On Juneteenth: White Supremacy Survives in Pennsylvania

Marc Stier |

Juneteenth, the newest federal holiday, is a day to remember.

It’s a day to remember the end of slavery in the United States.

It’s a day to remember the stain of the enslavement of Black people in the United States.

And it should also be a day to remember that we haven’t overcome the white supremacy that was an integral part of slavery; that was maintained by segregation, the terror of lynchings, and the all too frequent destruction of middle-class Black communities; and that is found in too many of our public policies.

Pennsylvania officially recognized Juneteenth in 2019, proclaiming it a state holiday, but those anti-Black policies continue in Harrisburg today. Here are three examples:

First: The Federal CARES Act gave states funds to provide emergency rental assistance. Our recent report shows that counties with a higher percentage of Black people were severely shortchanged in the distribution of those funds.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly distributed emergency rental funds based on county population. At first glance, that may seem reasonable. But there is enormous variation in both the share of households that rent their homes in each county and the cost of housing in each county. So, a population-based formula for distributing emergency rental funds short-changes our state’s urban counties and overfunds its rural counties. For example, Philadelphia’s aid per rental household was $853 less than the average two-bedroom, fair-market monthly rent; Forest County’s aid over this period was $1,350 more than the average two-bedroom, fair-market monthly rent.

And the impact of this maldistribution of rental assistance funds was systematically racist: Considering only the number of rental households—not considering differences in rental costs—counties with large Black population shares were most disadvantaged. Counties with the highest shares of Black population received only $417 per rental household, two-thirds of the $624 received by counties with the smallest shares of Black population.

Second: The CARES Act also gave funds to the states to distribute to K-12 school districts. Pennsylvania received $174 million. Again, our analysis shows that the school districts with the highest shares of Black students were systematically short-changed in the distribution of these funds.

The appropriate way to have distributed those funds would have been to use the fair funding formula. However, the legislature took an alternative approach: a fixed amount per district plus distribution of the remaining funds based on the number of students in each district. The distribution did not consider such things as the poverty rate in each school district, which the fair funding formula includes because school districts with higher poverty rates find it harder to raise local funds and because impoverished students need more resources to do well in school.

The result was that school districts with a higher share of people living in poverty and of Black people were shortchanged. The districts with the highest share of Black students, educating one-quarter of state K-12 students in all 500 school districts, received $34 million, substantially less than the $55 million for districts with the lowest concentration of Black students. If we had used the fair funding formula to distribute the $174 million in federal aid, the school districts with the highest share of Black students would have received over twice as much—$76 million.

Third: Pennsylvania House Republicans are currently moving HB 1300, an election “reform” bill. However, their idea of reform is a series of proposals that would, in many ways, make voting more difficult. The bill would prohibit the state from automatically sending mail-in ballots for all elections in any year to voters who request them. It would sharply limit the number of ballot drop boxes and satellite election offices. It would stop people from going to satellite election offices to secure a mail-in ballot. It would prevent counties from giving voters pre-paid envelopes in which to return their mail-in ballots. And it would require voters to bring their state-issued picture ID to the polls and send a copy of that ID along with their mail-in ballot, which is not only burdensome and costly but a huge security risk for voters.

This is just the tip of the very big iceberg threatening fair elections in HB 1300.

Decades of previous research show us that when voting is more difficult, people with lower incomes—people who work multiple jobs and can least afford help in caring for children and elderly relatives—find it harder to vote. The same research shows that people who live in urban areas where it is not necessary to own a car or live in nursing homes are less likely to have the state-issued voter ID necessary to vote.

For these reasons, Black people are far more likely to be among those who find it harder to vote than white people.

Are the proponents of these three policies supporting them because they are white supremacists who want to disadvantage Black people? It’s not always easy to discern the intent of legislators. We are thankfully past the day when most legislators loudly proclaim their allegiance to white supremacy the way Senator Theodore Bilbo did when he filibustered an anti-lynching bill in 1938.

It’s quite possible that the first two policies we criticize were put forward by a Republican leadership that cares primarily about benefiting their rural constituents and hadn’t even thought about the racial impact of their proposal. In the third case, there is no question that the Republican proponents of HB 1300 understand that their bill would reduce the number of Black voters. They know that a vast majority of Black voters support Democrats, and the clear goal of their legislation is to tilt elections in favor of Republicans.

At any rate, when we analyze public policy, the question of legislators’ intent is not  most important. Our focus should be on the impact of the legislation. Legislation that disfavors Black people—that shortchanges the benefits they receive from government or makes it harder for them to vote—maintains white supremacy. Simply put, those policies make it harder for Black people to secure an equal position in our economy and politics. If you support these policies, you contribute to the maintenance of white supremacy. And if you want to eliminate the legacy of racism in America, you must stand against those policies.

And finally—you know who taught us to look past the formal features of laws, public policies, and legislators’ intent and instead focus on the impact of those policies on maintaining white supremacy? It is the critical race theorists who some Republicans have been fulminating against in Harrisburg and elsewhere. Those Republicans have not read the works of the critical race theorists they criticize and instead have been attacking a caricature of their own devising. Critical race theory is primarily focused on looking at hour legal system and public policies, especially those that don’t explicitly mention race, systemically hurt the well-being and interests of Black people. That’s what critical race theory is all about. And there is nothing new about looking at the nature of public policies’ impact on different groups—people in urban and rural areas, large and small businesses, and so on.

So criticizing those who want us to look at the impact of public policies is itself racist. What legislators who want to ban the teaching of critical race theory are saying is that they don’t want us to learn the truth about the way decades of public policies—though race-neutral on their face—have made it harder for Black people to be treated as fully equal in our country.

On this first federal Juneteenth holiday, on all subsequent ones, and on every day between, let’s focus our attention not just on overcoming slavery in the past but overcoming white supremacy now and in the future.