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Legislative Watch: States Start Dismantling Systemic Racism

The national conversation about racism isn't about individual acts of violence or harassment, but about systems that perpetuate injustice. In the wake of recent protests, legislators have responded.

Black Lives Matter protesters march in downtown Orlando, Fla., on July 4, 2020. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
Presenting findings from the Human Genome Project at a White House Ceremony in 2000, scientist Craig Venter announced that “the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.”

A core theme of ongoing protests that began after the May 25 death of George Floyd is a call to end “systemic racism.” This has been echoed by sectors ranging from the business community and professional baseball to local governments, the American Public Health Association and economists. The dictionary definition of “racism” is being updated to include this concept.

The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the first Black person to hold the office, published an essay decrying police brutality and the long history of unequal treatment that it reflects. At this moment of shared economic strife, he observed that the economic impact of systemic racism affects all Americans, reducing productivity and innovation. “This country has both a moral and economic imperative to end these unjust and destructive practices,” he says.

Since the beginning of June, state legislators have introduced dozens of bills that address systemic racism from various angles, and more are likely to follow. Some examples:

H1233 in North Carolina creates a select committee to study issues related to systemic racism. It requires the committee to present its findings by the end of 2020, and to provide recommendations in areas including criminal justice, state government operations, economic opportunity, education, health and housing.

HB15, a New Mexico bill, addresses institutional racism within state agencies. It requires state agencies to report to the Legislature each year regarding their policies and action plans in regard to eliminating discrimination in personnel matters such as hiring, promotion and pay. Agencies are to create a “data infrastructure” that enables them to track their progress toward ending institutional racism.

Georgia HR1643 condemns racist behavior directed at Asian American and Pacific Islander citizens, noting that racist rhetoric has led to them being “harassed, assaulted and scapegoated” in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. It references the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years and made Chinese ineligible for naturalization, as well as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. 

Illinois HR0866 recounts the history of slavery and mistreatment of Black persons in the state in great detail, from the arrival of the first slaves in 1720 to the present day. It notes that following the recent uprisings, “the new currency in life is compassion.” It calls for the governor to develop an approach to “drastically improve” the housing stock, communities and living conditions for Black citizens in the state. It expresses an immediate need for legislation, rules and/or an executive order to address issues ranging from access to broadband technology, clean energy, greenspace, community centers and grocery stores to the creation of enterprise and empowerment zones.

New York S8673 creates a working group in the office of the state commissioner of health to address issues relating to racism as a public health crisis. The working group’s mandate would include educational efforts to increase public understanding of the impact of racism on individual and population health and providing training to mitigate workplace biases.

HR920 in Pennsylvania calls for the impeachment of a Montgomery County commissioner for issuing an official statement that labeled Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” movement. This created the impression that this was an official statement from the county, the resolution says, stating that a racist declaration is not a “legitimate use” of county resources.

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Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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