The Policy Changes That Would Really Make Black Families Free, According to Experts

We celebrate Black freedom on Juneteenth—but the climb from oppression to equality is far from over. Here's what could change that.

A young girl works on a chalk mural that says "1865 Freedom
Photo: Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

On Juneteenth, we celebrate Black freedom, commemorating when the last enslaved people, having been illegally kept enslaved for over two years in Galveston, Texas, were freed. But since then, the climb from oppression to equality has been ongoing, leaving us to ask the obvious question: Are we really free?

Although Juneteenth is symbolic of the chains coming off, the U.S. government used numerous ways to legally put them back on by creating laws and policies that intentionally discriminate against Black Americans, making true freedom impossible. But experts say through specific targeted policy changes, that freedom is within reach.

Government Policies Are Not Intended to Benefit Black People

"Our public systems were not created to produce equal outcomes or experiences for everyone," says Taryrn Brown, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professorwho specializes in Black feminismat the University of Florida. The social sphere that communities rely on, public education, housing, health care, and others, is set up to favor white citizens limiting Black Americans from thriving in the U.S.

Case in point: As of 2020, only 43.4% of Black Americans are homeowners compared to 71% of white Americans who own more land and assets because of their wealth pipeline from free slave labor. Strategically crafted racist policies like redlining and predatory lending block Black families from getting on equal footing.

"Changes to universal policies don't always help us because we are so disadvantaged," says Athena Mutua, a professor of law at the University at Buffalo and an expert on civil rights. "We need targeted policy changes that specifically address our disadvantages."

Policies That Negatively Impact Black Families

Education disparities

"We know for a fact that schools are just as segregated as they were back in the 50s and 60s," says Jamel Donnor, associate professor of education at the William & Mary School of Education, pointing out that in some respects, we have regressed. "The same holds true for Black student achievement."

Systemic racism is persistent in education and is written into the standards that govern Black children including, but not limited to, the below:

  • Lack of school funding. Predominantly white schools typically have highly experienced teachers, curriculum offerings, and extensive resources. Black-dominated schools have crumbling buildings and overcrowded classrooms where Brown says, "Staff is often transient and underprepared."
  • Public school segregation. Research by the Economic Policy Institute shows that Black students are five times more likely to attend highly segregated schools than white children. And 72% of Black students will attend high-poverty schools.
  • Adultification and criminalization of Black children. Males of color are more likely to be disciplined for dress code and viewed as a threat, and females of color are frequently oversexualized and accused of violating the code. "Black girls are not allowed to have normal school experiences," says Donnor. "They're treated as adults at an early age in comparison to their white female counterparts."
  • Student loan debt. "Institutions were predatory toward Black students and purposely sought them out saddling them with student loans they can never repay," says Donnor. Carrying this debt perpetuates Black poverty.

Too often Black families are blamed for the inequitable realities that create a lack of engagement and lower achievement. "This approach to present-day systemic racism shifts attention away from the policies and structures in action," says Brown.

Economic and structural inequality

Slavery drove American industrialization, and to maintain the hierarchy of white supremacy after Juneteenth, government leaders created Black codes, restrictive laws designed to limit the freedom of Black people and ensure their availability as cheap labor. "These laws gave Black folks narrow job choices and then started criminalizing them for activities like vagrancy," says Mutua. Without the chance to build and keep wealth, there was generally not much to pass down to the next generation.

This contributes to Black Americans having the highest poverty rate at 19.5%—compared to non-Hispanic white Americans at 8.2% and Hispanic Americans at 17%—according to 2020 Census data. And a deeper look into monetary policies reveals that even when measures are taken to reduce the wage gap, it doesn't have much impact on the wealth gap.

Displacement and housing instability

Through zoning and redlining, government entities influenced what areas banks made investments—all being white suburbia. It indelibly segregated Black people and other minorities into overpopulated, low-income neighborhoods.

"What you find in America is a pattern of divestment in the central cities," saysMutua.

And creating wealth through homeownership was and is more difficult for the Black family due to anti-Black policies that limit access to resources and financial support. Homes in Black neighborhoods are devalued, and discriminatory mortgage contracts prevent the chance to build equity.

The Policy Changes That Will Fix Racial Disparities

Intentional efforts are necessary to undo the long-established inequitable systems. Efforts that "trouble the implications of systemic racism and move us toward more liberating systems designed with conscious intention," says Brown.

  • Develop strategies to encourage Black family participation. The educational system tends to marginalize Black parents. Creating inclusive opportunities that address the inequities would make a difference.
  • Decriminalize Black children. Dismantle school standards that have been used to discriminate against Black children and their culture.
  • Center equity in our actions and decision-making. Brown says this "requires us to seek and invite the voices and experiences of young people, families, and communities that have been situated farthest from the opportunities and desired outcomes we espouse for everyone."
  • Address the disadvantages in communities. From day one, Black people have been used for profit. Policies continue to drain wealth and make a buck any way it can be made to benefit the system white people gain. Mutua says, "Our communities are stressed and traumatized. We want autonomy."

Waiting for significant restructuring of policies has been a long time coming, but it's not unachievable. Juneteenth, in essence, is a celebration of freedom that was delayed but not denied.

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