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The Valor Public Officials Must Show in a Time of Racial Unrest

They need to protect their citizens and businesses, but it's time for them to begin addressing the systemic racism underlying the protests that have roiled cities across America.

Lauren Coursey, 26, protests in front of a line of Pennsylvania National Guard outside City Hall on May 31, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pa. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images/TNS)
We have been experiencing one of the most widespread and intense periods of protests and unrest in decades because of the heart-wrenching killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, following the equally tragic killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, two African Americans who died under suspicious circumstances. The protests are expressions of pain and rage from a cross-section of Americans, but particularly from members of the African American community who have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus and a legacy of racial violence.

Public officials, particularly governors, mayors and county executives, must summon uncommon valor and leadership to address the underlying causes of this unrest and keep a society beginning to reopen safe, healthy and democratic at the same time.

Adding to the difficulty of this challenge, President Trump appears to have overreached his authority by threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy active-duty military to states he perceives haven't done enough to quash the protests. Now, in addition to responding to legitimate demands from minorities to redress long-standing grievances of racial discrimination, public officials must divert their attention from the president's name-calling, public shaming and warnings that he might occupy their states without permission.

It goes without saying that public officials must protect citizens and businesses within their jurisdictions. They have the resources, technology and intelligence expertise at hand to uphold the law. But converting cities to police states, militarizing local police departments, turning federal troops loose on the American people, and labeling the majority of protesters as terrorists when only a small percentage engage in violence will only raise tensions, cause deaths and do irreparable harm to our notions of civil liberties and democracy.

And more than this, public officials must reject attempts by some to equate the sporadic violence against business property, sensationalized on 24-hour cable news, to the violence experienced by African Americans at the hands of law enforcement today and in the past from slavery, decades of public lynching and Jim Crow, pandemics and acts of nature like Hurricane Katrina.

The majority of young people taking to the streets today are hurting inside and longing for a different and better America. I feel the pain of my own children, and they live a life of relative privilege. They are looking for constructive ways to speak their truths to power. They have placed their faith in elected officials and have been disappointed repeatedly. Now public officials must make a difference: They must deliver to all more democracy, not totalitarianism.

There are things government officials can do now that will make a difference, such as reforming policies for hiring, training and certifying police officers. When I was president of Georgia Piedmont Technical College, I oversaw a center for criminal justice that included an accredited police academy. In addition to police training, I directed our academy to develop a comprehensive curriculum in community policing and diversity that included a substantial amount of community engagement. Transforming our racist criminal justice system begins with reforming policing.

In addition, every community should have a strong police civilian review board to investigate complaints against law enforcement officers. And verified complaints should be logged in a national database so bad cops cannot hop from one job to another without evidence of having been reformed.

Beyond police training, public officials at all levels must do more to help African Americans accumulate wealth, which Black Enterprise magazine predicts could be at zero by 2053. The best way to achieve this is to close the achievement gap in education with whites and aid African Americans in obtaining job skills in high-demand careers such as advanced manufacturing, medical coding, welding and more. This would go a long way toward addressing the school-to-prison pipeline that traps so many African American males.

On the state level, public officials should start with a bipartisan, comprehensive review of all policies to determine if they promote or impact systematic racism. It is time, for example, to review right-to-work laws to ascertain their impact on workers' wages and protections. Partisan restrictions that impact citizens' right to vote, such as racially motivated redistricting, voter ID laws, eliminating polling places, and refusing to let felons who have paid their debt to society vote all contribute to systematic racism.

Public officials should also advance programs that deal with poverty at its roots, starting with analyzing returns on investments from tax abatements for economic development to see if the foregone revenues might better be utilized to lift more residents from poverty. Joining with local partners, state officials must do all within their powers to help minorities become homeowners. This, along with educational achievement, is still the fastest path for African Americans and others to accumulate wealth.

And finally, African Americans will never escape from poverty and find economic security until they have comprehensive health care that is separate from their employment. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of us all having health care for the benefit of society as a whole.

It will take all of society working together to make structural changes in government and society. Public officials have resources and powerful bully pulpits to make a difference. They must have courageous conversations about what action is needed. As public officials call for calm, unity and peace, they must also call for equity. And this time out they must understand that their actions will speak louder than their words.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


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