight board.
  • Dignity Not Detention Act
    • Why we’re watching: The hits keep coming for Maryland! Earlier this week, the General Assembly voted to ban for-profit immigration detention centers. Additionally, the bill limits cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, creating a more hospitable state for undocumented individuals.

What do you think of the bills in this week’s roundup? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line on any of our social channels or at info@neighborhoodforward.com or you can contact us through our contact us form. Let us know what’s happening in YOUR neighborhood!

Income taxes: A complicated symptom of a simple issue

In a normal year, today is Tax Day in America. Millions of households would typically hit submit sometime this week to file their taxes and receive returns from state and federal governments. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the federal filing deadline back, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are blatant racial disparities in our tax system.

woman doing her taxes

Currently, the IRS doesn’t ask for a filer’s race or ethnicity. Other disparities reveal themselves in our actual tax code; the rules that dictate how much we owe our government every year.

One of the most obvious expressions of such inequality is who benefits the most from tax breaks. While your mind might jump to billionaire tax breaks that have allowed figures like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to avoid surrendering significant chunks of their wealth, these tax breaks exist for the middle-class too.

For example, the government offers deductions for mortgage interest payments. In other words, if you’re paying a mortgage, you end up paying less on your taxes. Studies have determined that such provisions will cost the federal government over $280 billion between 2019 and 2022 alone.

It’s well-documented that homeownership varies widely by race. White taxpayers are about 16% more likely to own their home than the next highest group, the AAPI community. Black people are more than 30% less likely than their white counterparts to own their home.

This gap in homeownership and corresponding inequality in tax benefits is the result of discriminatory housing practices like redlining. Redlining was the practice of denying home loans to people of color based on where they wanted to move, creating intentionally majority-white neighborhoods.

Such historical discrimination surfaces when we look at the tax policy of today.

The IRS asks for identification information when filling out taxes. Requiring a social security number leaves millions of undocumented immigrants unable to pay taxes. Black filers are also less likely to seek eligibility for marriage deductions as well as IRA contributions, pensions, and dividends.

Another blind spot in our tax code is student debt. The IRS offers deductions for payments on the interest of student loans – as long as households earn less than $80,000 for singles and $165,000 for joint filers. This can’t be used by those with no income tax liability, however, and therefore benefits mostly middle- and upper-class white families.

Although students of color are more likely to borrow, they don’t really enjoy noticeably more tax relief. Families of Black and Brown borrowers have debt-to-asset ratios way higher than white families, making it more likely the former group will default on loans.

Tax policy helps reveal systemic inequities that already exist. Admittedly, a number of deductions and relief mechanisms seek to lessen the burden on lower-income families. But those are small, retroactive solutions to vast problems. To reflect social justice and equality in our tax code, we can’t simply change IRS policy and move on. The root causes of these gaps (affordable housing, the student loan crisis, citizenship, etc.) are more worthy of reform.

We think about “leveling the playing field” through taxation so often. Proposals from a number of high-profile federal legislators seek to bolster social services through taxing the ultra-wealthy among us. And these changes can really make a difference in the lives of marginalized groups.

If we think of taxes as a product of – not the cause of – inequality, we can shift focus to the larger discrimination inherent to our institutions.

NF LEGISLATIVE ROUNDUP: WEEK OF APR. 5, 2021

State legislatures across the country continued to debate and enact legislation relevant to the struggle for social justice. Check out the bills from the week of April 5, 2021.

Arizona

  • SB1485
    • Why we’re watching: In the wake of Georgia’s discriminatory voting laws, Arizona hasn’t learned a thing. The state legislature is considering over 20 bills that would limit voting. SB1485 would automatically remove voters from the early voting list should they miss two federal elections in a row. 150,00 Arizonans would be removed immediately.

California

  • California Public Banking Option Act
    • Why we’re watching: Banks have long been a venue of racial discrimination. Redlining, the historic practice of creating de facto segregated neighborhoods, began with racist bank policy. This legislation would create a public alternative to the private institutions that have played a role in housing discrimination for decades.

Colorado

  • HB1090
    • Why we’re watching: Legalization without instituting criminal justice reforms is folly. This bill would raise the legal possession limit in Colorado from one ounce to twice that – and give Gov. Jared Polis an avenue by which to pardon individuals previously convicted of possession offenses.

Connecticut

  • SB888
    • Why we’re watching: We’re still monitoring Connecticut’s efforts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. This proposal took another step forward recently, but social justice advocates still think the legislation could be stronger in reinforcing equity among marginalized communities.

Washington

  • SB5476
    • Why we’re watching: Addiction is not a crime. That outdated view of a public health issue is how the overpolicing of marginalized communities ramped up in the 1980s during the War on Drugs. Under this bill, law enforcement would be encouraged to connect those with substance abuse disorders to services that can provide treatment and recovery instead of throwing them in jail.

What do you think of the bills in this week’s roundup? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line on any of our social channels or at info@neighborhoodforward.com or you can contact us through our contact us form. Let us know what’s happening in YOUR neighborhood!

The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in our Communities

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was an undeniable force for good. He organized the March on Washington, the Montgomery bus boycott, and dozens of other sit-in protests against segregation and the war in Vietnam. For his efforts, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the youngest man to ever hold the latter honor.

On April 4, 1968, Rev. King was assassinated in Memphis. His murder was a blow to the civil rights movement that often rallied around King’s nonviolent tactics and organizing efforts.

 

martin luther king junior statue

 

Since then, municipalities across the country have named over 1,000 streets after Rev. King to pay tribute to his heroic contributions. From busy urban roadways to calmer residential drives, 41 states have created public reminders surrounding Rev. King’s legacy.

Now, the streets that bear his name are the battlegrounds for social justice.

First of all, naming roads in this manner has never been an easy feat. For example, in Chattanooga, a developer complained about what an MLK address would imply to clients. Elsewhere, local governments have created strict renaming ordinances to hamper any community effort to honor the Rev. King.

But even when successfully named for the Rev. King, the fight for justice and equality on our streets hasn’t slowed down.

Some neighborhoods that bear the American hero’s name are run-down and abandoned by businesses. They have higher rates of crime and are more racially segregated than other parts of cities.

Activists fought for historically Black neighborhoods to bear the honor of Rev. King’s name during their initial push to honor his legacy – a sensible request. Historically Black areas deserve to celebrate the civil rights movement as their own. But after redlining and chronic disinvestment in social programs, historically Black neighborhoods are dotted with law enforcement.

These are the areas where police rove around in tanks with weapons of war slung over their shoulders. It’s the complete abandonment of community policing. The prison-industrial complex has irreversibly altered the priorities of law enforcement. In fact, most officers don’t even live in the areas they patrol.

The underinvestment leads to poverty, and the poverty leads to over-policing. It’s a vicious cycle that began decades ago. And the solution will take decades more.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the fight for equality and justice. Those principles are incompatible with contemporary policing. If he were here today, the Reverend would be leading the charge to reform policing so our neighborhoods could move forward together.

NF LEGISLATIVE ROUNDUP: WEEK OF MAR. 29, 2021

NF LEGISLATIVE ROUNDUP: WEEK OF MAR. 29, 2021

This week, there was no shortage of headline-making bills relevant to the fight for equality in our neighborhoods. Here’s a few that caught our attention!

 

Arizona

  • SB1064
    • Why we’re watching: Minimum sentencing laws exorbitantly punish minor crimes and disproportionately impact people of color. Arizona’s Senate Bill 1064 seeks to change that by letting drug offenders get out of prison after serving half their sentences. So far, this proposal has survived staunch opposition and we hope we can report its passage soon.

Colorado

  • HB1047
    • Why we’re watching: While voting rights dominate the headlines, it’s important that we keep track of the nationwide redistricting effort. This process often falls victim to partisan influence but Colorado House Bill 1047 seeks to institute independent commissions to draw county commissioner districts. Keeping the process fair is paramount.

Federal

  • HR40
    • Why we’re watching: A couple weeks ago, Evanston, Illinois became the first municipality to institute a reparations program by offering affordable housing grants. Now, Congress is considering a bill to study reparations: House Resolution 40. This conversation is a step forward as we atone for the discriminatory past of states across the country. 

New York

  • Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA)
    • Why we’re watching: In case you’ve been living under a rock, New York is the newest state to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. Provisions of the legislation include expunging criminal drug-related charges and investing in racial equity. The success of MRTA is the result of progressive lobbying and grassroots organizing in Albany that spans years.

Washington

  • HB1090
    • Why we’re watching: Unthinkably, private prisons are still largely legal in America. These for-profit incarceration centers prioritize punishment over rehabilitation, a practice which we’re glad to see Washington take steps to abolish in House Bill 1090.

 

What do you think of the bills in this week’s roundup? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line on any of our social channels or at info@neighborhoodforward.com or you can contact us through our contact us form. Let us know what’s happening in YOUR neighborhood!

NF LEGISLATIVE ROUNDUP: WEEK OF MAR. 22, 2021

Welcome to another Legislative Roundup, wherein we highlight some bills that are relevant to the fight to transform our communities. Check out the bills from the week of March 22, 2021!

Federal

  • 747
    • Why we’re watching: This pandemic revealed a lot about America. One of these revelations was the importance of immigrant communities as essential workers, despite low pay and poor conditions. Sen. Alex Padilla’s Citizenship for Essential Workers Act will provide this group with a clear, cheap, and quick path to citizenship.

Arizona

  • HB2461
    • Why we’re watching: Arizona has often found itself in the national spotlight due to poor policing. HB2461 seeks to change that by providing revenue for body cameras through 2026 for its officers. This technology will help shine a light on citizen and law enforcement interactions. We only hope they also consider legislation to mandate their usage.

Missouri

  • SB53
    • Why we’re watching: While most of the bills in this series are helpful in the fight for equity, this one is different. The proposal in question would ban chokeholds but permit Kansas City police officers to live outside of the city. Such an attachment is a blow to community and police relations and permits officers to act as an occupying force, despite the bill’s positives.

Oregon

  • SB401
    • Why we’re watching: Mandatory minimums have been weaponized against communities of color for decades. They sidestep judicial discretion and prioritize punishment over rehabilitation. We hope Oregon moves forward with this bill, which would end mandatory minimum sentencing for most crimes in the state!

Washington

  • HB1267
    • Why we’re watching: We’ve been tracking this bill for a while now and it just keeps advancing through the Washington Legislature. At its core, the proposal recognizes the community’s eroded trust in law enforcement and seeks to rectify this injustice through civilian oversight boards.

What do you think of the bills in this week’s roundup? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line on any of our social channels or at info@neighborhoodforward.com or you can contact us through our contact us form. Let us know what’s happening in YOUR neighborhood!

The Lack of Access to Clean Water in Our Own Backyard

In 1993, the United Nations began to recognize March 22 of each year as World Water Day in a bid to raise awareness for the sustainable management of clean water across the world. These annual celebrations all boast a different theme but help remind global leaders of the problems faced by a large percentage of their constituents.

An estimated 790 million people, or 11% of the world’s population, live without easy access to clean water.

 

child drinking water

 

This astounding deficiency is mostly confined to Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, both areas are the subject of many philanthropic campaigns by business leaders such as Bill Gates. But sometimes the access of clean water eludes America’s marginalized communities as well.

The case of Flint, Michigan is the best example of such abuses.

Flint’s water crisis began in 2014, when the municipality switched the source of its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to cut costs. Residents began to complain about the odor, color, and taste of the water coming out of their faucets – all the result of poor oversight.

A study by Virginia Tech in 2015 concluded that lead levels in water across Flint were well above the maximum amount. Some samples had three times as much lead as was legally permitted.

For 18 months, Flint residents were poisoning themselves with this substance. Thousands of children experienced elevated blood-lead levels, a problem that might stay with them for the rest of their lives.

To rectify this injustice, citizens mobilized to influence the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to launch a response. Building on the success of that effort, community organizations, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, filed a suit against Flint. A little while later, a federal judge sided with the residents and ordered the city to replace pipes, improve testing, and offer free bottled water.

Now, different officials caught up in the scandal are facing legal challenges to varying degrees of severity.

Following an extensive investigation, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission stated that the crisis was the result of systemic racism. This label garnered the attention of the usual suspects who deny such discrimination even exists, from talking heads to politicians. But there are only so many times a striking lack of care can correlate with skin color before we start assuming malicious intent.

The situation in Flint is one of the best examples we have of environmental racism in the United States. Chronic disinvestment and ignorance conspired to damage the environment surrounding marginalized communities. Flint’s residents are over 50% Black. It’s not a coincidence that a majority-minority city suffered this calamity.

As climate change barrels onward, we can expect environmental racism to rear its ugly head more often than ever. Black and Brown Americans will be the most affected group. Not only have these families been systemically prevented from gathering the wealth requisite to recover from such events, but even geography is damning.

Coastal areas like New Orleans are the most likely to flood (see Hurricane Katrina). Houses in disrepair are least able to withstand strong winds and storms (see the Iowa Derecho). Faulty transmission and bureaucratic abandonment will let power outages become the norm (see the Texas blackouts).

Climate disasters are discriminatory.

To address this, climate legislation must include equity. These items can range from job retraining to stimulus payments. We need to pass truly forward-thinking bills that acknowledge the failures of past reforms and reject complacency. Through proactive action today, we can better the quality of life for marginalized communities tomorrow.

NF Legislative Roundup: Week Of Mar. 15, 2021

This week, there was no shortage of bills having to do with the fight for equity in society. Our Legislative Roundup highlights some of the most important. Here they are!

Colorado

  • SB182
    • Why we’re watching: School resource officers are notorious for their encouragement of the school-to-prison pipeline. Colorado has made steps to officially recognize this behavior and banned the handcuffing of students. This move will ensure school resource officers do their job of protecting and counseling students from danger.

Connecticut

  • HB6611
    • Why we’re watching: Redlining and housing discrimination are the root of so many ills that marginalized groups experience. Food deserts, heat inequality, and deteriorating schools are all related symptoms. Now, Connecticut is considering a measure that will reimagine zoning and create a framework to address this decades-long inequality.

Illinois

  • SB1510
    • Why we’re watching: After decades of healthcare inequality and a year with a pandemic that’s affected Black and Brown communities more than any other, we’re proud to see Illinois aggressively bolster healthcare. The $150 million per year investment into marginalized neighborhoods will improve public health and address a long history of discrimination.

Maryland

  • SB0271/HB0423
    • Why we’re watching: The voting rights of minorities are under attack in statehouses across the country. Maryland is doing their best to build out their voting infrastructure by standardizing voting devise, thus protecting the anonymity of differently abled voters.

Washington

  • SB5066
    • Why we’re watching: Washington is considering a slew of police reform bills, but this is one is especially interesting. The proposal would require that anytime an officer sees a coworker using excessive force, they must intervene and report the behavior to supervisors.

 

What do you think of the bills in this week’s roundup? Did we miss anything? Drop us a line on any of our social channels or at info@neighborhoodforward.com or you can contact us through our contact us form. Let us know what’s happening in YOUR neighborhood!

This Pandemic is Discriminatory: Part 2

Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached our shores, over 500,000 people have died.

We shouldn’t just move on from this. This toll isn’t normal and we shouldn’t treat it as such. It’s not unavoidable or inevitable, either. It is, however, the result of failed leadership in Washington and state legislatures across the country.

Now, as we move on to the vaccine-phase of our “recovery,” the disparities of months past are rearing their ugly heads.

Some of these gaps in vaccine availability may result from injustices at the hands of doctors in Black and Brown history. For hundreds of years, the medical industry has poked and prodded minorities with deadly results and vicious intent.

The Tuskegee Study is the most famous example of this abuse. In 1932, doctors at the Tuskegee Institute set out to investigate syphilis and treatment regimens. Doctors began by giving untreated syphilis to Black males followed by treatments, which proved inadequate. Even when penicillin became available for use, doctors didn’t offer it to the study’s participants. The study continued for 40 years, until an exposé in 1972.

Did we mention that the Black test subjects weren’t told that they were given syphilis?

For 40 years, Black men were subject to a potentially deadly disease without their consent. So, it’s really not surprising that communities of color are hesitant about a vaccine developed so quickly.

Reports have concluded that Black Americans are 20% less likely to want the vaccine than white or Hispanic groups. Unsurprisingly, over a quarter of Black people say they will definitely not get vaccinated. This hesitation is borne from a deeply rooted mistrust of medical figures acting in conjunction with the government.

But if people of color want the vaccine, they don’t have the same access to it as white neighborhoods. Data released by New York City officials found that in mostly white areas of the city, vaccination rates can be up to eight times as high as Black neighborhoods. Data collection is still wanting across the country, where many similar studies have proved inconclusive.

covid-vaccine-syringe

Governors and mayors can drop buzzwords like “equity” and “justice” all they want in press conferences. Unless we distribute vaccines with all of this in mind, it’s just virtue signaling. Our leaders must work hard to overcome the crimes of our nation’s past and assure marginalized groups that the vaccine is safe and necessary.

We must recommit ourselves to a justice-based response and ensure the hardest hit communities are able to overcome the obstacles of history. Simply put, it is criminal to ignore the disparities in vaccine distribution, and COVID-19 itself as we imagine a post-pandemic world. The last year has ripped the thin veil of equality our country has worn for so long.

Now, the entire world can see us for what we are.

Institutional racism is real and must be addressed. Genuine change requires uncomfortable conversations and confronting a troubling reality: A disease may not be discriminatory, but our country surely nudged it in that direction.

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