Cory Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, on racial justice, fixing racial income inequality—and optimism
“THE PAST IS never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner, an American novelist. The observation rings especially true for the agonising problem of race in America. After centuries of slavery and segregation, African-Americans achieved formal legal equality only in the 1960s. Yet discrimination persists and they are far more likely to be victims of police violence than other demographic groups.
Cory Booker is a Democratic senator from New Jersey with bold ideas on how to improve the situation. In an interview with The Economist, he traced the “cords of injustice” that lay the foundation for today’s problems, and offered solutions ranging from “baby-bond” legislation (giving poor children trust accounts) to removing ageing lead pipes that literally poison the country’s children.
“That’s not radical,” he says about these sorts of reforms, but “common moral sense”. The interview below with Mr Booker has been lightly edited.
The Economist: When you see a mass movement for racial justice happening again in this country and when you see frustration, not just over criminal justice, but the fact that black and white income gaps and wealth gaps are basically the same since 1968, what does that make you conclude about American society and government? Is it that formal legal equality has failed to guarantee equality of opportunity for black Americans?
Cory Booker: Look, we are a nation that has strong, sort of unbroken cords of racial injustice that have been with us for generations. And where lots of generational wealth has been created through the GI Bill [support to veterans for housing and education] through Social Security, through the Homestead Act, which granted massive tracts of land to new immigrants to this country. These are things that blacks were excluded from, that were barriers to economic opportunity.
We have a nation like that, up into my lifetime. My parents literally had to get a white couple to pose as us in order to buy a home in an affluent area of suburban New Jersey with great public schools. But we still live in a country where this denial of equal education is a part of our national fabric. Even today, we see schools that African-Americans attend receiving dramatically less funding than schools that are predominantly white.
These strong cords of injustice have never been broken. Our prison population has gone up about 500% since 1980 alone. There’s no difference between blacks and whites in using drugs or dealing drugs. But African-Americans were arrested for those crimes at rates three or four times higher than whites.
We have powerful, powerful forces of overt and institutional racism over the years that has really underdeveloped African-American opportunity and equality. It stretches now from the health-care system to issues of environmental justice. The number one indicator of whether you live around a Superfund site [designated a heavily polluted area] or drink dirty water or breathe unclean air is the colour of your skin. All of these things in their totality create a nation that still has such savage disparities and outcomes based upon race.
And I am encouraged that in this moment—and I hope it’s not a moment, I hope it grows to a greater movement—there is a greater expansion of our circles of empathy for each other. A greater understanding of the injustices that are there. It seems to be the dawning of an expansion of our moral imagination about how we can actually become a nation of equality, a nation of justice, and a nation that honors its highest values with a reality that reflects them.
The Economist: And how do you begin that difficult task of unwinding those deep threads that have not ever been broken? Whether it’s housing, policing, criminal justice, environmental issues—how do you start that? And do you feel optimistic about the possibility of change on some of those entrenched policy areas?
Mr Booker: Well, in a larger sense, first of all, the personal pronoun you use: I hope it’s not a “you”, I hope it’s how do “we” do that? It’s very hard in our country for us to create leaps in advancement without there being a greater sense of collective “we”, and a collective responsibility. The incredible legislation that’s passed in our past from the suffrage movement to the labour movement to the civil-rights movement of the 1960s were all movements that happen because large swathes of American people put on personal responsibility to make dramatic change. The progressive movement in the 1920s was fuelled by people who weren’t often directly affected by issues, seeing an urgency to change based on a growing consciousness.
That is still ongoing: trying to expose the realities that are affecting our country as a whole and black people in particular, so that people feel a sense of moral urgency to address them. There are things that go on in our prison system that most Americans don’t realise happen: that we shackle pregnant women when they’re giving birth, that we put children in solitary confinement for extensive periods of times, even though our psychological professionals say that it’s torturous and causes brain damage.
I was encouraged when I heard very learned people telling me they never knew about what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma. [The prosperous neighbourhood of Greenwood, known as Black Wall Street, was destroyed by white residents in 1921.] Where people didn’t know about the many places around this country that had seen such racial terror to the point where thousands upon thousands of Americans were lynched, often elected leaders, poor judges pulled out into streets and beaten. These stories have just been whitewashed from our history. I’m hopeful that we are at a period where awareness is growing, and with that, a sense of urgency to address it.
Now, when you talk about me in a particular sense—and use that personal pronoun like “you, Cory Booker, as a senator”—I have an obligation to try to continue to push the bounds of justice as a United States senator and propose things that will actually have a very practical impact on disparities.
For example, baby-bond legislation is not that sexy, but it’s this idea that every child, regardless of race, born in our nation, gets a $1,000 savings account. And then based upon their income, just like we base the earned-income tax credit, that child will get up to $2,000 a year placed in an interest-bearing account that compounds interest. By the time they’re 18, the lowest-income American kids will have upwards of $50,000 saved.
Columbia University looked at that legislation for young adults and found it would virtually close the racial wealth gap. Policy solutions like that, like massive expansions of the earned-income tax credit [which tops up the wages of low-income Americans] or the child tax credit. These are things that affect poverty overall in our country, but would end poverty for a significant percentage of African Americans.
The Economist: After this period of consciousness-raising, what else might go in a Great Society-like radical programme of change, assuming that Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump were not part of this conversation for the moment?
Mr Booker: I hope that our policies begin to reflect what real public safety is. We know unequivocally by the facts that expanding Medicaid lowers violence. Expanding the earned-income tax credit lowers violence. You can go through these things that you know empower people. There are pilot programmes all over this country that show that dealing with people who are struggling with mental illness with police causes their death.
Black folks are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than somebody white. Someone with a mental illness is over ten more likely to be killed by the police than someone who’s white. And to think that we actually could have services that help people have [mental] health-care. That’s not radical, that’s just common fiscal sense, as well as common moral sense. To have an expansive view of public safety, to start investing as a society into those things that help people, who are hurt and fragile, can lead to greater human flourishing.
Our country is an outlier. We really don’t do much for children until they turn five or six. So we lead industrial nations in infant mortality, in maternal mortality and in low-birthweight babies. It would be cheaper to revive at-risk women doula-care than to pay the extraordinary costs of premature birth. Something called nurse-family partnerships—which is just having a nurse visit a home to be supportive with information for at-risk pregnant women—actually lowers encounters with police dramatically. Every taxpayer dollar you spend on the programme saves four or five taxpayer dollars because it lowers visits to the emergency room for that mother and that child.
It’s not like we don’t know how to elevate human potential while saving taxpayer dollars, or how to lower our reliance on police, courts and prisons. We know enough already. It’s just that we’re not, as a society, collectively prioritising what would be a much more “beloved” way to move forward. And so this greater human consciousness, I hope elevates this ideal that, whether you’re a fiscal conservative or a progressive liberal, these are things that abide with all of our values. It’s why I’ve had some success moving criminal-justice reform with strange partners, like the Koch brothers or the Heritage Foundation.
In a globally competitive environment, America is really falling behind those nations that do a better job of elevating human flourishing and human potential. The number China has in their top 10% of their high-school students is relatively close to the number of all of our high-school students. In a global knowledge-based society, your greatest natural resource is the genius of your children.
And we’re doing a bad job because we’re a nation that has an astonishingly high level of children whose brains are addled by permanent lead damage. There are over 3,000 jurisdictions where children have more than twice the blood-lead level of Flint, Michigan, and they are disproportionately black and brown children. And so right now we don’t even care enough. And I know we have the heart for it, but we’re not manifesting it in our policies to do something simple, which would have been a fraction of the last covid-19 bill. Why don’t we as a country replace every lead service line in America that goes to our schools, to day-care centres and to homes in the United States that would actually pay for itself through the productivity of those children and saving them from the violence associated with lead poisoning.
There are a lot of common-sense things that we can do that should accord with the values of everybody who calls themselves pro-life to everybody who calls themselves a progressive, but we’re just not doing it.
And so this is what the echoed words of our ancestors said. Martin Luther King, who wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, was very critical. He actually said I’m not as upset with the White Citizens’ Council or the KKK, I’m far more upset with the white moderates who are doing nothing. And he eloquently said that we have to repent in our day and age, not just for the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people.
Well, I fear that we will have to repent in our generation, if more of us who are good people—and that is the overwhelming majority of Americans—let another generation go by, where we don’t correct these persistent injustices with strategies that we know work and that we know will save us taxpayer dollars. Yet we fail to engage in the struggle to make them possible. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “If there’s no struggle, there is no progress.”
The Economist: A programme like baby bonds, which would do a lot on the racial wealth gap, would take 18 years for those accounts to accrue. And in the present day, there’s a strong racial child-poverty gap. What do you see as the tools to fix that problem?
Mr Booker: The two very obvious tools are a massively expanded earned-income tax rate by more than half and a massively expanded child tax credit, like a lot of our peer nations do. But there’s other tools that we’d have to use to catch us up to the rest of the industrial world, like having affordable child care. We have a country in which child care in most states is more expensive than state-college tuition. It is unconscionable that we are doing that.
We have something called the mortgage-interest deduction, for example, that is overwhelmingly used by the higher income. That tax expenditure goes to the wealthy in our country overwhelmingly. Why don’t we do something for working people in America and have a rental tax credit if you’re paying more than a one-third of your income on rent, which would cut poverty by the millions in America and give people security? One of the things that so undermine student performance are families who face evictions and are jumping from apartment to apartment. So they’re facing issues of fairness in our tax code like the ones I just mentioned, while also dealing with issues like paid family leave or child care that would take America so far in ending racial gaps.
A friend of mine named Natasha who worked a minimum-wage job couldn’t afford housing. Her son was sick with asthma. Again, a black child is about ten times more likely to die of asthma complications than a white child. And she had to make a terrible decision of whether to stay at her job and get a pay-cheque that she really needed to keep a roof over the head of her kid, or to leave and go across the street and be with her child in the emergency room who was gasping for breath. I mean, these are insane things that go on in this country that in our peer nations do not. And we put our families in deep levels of stress and anxiety that ultimately undermines their overall flourishing.
We in this generation can end those things if we are committed to making real the ideals of our country and the laws of our country—that we really are a nation that believes in life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that believes in human flourishing; that believes in equal justice under the law. And these are things that I think are long past [due]. Time has come. And, interestingly, they poll really well on both sides of the political aisle. But our people in elected office need more of a push to make them the law of land.
The Economist: You remain the optimist.
Mr Booker: Thank you. Forever, a prisoner of hope. And if anything, our nation’s history is testimony, the triumph of hope, often under insurmountable conditions and odds.
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