To Address Systemic Racism, We Must Dismantle Housing Discrimination and Segregation

Equal access to housing is a civil right, but systemic racism within our housing institutions has long kept communities of color from accessing fair housing opportunities. The Fair Housing Act with its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing provision (AFFH) is a critical piece of legislation that aims to address our country's legacy of systemic racism, by dismantling housing discrimination and segregation. But during Trump's presidency, they came under attack. Now, the Biden administration must work to restore important housing protections to ensure all people have equal access to fair housing.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was a key part of Congress' response to a report commissioned by President Johnson to investigate civil unrest in Black and Brown communities between 1965 and 1967. The Kerner Commission's report warned Congress that “America is dividing into two societies, Black and White, separate and unequal." It also named residential segregation, which relegated Black communities to crowded and under-resourced urban areas, as one of the primary manifestations of this inequality. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and in response to the report's findings, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 in an effort to curtail widespread segregation and discrimination in housing and protect marginalized communities from discrimination when purchasing or renting a home.

Congress also used the Fair Housing Act to charge the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to use its programs to “affirmatively further" fair housing. With this provision, Congress intended for HUD to take active steps to dismantle housing segregation and to expand access to fair housing opportunities for everyone. While this obligation has been in the Fair Housing Act since 1968, there was no road map for jurisdictions to implement this requirement until HUD adopted the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation (AFFH). This 2015 rule established a community centered process for analyzing patterns and causes of segregation and neighborhood disparities that could serve as the basis for local jurisdictions to establish actionable steps for achieving fair housing goals.

While the 2015 AFFH rule made the affirmatively furthering fair housing requirements of the Fair Housing Act enforceable, in July 2020, HUD rescinded the 2015 AFFH regulation and replaced it with the “Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice" rule. This regressive rule eliminated the requirement for jurisdictions to take active steps to end segregation and allows municipalities to decide for themselves whether they are “affirmatively furthering fair housing." This removes any accountability and permits complacency among jurisdictions that have failed to take proactive steps to ensure fair housing opportunities are open to all.

We're urging the Biden Administration to withdraw the Trump-era replacement for the AFFH rule and reinstate the 2015 AFFH regulation, which would require local jurisdictions to take active steps to end housing segregation and address systemic racism in housing. This includes requiring jurisdictions to:

  • promote integration and ensure all neighborhoods are well-resourced and residents have equal access to opportunities;
  • consider data analysis or public input on local patterns of segregation and integration;
  • address disparities in access to community resources and amenities; and
  • address discrimination and systemic racism.

Reinstating the 2015 AFFH regulation would mean that students now living in segregated, low income communities could have an opportunity to live in a neighborhood with better funded schools, families living in communities where they are more likely to be exposed to environmental toxins would have opportunities to live in healthier neighborhoods, and people living in communities that are food deserts would now have an opportunity to live in a neighborhood with access to grocery stores that sell fresh foods.

Leaving the “Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice" rule intact is a tacit endorsement by the Biden administration, and a signal that fair housing isn't a priority. The administration must take action now to reinstate the 2015 AFFH regulation. This will combat housing segregation and provide families of color with equal access to safe and stable housing, thus advancing systemic equality across our nation.

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Biden Must Make the Current Enhanced Child Tax Credit Permanent

*This op-ed was originally published in Newsweek

Two children could be born on the same day in Anytown, USA.

Both born to loving families, healthy and at an average weight of seven pounds. However, one child is born into poverty and the other is not. The child born into poverty is more likely to experience toxic stress, suffer from environmental exposure to lead, develop diseases like asthma and experience trauma.

Growing up, the child is more likely to live in a school district with low-quality education, and as an adult, more likely to encounter barriers to employment and become entangled with the criminal legal system.

By the time both children are 30, the child born into poverty, on the same day as the other child, is more likely to remain poor—no matter how hard they've studied or worked.

This is what poverty in America looks like for the 1,541 babies born into poverty every day.

Our collective decades advocating for children leads us to an inescapable conclusion: Child well-being is not only the responsibility of parents and neighbors, but also of government—especially a government that speaks and acts in the name of children without their consent and has the ability to help address the significant obstacles poor children in Anytown face. We both believe that to fulfill the government's responsibility to the nation's children, we must enact a permanent child tax credit.

The Biden administration made an admirable down payment on that responsibility. In March, President Biden and Congress enacted the American Rescue Plan. The Rescue Plan expanded the existing Child Tax Credit (CTC) for one year and increased the maximum credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child under six and $3,000 for children aged six to 17. The plan also ensured that families with little to no income receive it, a crucial change from the previous credit's design. The credit will likely be distributed in monthly installments, rather than one lump sum (like a tax return), starting in July.

The impact of the child tax credit expansion cannot be overstated. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, children were the poorest age group in America, with children of color and young children suffering the highest poverty rates.

Nearly one in seven children—more than 10.5 million—were living in poverty in 2019. America's child poverty crisis is unmatched among countries. And the disproportionate impact on children of color isn't an accident: It tracks with decades of disinvestment from communities of color and systemic racism, leading to large racial wealth and income divides. The median white family has roughly eight times more accumulated wealth than the average Black family.

After its successful implementation, the CTC expansion will lift 4 million children out of poverty and expand eligibility to the 23 million children—mostly Black and Latinx children—who were previously excluded from the benefit. For Black, Latinx and Indigenous children, poverty will be cut by 52 percent, 45 percent and 61 percent respectively. Moreover, while the cash benefit will have an obvious, near-immediate impact for the many families struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic, its benefits will extend far beyond the current economic crisis. Additional income has long-term benefits for children, improving outcomes in a child's education, employment and health.

Child poverty is a national tragedy with profound moral and practical costs. Over the years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought many cases against state and county agencies all over the country on behalf of children who were neglected, provided inferior services and discriminated against in institutions and foster care systems.

Across the country, Children's Defense Fund (CDF) advocates and organizes with the vision of a nation where marginalized children flourish, leaders prioritize their well-being and communities wield their power to ensure they thrive. We know just how crucial income support from the government can be for so many children, and how reforms like those in the stimulus package can advance racial equity, narrow the racial wealth gap, reduce child poverty and provide a brighter future for all children.

The obligation to our children is past due and leaders must shift their policy frameworks to child-centered priorities that advance equity and justice. This should start with making the enhanced Child Tax Credit permanent to finally end child poverty for all the nation's children.

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Racial Justice and Civil Liberties: An Inseparable History at the ACLU

After World War I, it quickly became clear that the war to make the world “safe for democracy" had not made America safe for equality. Anti-Black race riots ripped through Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and even Elaine, Arkansas. In October 1919, after Black sharecroppers in Elaine convened a union meeting, newspapers labeled the effort a “Negro uprising." The state mobilized troops and mobs to quell the rebellion. The result was “possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States," concluded the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

The American Civil Liberties Union's origin story is tied inextricably to the xenophobic Palmer Raids, but the lesser-known events in Elaine, Arkansas were also formative. Racial violence was an unavoidable issue for any organization dedicated to the rights and liberties of everyone. Ten years earlier, the NAACP had been established to advance justice in the wake of the Springfield, Illinois race riot. During its first summer, the ACLU denounced the lynching of three Black men in Duluth, Minnesota who had allegedly raped a 17-year-old white girl. ACLU co-director Albert DeSilver wrote to Minnesota's governor volunteering assistance in “the preservation of civil liberty."

Weeks later, Minnesota Gov. Joseph A. A. Burnquist informed DeSilver that several men had been arrested in connection with the lynching. He did not tell DeSilver that none was convicted of anything serious.

Investigators realized, almost immediately, that the girl had not been raped. Nonetheless, the state tried seven Black men accused of participating in the fabricated crime. One was convicted and sentenced to hard time. That perversion of justice was not corrected until a century later when Minnesota granted the innocent man the first posthumous pardon in the state's history.

Much of the ACLU's early race-related work was similarly futile: highlighting racial atrocities America refused to stop. In 1921, the ACLU published three provocative pamphlets. The most innovative was “Debt-Slavery" by William Pickens, a sociologist and field secretary for the NAACP. Pickens argued that America had replaced chattel slavery with economic bondage and employed lynching as a form of enforcement. He saw the Elaine massacre as a defense of the “debt slave system."

The second pamphlet focused on the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan. The third, “The Fight for Free Speech," warned that reactionary forces were ascendant and observed that Negroes, foreign-born groups, and tenant farmers were “conscious of the condition but incapable of outspoken resistance."

Back then, the ACLU supported racial justice but was not at the forefront of the fight, generally deferring to the NAACP. But it assiduously documented anti-Black violence and states' restrictions on “Negroes' rights." In 1929, founding executive director Roger Baldwin suggested a radical expansion of the ACLU's role, proposing that the organization work more vigorously on behalf of “Negroes in their fight for civil rights." Additionally, Baldwin established a seat on the board for the NAACP recognizing the special relationship with the organization on civil rights cases and invited James Weldon Johnson to serve at the founding of the ACLU.

​Documenting Discrimination

\u200bNAACP Secretary Walter White.

NAACP Secretary Walter White.

(Credit: Library of Congress)

In 1931, the ACLU issued "Black Justice," a groundbreaking study on discrimination. The report slammed laws and policies that forced Black people to attend segregated schools, barred their admission to "white" hospitals, and denied Black people a fair wage, trial by their peers, the right to vote, or the right to marry outside the race.

NAACP executive secretary Walter White called the publication "excellent publicity" for the NAACP's work. Baldwin also provided direct financial support to the NAACP through a foundation set up by Charles Garland, a young Harvard dropout who inherited a fortune he pledged to spend for "the benefit of poor as much as rich, of Black as much as white." Baldwin served as the foundation's secretary and its grants largely reflected his priorities.

In 1931, the ACLU took on the Scottsboro Boys case, which centered on nine Black youths charged with raping two white women on a freight train in Alabama. The suspects, after being pulled from the train, were rushed to trial in less than two weeks. The first two convictions came on the second day of trial. Two days later, eight of the nine stood convicted and sentenced to death. Jurors deadlocked on the fate of the ninth defendant, who was only 14.

The ACLU dispatched Hollace Ransdell, a Columbia-educated journalist, to investigate. Ransdell produced a detailed and influential report that made it clear the two women had made up the sexual assault story.

The boys' lawyers appealed to the state supreme court, which refused to overturn all but one conviction. Meanwhile, the NAACP and the Communist-backed International Labor Defense fought over which entity would represent the boys. Eventually, the lawyers came together and appealed to the Supreme Court, with longtime ACLU attorney Walter Pollak arguing the case. The court sided with Pollak, agreeing that the state, in denying the defendants their choice of counsel, had violated their right to due process.

Alabama shrugged off that and every other reversal, including two more landmark Supreme Court decisions that overturned the convictions because of the exclusion of Black jurors. Finally, in 1937, the Alabama prosecutor exonerated three of the defendants, releasing two others because they were juveniles at the time of the alleged crime. The others eventually found their way out of prison, their lives shattered because Alabama refused to admit that whites had lied about Blacks.

A Convening of Allies

\u200bIn this July 26, 1937 file photo, police escort two of the five recently freed "Scottsboro Boys," Olen Montgomery, wearing glasses, third left, and Eugene Williams, wearing suspenders, fourth left, through the crowd greeting them upon their arrival at Penn Station in New York.

In this July 26, 1937 file photo, police escort two of the five recently freed "Scottsboro Boys," Olen Montgomery, wearing glasses, third left, and Eugene Williams, wearing suspenders, fourth left, through the crowd greeting them upon their arrival at Penn Station in New York.

(Credit: AP Photo/File)

World War II provided yet another occasion for America, and the ACLU, to reflect on racial prejudice. The ACLU's major wartime anti-racism effort was the Committee on Racial Discrimination in the War Effort. Convened in early 1942, the committee was chaired by author Pearl Buck, who envisioned involving "all existing white or mostly white organizations" in a movement that would end discrimination not just in government, but in housing, wages, trade unions, and throughout society.

Winifred Raushenbush, a freelance writer hired as executive secretary, authored a widely praised pamphlet titled How to Prevent a Race Riot in Your Home Town. In "every war period the danger of race riots in great," observed Raushenbush, who suggested that with a little planning, foresight, and good will, riots could be avoided.

The committee never achieved Buck's ambitious goals, but it garnered a lot of attention. And it brought together some 30-plus organizations — including Alpha Kappa Alpha, the American Jewish Committee, the YWCA, and the National Lawyers Guild — to ruminate on race.

​Japanese Incarceration and Internal Disagreement

Japanese-Americans transferring from train to bus at Lone Pine, California, bound for war relocation authority center at Manzanar, April, 1942.

Japanese-Americans transferring from train to bus at Lone Pine, California, bound for war relocation authority center at Manzanar, April, 1942.

(credit: Library of Congress)

Following the Pearl Harbor attack, America's military classified Japanese Americans as a security threat. Under an executive order signed by President Roosevelt, some 115,000 Japanese American residents (most of whom were U.S. citizens) were targeted for relocation from a designated exclusion zone along the West Coast.

Baldwin wrote a public letter to the president addressing the "unprecedented" order that authorized the exclusion zone, calling it "open to grave question on the constitutional grounds of depriving American citizens of their liberty and use of their property without due process of law." But the organization's board was split on the order, with a large segment of Roosevelt loyalists reluctant to criticize the war effort. The organization ultimately adopted a resolution acknowledging the government's constitutional right "to remove persons … when their presence may endanger national security."

That resolution left the ACLU's lawyers in a bind, as it was difficult to argue the internment policy was legally wrong but also constitutionally permitted. Despite the legal handcuffs it had manufactured for itself, and following internal debate, the ACLU ultimately mounted a series of challenges to Japanese internment. On June 21, 1943, the Supreme Court decided in Hirabayashi v. United States that the evacuation order was legal. That same day the court also decided in Minoru Yasui v. United States that the military-imposed curfew was a legitimate response to the harms threatened by the war.

Two other cases were not decided until after the War Department had concluded that internment was no longer a military necessity. In December 1944, the Supreme Court decided the government had no right to detain loyal citizens. It also found that ACLU client Fred Korematsu, in defying the exclusion order, had broken the law. It wasn't until the 1980s that Korematsu's conviction was vacated, and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, issuing a formal government apology and granting monetary reparations to surviving Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.

​Seeking Justice in the South

Thurgood Marshall, seen here in the White House in June 1967, the year he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall, seen here in the White House in June 1967, the year he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Yoichi Okamoto/National Archives and Records Administration)

In September 1963, four Black girls were killed while attending church in Alabama when a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan exploded. The following morning, local lawyer Charles Morgan delivered a fiery speech that attracted national attention: "Every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb."

Two decades earlier, in 1940, Thurgood Marshall created the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Marshall, who served on the ACLU's board from 1938 to 1946, was the architect of a brilliant legal strategy to dismantle segregation. The ACLU submitted amicus briefs for some of the LDF cases during this period including Brown v. Board of Education. By 1964, the ACLU approved a new regional office in Atlanta charged with overseeing the growing array of initiatives attacking racial oppression in the South. Morgan was named director.

Working in partnership with other civil rights organizations, the office became deeply involved in virtually every major civil rights issue in the South: expanding voting rights; ending the exclusion of Black jurors; and eliminating racially motivated sentencing disparities. The ACLU also fought prohibitions against interracial marriage, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1967 in the landmark case, Loving v. Virginia.

As the ACLU plunged into these civil rights battles, it also pushed the Warren court into rethinking criminal justice, advocating for reforms that reverberate today. That process began with the case of Clarence Earl Gideon, a drifter charged with burgling a pool hall in Florida who the Supreme Court decided was entitled to representation at public expense. Although the ACLU was not directly involved in that case, it was a driving force in those that followed. Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) revolved around Danny Escobedo, who was suspected of killing his brother-in-law. Escobedo was not informed he had a right to retain a lawyer or to remain silent, and made incriminating statements that led to his conviction. The ACLU argued his case before the Supreme Court, which concluded that Escobedo's rights had been violated.

Gideon was the prelude to Miranda v. Arizona, in 1966. Ernesto Miranda was accused of kidnapping and raping an 18-year-old woman; he confessed without being informed of his right to remain silent. The ACLU argued that Miranda's treatment violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The Supreme Court agreed, and Miranda rights were born.

At the time, those cases were not considered part of a racial justice agenda, but as the racial inequities in America's criminal justice system became clearer, the ACLU came to view its criminal justice work in a new light.

Ira Glasser (at left in beige suit) marching in Atlanta, GA, with Coretta Scott King (center) and others in 1997 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade.

Ira Glasser (at left in beige suit) marching in Atlanta, GA, with Coretta Scott King (center) and others in 1997 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade.

(Credit: photographer unknown, Studio III: 1021 Northside Drive, Atlanta, GA 30318; 404-875-0161)

Ira Glasser believes the ACLU's deepening involvement in racial issues was inevitable. Glasser joined the New York Civil Liberties Union in 1967 and became its director in 1970. Eight years later he succeeded Aryeh Neier as executive director of the national ACLU, and quickly found himself immersed in issues of race. The Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to combat discrimination against Black voters in the South, was scheduled to expire in 1982. President Reagan opposed its extension. The ACLU became a leader in the fight to preserve the law, eventually winning passage of a new bill which Reagan signed.

As Glasser reflected on the ACLU's myriad issues, he "began to see who was affected by these violations of civil liberties and this explosive growth of incarceration, and who was arrested, and who was prosecuted, and who was searched … They were all Brown and Black." Glasser came to see the Nixon administration's drug war as "a successor system to slavery, continuing and expanding skin color subjugation."

Those insights helped to broaden the organization's racial justice agenda, leading to an increased focus on issues such as racial profiling and stop and frisk. In the late 1990's, Michelle Alexander, who was at the time Director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, instigated a national campaign titled "Driving While Black or Brown" which revealed discriminatory policing practices and led to the introduction of legislation in 44 states to stop them.

Civil Liberties Are Civil Rights

Image - Text graphic - Let me ask you something: should Driving While Black be a crime?

In 2006, the ACLU formalized its investment in the fight against racial inequality by creating a national Racial Justice Program. Anthony Romero, a Puerto Rican native of the Bronx and the ACLU's first executive director of color, believed, like Glasser, that race was inextricably intertwined with other ACLU concerns. Dennis Parker, a Harvard Law graduate who had worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, became the program's first director. Parker noted that race was woven throughout the organization's many issue areas: "Race really informs … every area that the ACLU works [in]: women's rights, disability, or voting."

Parker knew working for the ACLU would be different from working for an organization with racial justice as its paramount mission: "At LDF … we were advocating on behalf of Black people. There may have been questions about what would be best … but it was not a question of should we be representing the Klan."

Parker's observation touched on a reality that has bedeviled the ACLU from the beginning: the occasional friction between its commitment to racial justice and also to free expression. The issue was vexing enough in the 1930's that the ACLU released a pamphlet titled "Shall We Defend Free Speech for Nazis in America?" The organization concluded that the best defense of one group's right to speak was a defense of all groups' rights.

When the ACLU was attacked in 1978 for defending Nazis intent on marching on Skokie, a Chicago suburb that housed Holocaust survivors, the answer was much the same. David Goldberger, the young Jewish lawyer leading the case, pointed out that policies Skokie employed against Nazis could also be used against Jewish war veterans. The power to shut down speech, Goldberger argued, was too important to be left to local officials: "Think of such power in the hands of a racist sheriff."

ACLU legal director David Goldberger, left, appears at a Chicago Press conference with ACLU Executive Director David M. Hamlin. Both men were happy with the court's decision to allow Frank Collin and his Nazi group to hold a rally in Chicago's Marquette Park.

ACLU legal director David Goldberger, left, appears at a Chicago Press conference with ACLU Executive Director David M. Hamlin. Both men were happy with the court's decision to allow Frank Collin and his Nazi group to hold a rally in Chicago's Marquette Park.


That view became so entrenched that in 2017, the ACLU represented a white supremacist group determined to hold a rally in Charlottesville. After the event resulted in a young woman's death, friends of the ACLU second guessed the organization's decision, and rigorous internal conversations about the choice to defend racists took place. The conversations resulted in case selection guidelines to assist ACLU staff in weighing the competing interests that may arise when work to protect speech may raise tensions with racial justice, reproductive freedom, or where the content of the speech conflicts with ACLU policies on those matters. The guidelines also suggest that the ACLU will generally not defend armed protest because of the chilling effect it can have on free speech.

In the ACLU's 1920 birth announcement, the new organization swore to fight "all attempts to violate the right of free speech, free press, and peaceful assemblage." That position was essentially unchanged when Roger Baldwin proposed his grand expansion. Baldwin did not foresee the possibility of that position conflicting with the defense of racial justice. Indeed, in an exchange with his biographer Peggy Lamson, Baldwin expressed frustration with Black ACLU board members who did not share his view.

ACLU Board member James Weldon Johnson, seen here in 1932.

ACLU Board member James Weldon Johnson, seen here in 1932.

Credit: ACLU

James Weldon Johnson, in Baldwin's view, "couldn't see much beyond the use of civil liberties for the equality of Blacks." As Baldwin saw it, Black board members' commitment to racial equality blinded them to the larger picture. What the larger picture is, of course, depends on one's perspective.

As eager as Baldwin was to expand the ACLU's involvement in issues of race, he never saw that as the ACLU's main battle, though it was still listed among the organization's top priorities in its first annual report in 1920. He saw no need to balance the demands of racial justice with those of free speech. The modern ACLU has a more complicated view.

As Romero put it, "If I were the head of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, I wouldn't bring a Nazi case. If I were the head of the First Amendment Center, I would bring every Nazi case and not worry about the racial justice implications. I think part of what is magical and different and kind of vexing is an organization that's trying to accomplish both and say, 'They're both equally important to us.'"

That perspective suggests that an organization seriously devoted to both free speech and racial justice is obligated to tackle a question with no obvious answer: In a world where unrestrained speech is routinely weaponized to frustrate justice, what combination of rights, restraints and responsibilities moves the nation toward the most moral version of itself? The ACLU has come to see that civil rights and civil liberties are inextricable, and the protection of the latter is inherently tied to the long fight for racial justice.

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Student Debt is a Racial Justice Issue. Here’s What President Biden Can Do to Help.

Student loan debt burdens more than 44 million Americans, and prevents millions from buying homes, starting businesses, saving for retirement, or even starting families. This debt is disproportionately affecting Black families, and Black women in particular.

Higher education has long been held as a critical gateway to getting a job and achieving economic stability and mobility. But because of long-standing systemic racial discrimination, Black families have far less wealth to draw on to pay for college, creating barriers for Black communities to access higher education and build wealth. Black families are more likely to borrow, to borrow more, and to have trouble in repayment. Two decades after taking out their student loans, the median Black borrower still owes 95 percent of their debt, whereas the median white borrower has paid off 94 percent of their debt.

Students of color pursue higher education in a social and economic system built on racist ideologies that is set up to work against them and perpetuate racial wealth and income and achievement gaps. To redress this systemic inequality, the ACLU, Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), and more than 300 other organizations are calling on the Biden-Harris administration and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to use their authority under the Higher Education Act to cancel $50,000 of student debt per borrower, and Congress must act as well.

To understand the systemic issues rooted in the student debt crisis, we must start with its history. Though we have normalized the idea that students must take on debt for college, historically students benefited from broad public investment in higher education. However, not all students benefited equally: Black students had little access to GI Bill benefits and, even a decade after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), predominately white institutions (PWIs) in many states resisted integration and equal treatment. Further, state and federal governments continued to inadequately and inequitably fund historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) despite the high-quality opportunities they provided and the critical function they performed for Black students and communities. This created and cemented the racial wealth and resource gap in institutions of higher education.

It was in this context that Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Higher Education Act of 1965. Recognizing the value of broad higher education access, Johnson hoped the legislation would open the doors of opportunity to everyone, especially Black students and other students of color, through Pell Grants and other subsidies.

Yet by the end of the 20th century, just as Black and Brown students and women gained entry after decades-long legal battles and social struggles, reactionary policymakers shifted the significant costs of higher education from the public to individual families. What had been considered a public good when it was predominantly for white men, became a public burden to be shifted to families.

This shift away from public financing, which accelerated after the Great Recession, led to predictable and damaging results: Today the cost of higher education is beyond imagination. It is out of reach for most families, especially Black and Brown students, unless they agree to unsustainable debt. In effect, we are perpetuating the ugly legacy of redlining and housing discrimination by requiring the same Black families that were historically denied wealth to take on a greater debt burden than their white peers.

The student debt crisis is just one of the latest iterations in the long and shameful history of too many unkept promises to Black and Brown communities. This country didn't keep its promise to give formerly enslaved people the land that they worked on to build wealth following the Civil War. Then from redlining, inaccessible GI benefits, and now the decreased value of college degrees, Black people have continuously had the roads to economic success blocked outright.

Canceling $50,000 in student debt can help secure financial stability and economic mobility for Black and Brown borrowers who are disproportionately burdened by this student debt crisis and the impacts of the racial wealth gap in this country. But even after graduation, Black and Latinx people face substantial job discrimination and earn far less than their white counterparts. This income gap makes building financial stability and managing student loan repayment even harder. A college education actually deepens the wealth gap due to the high costs and structural issues in our system. Yet, higher education is a necessity, not a luxury, for today's workforce.

Due to these persisting inequalities, even with $50,000 cancelation per borrower, there will still be millions of borrowers with debt. That number will only grow unless we overhaul loan repayment altogether and create a debt-free college system. The Center for Responsible Learning argues that the federal government should improve repayment by: (1) clearing the books of bad debts, such as debts that have been in repayment for longer than 15 years; (2) restoring limitations on collections and making student debt dischargeable in bankruptcy; and (3) making repayment truly affordable and budget-conscious through a new income-driven repayment plan open to all borrowers. For new students, a new social contract could also double the Pell Grant and increase funding and support for HBCUs.

We have an opportunity to help millions of families realize their American Dreams, secure financial stability and economic mobility for Black and Brown families, and take a critical step toward closing the racial wealth gap. The charge is clear, the moment is here, and the time for action is now: The Biden administration must cancel $50,000 in student debt per borrower.

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The Racial Wealth Gap is a Civil Liberties Issue

As far back as the 1930s, the ACLU affirmed that economic justice was essential to achieving racial justice. In its 1931 Black Justice report, the organization's first on the civil liberties of Black Americans, the ACLU reported that more than 3,555 Negroes had been lynched since 1882, averaging 74 per year or more than one per week. According to the forward, written by Broadus Mitchell of Maryland, Black Justice's purpose was to answer “Why these gross discriminations against the Negro?" Mitchell replied to that crucial question with remarkable clarity: “The Negro has been oppressed because he has a low standard of living and little economic independence. And the other way around, he is economically servile because he has been oppressed."

Whether or not he knew it, Mitchell was making an important constitutional observation: The Constitution's promises of liberty and equality are linked. In 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court held that equal protection and “substantive guarantee of liberty are linked in important respects." Subsequently, Justice Kennedy, author of the Lawrence opinion, explained that the government has a “legitimate interest … in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race." While we have historically thought of equality in the narrow terms of equal protection and due process, we take Mitchell's forward as a call to consider how our present definition of rights, and actions to defend those rights, are tied to past discrimination, especially economic discrimination.

Though much has changed since the publication of Black Justice, the economic position of Black Americans relative to white Americans remains precarious at best. When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, former slaves owned 0.5 percent of the nation's wealth. Over 150 years later, the descendants of those slaves own just 1 percent of the nation's total wealth. In other words, even emancipation, civil rights, increases to education, and improved employment have not substantially advanced Black people's democratic participation in our economic system. The power of inherited wealth is in fact so pronounced that economists Darrick Hamilton and Sandy Darity concluded intergenerational transfers “account for more of the racial wealth gap than any other demographic and socioeconomic indicators."

That would be bad enough, but racial discrimination persists to worsen the situation — and this is the key: Discrimination persists in part because Black people's subordinate economic position left them with little ability to resist. Ongoing labor market discrimination by the government, unions, and private employers, topped off by housing segregation, forces most Black Americans into unstable jobs with poor wages and a lack of essential retirement benefits. And for those who can pull together enough to try and acquire a home, Black Americans often find themselves in a “Jim Crow credit market" for mortgages. That market provides whites with lower interest rates and longer repayment periods, while giving Black people just the opposite though their economic situation is more vulnerable. To quote Shakespeare, “what's past is prologue" in the case of race, wealth, and power in America.

In the aftermath of the subprime housing crisis, the ACLU returned to its roots, making a firmer case for the relationship between equal protection and economic justice. The crisis, which resulted from targeted discrimination and then the financialization of that discrimination, wiped out 53 percent of Black wealth, compared to 16 percent of white wealth, permanently devastating Black communities. As of 2016, only 40 percent of Black families owned homes, compared with 70 percent of white households. This was intolerable to us, and threatened our constitutional order by further imperiling the equal status of Black Americans.

The ACLU's Racial Justice Program has fought to hold Wall Street accountable in groundbreaking cases like Adkins v. Morgan Stanley for fueling predatory lending in communities of color and, with our Smart Justice campaign, challenged the unconstitutional incarceration of people too poor to pay fines and fees they owe local courts. Our amicus brief in Timbs v. Indiana detailed how the reliance on fines and fees for government revenue creates powerful incentives to impose excessive financial penalties, with disastrous consequences on people who cannot pay. Single mothers of color were jailed for up to 57 days and separated from their children because they could not pay exorbitant fines to the courts of Lexington County, South Carolina. Hundreds of thousands of people are harmed by North Carolina's revocation of driver's licenses simply for inability to pay court debt. The list goes on. Our Smart Justice campaign is also actively challenging the criminalization of private debt, which again is targeted at low-income communities of color who rely on subprime loans because of their lack of access to mainstream finance.

Systemic Equality augments those efforts and takes the ACLU to the next level in its fight against the economic, legally enshrined repression suffered by Black Americans. We are tackling the roots of the problem by breaking down systems designed to discriminate against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.

Student Debt. America's system of education finance has driven the cost of higher education higher beyond imagination. And Black families, which were historically denied housing wealth, take on the greatest burden in this system, perpetuating our nation's history of redlining and housing discrimination. This system is racist and predatory, so we are calling for the Biden administration to forgive $50,000 of student debt per borrower. If we achieve this result, the racial wealth gap will be reduced by 22 percent.

Postal Banking. As of 2017, 47 percent of Black Americans were un- or under-banked, compared with just 33 percent of white Americans, and so often find themselves trapped by usurious debt that depletes their ability to build wealth. The U.S. Post Office can offer a solution. Currently, 59 percent of ZIP codes have one or no bank branches, but there is a brick-and-mortar post office in every single ZIP code across this country. By providing low-cost services like check cashing, money transfers, and bill pay, the Post Office can save all un- and under-banked Americans (roughly 25 percent) nearly $3,000 a year and the median Black family over $86,000 in their lifetime. As important, it can undermine the Jim Crow credit markets that exist in majority Black neighborhoods.

Child Tax Credit. Every day in America, 1,683 children are born into poverty. If that child is Black, she has a 30 percent chance of being poor, more than three times that of a white child. Because she is poor, she will be at risk of toxic stress that will stunt her development, creating opportunity gaps that can last a lifetime. And all because her family lacked the resources to make ends meet in communities burdened by high unemployment and subprime credit options.

Enhancing the Child Tax Credit as proposed in the coronavirus relief bill would reduce child poverty by 40 percent and lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty. It would be the first time in our nation's history that fewer than 10 percent of Black children in America grow up poor. The ACLU is committed to enacting the credit in 2021 and making the credit permanent later this year.

The fact that the racial and economic oppression of Black Americans are two sides of the same coin is something we too often are reminded of. The March on Washington in 1963, for instance, was a march for jobs and freedom precisely because lead organizer A. Phillip Randolph fervently believed that civil rights could never be achieved if the economic injustice resulting from discrimination were not addressed. We at the ACLU will never forget this link. The discrimination that stunted Black economic and political progress lives with us today in the racial wealth gap. And so, as we engage in this multi-year campaign for Systemic Equality, the racial wealth gap will be front and center.

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Google This: Algorithmic Oppression

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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How Broadband Access Hinders Systemic Equality and Deepens The Digital Divide

If you're reading this article, you're probably not one of the millions of people living without broadband access in America. People living without broadband access — who are disproportionately non-white people, low income, or rural — do not have access to equal opportunities in education, employment, banking, and other important components of connection and social mobility. That was the case before the pandemic, and it's even worse now.

The digital divide is what separates those without broadband from those with it, and it encompasses all the broader social inequalities associated with an increasingly digitized world. Along with discrimination in housing, banking, employment, and other areas of life, it is both a result of and contributes to systemic inequalities faced by people who are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other underserved groups.

What is broadband and why do we need it?

Broadband is the term used to describe high-speed, reliable internet — the kind of internet that allows us to stream movies, take part in Zoom calls, and connect with our social networks. Since 2015, the Federal Communications Commission has defined broadband as a minimum of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. But while internet upload and download speeds have changed significantly over the years, the FCC has not updated its definition. That makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of how many people are living without access to the internet that's usable given today's higher technology demands.

Over the past year, schools, workplaces, health care providers, and many other basic services and functions have moved online, allowing for life to continue during lockdown. The numbers reflect this societal shift: Data use on home networks was 47 percent greater in March 2020 than the year before. But as broadband has become even more integral to our everyday lives, not all communities have had equal access. For communities living without broadband, the pandemic has only exposed and exacerbated the digital divide.

How does broadband contribute to systemic equality?

The deepest rift in the digital divide is when it comes to race: Black and Latinx adults are almost twice as likely as white adults to lack broadband access. Due to systemic inequities in education and employment, people who are Black or Latinx have lower average incomes than white people, and for many of these households, a broadband subscription — at an average rate of $68 per month — may simply be unaffordable.

Check out the chart below for a rough monthly expense estimate for a family of four (two adults and two minors) living in Washington, D.C, a historically majority-Black city. At about $6,515 per month, the estimated monthly expenses amount to over $2,000 more than the median individual monthly income, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2019. Even in a household with two income earners, there is almost no room for any unexpected expenses.

Adults living without broadband face significant barriers in accessing employment, education, and other necessities — but children are also impacted. Access at home is an important factor in a student's success, and is associated with higher grades and homework completion. This need was amplified by the pandemic. Many of the millions of Black and Latinx children who live in households without broadband access have not been able to attend virtual classes, potentially falling behind their classmates by an entire school year or more.

Children without broadband also miss out on developing digital skills that are necessary in today's job market. As a result of the digital divide, more than half of Black and Latinx people could be under-prepared for 86 percent of jobs by 2045, according to Deutsche Bank. These digital skills are also crucial to innovation and entrepreneurship. Black-owned businesses have increased 37 percent from 2007 to 2012. The 2019 American Express State of Women-Owned Businesses Report shows that Black women-owned businesses are the fastest growing at 21 percent of all women-owned businesses but only have an average annual earning of $24,000. Limited broadband access compounds the numerous systemic inequity barriers to Black-owned and Black-women owned business growth.

Access to home broadband by race

Source: Free Press analysis of July 2015 Current Population Survey Computer and Internet Use Supplement

The systemic inequity posed by limited broadband dovetails with a science policy concept called “public value failure." Public value failures describe the failure of a society to provide a public value, such as rights, benefits, or privileges of citizens provided by governments and policies. There are nine public value failure categories, which cover the political, economic and social aspects of this theory: mechanism for values articulation and aggregation; legitimate monopolies; imperfect public information; distribution of benefits; provider availability; time horizon; sustainability vs. conservation; and ensuring subsistence, human dignity, and progressive opportunity.

Focusing on all of these public failures simultaneously won't lead to substantive and sustainable change. So, we tackle what we can. Broadband access falls most fully into the distribution of benefits and provider availability categories, with arguably a large dose of the progressive opportunity category as well. All of our classrooms — regardless of a person's socio-economic status, urban/rural location, or in-person/remote delivery — require broadband access to hear an instructor's lecture, see a helpful tutorial, and practice the new skill. Identifying and improving in these areas hinges on building better equity in education, particularly in data skills attainment.

How do we bridge the digital divide?

There are steps the government can and must take to expand broadband access to Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other underserved communities. In Congress, new legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Clyburn, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, would help sustain equitable broadband access by providing an additional $6 billion in funds for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, an FCC program created to help households struggling to afford broadband during the pandemic. The legislation would also improve data collection and transparency on broadband access, expand digital inclusion and equity efforts, preempt state laws that prevent municipalities from expanding broadband access, and prioritize infrastructure deployment to unserved areas, such as Tribal lands.

At the executive level, President Biden has already taken important steps by including broadband in his American Jobs Plan, but he can do more. Biden must also nominate a new FCC commissioner who supports broadband access and will restore net neutrality protections, and work with Congress to enact sustainable solutions to close the digital divide.

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Your Friendly Neighborhood Bank: The Post Office

One in four Americans are unbanked or underbanked. This is in part because because banks across the country are closing branches, or penalizing those who don't have large savings. This means that 64 million Americans — disproportionately Black and Brown people — can't easily access basic financial services and are forced to pay thousands a year in fees for alternatives.

But one solution to this disparity is within our reach, it's actually just down the street from you: the post office.

The U.S. Postal Service has the infrastructure to provide basic financial services at all of its branches. With an office in every ZIP code nationwide and trust within the community, banking at the most accessible institution in America could create a public option needed to put millions of families in greater control of their finances.

Joining us on At Liberty this week to talk about why postal banking is key to closing the racial wealth gap is Rakim Brooks, a senior campaign strategist at the ACLU who is managing our new Systemic Equality campaign.

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To End Systemic Racism, Ensure Systemic Equality

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors. But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws. These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower. We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family. The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all. To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point. Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

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