America’s promise: Yale experts on how to achieve a more equitable society

Several members of the Yale faculty describe policy changes that could address systemic barriers that have historically denied opportunities to people of color.
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Before taking office last month, President Joe Biden promised that advancement of racial equity would be one of the top priorities of his administration. We asked several members of the Yale faculty to describe policy changes within their sphere of expertise that could address systemic barriers that have historically denied opportunities to people of color in the United States.

Willie Jennings

Willie Jennings

Associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies, Yale Divinity School

There are two things that President Biden and his administration should do to promote racial equity. First, I want this new administration to create policies that promote affordable housing and challenge the segregationist practices of real estate and development. We will not be able to address meaningfully the racial antagonism that flows through this country until we address the ways communities, neighborhoods, towns, and cities build and sustain inequities in goods, services, and opportunities. The racial line and the property line have always gone together in America, and we need an administration that sees this and seeks to address it head on. We also need a housing bill of rights that guarantees that no one will be homeless in America and that brings a moral compass to zoning policies and to the housing and banking industries.

Second, during this time of white grievance politics that has seen the deadly mixture of Christianity with white nationalism, it is important that President Biden continue to live his faith out loud. He needs to continue to show a Christianity that does not resource white grievance and the politics of fearful envy that have always been a massive impediment to racial equality. Too many politicians in the history of this country have used their Christianity to narrate to white Americans a strange sort of moral vision in which fairness and justice are being denied them by people of color. In this sick moral universe, equality for people of color means inequality for white people. President Biden presents a Catholicism not obsessed with abortion or terrified by LGBTQ citizens, and a Christianity that follows the way of Jesus in caring for the poor and marginalized. My hope is that these religious sensibilities will permeate his administration and its policy proposals and present to the world a Christian faith in America that is not the lover of white nationalism, but rather shows love and justice for all people to be two sides of the same coin.

Tracey Meares

Tracey Meares

Walton Hamilton Professor of Law and faculty director of the Justice Collaboratory, Yale School of Law

A central issue in advancing racial equity is addressing issues related to injustice in the criminal legal system as it exists and laying the groundwork for transforming institutions that are critical to whether people can build vital communities. With respect to policing, we have seen myriad ways in which policing service as it exists right now is inimical to how many people conceive of safety in their own communities. The question is what the federal government can do to change a system in which policing is mostly a matter of local concern. One key role the federal government can play might be considered boring, but it is important for making progress. We need national standards for data collection as well as mandated data collection, and a national decertification database [of officers who have been decertified by their states].

For longer-term change we need investment now in public health approaches to address violence. Many of the most successful strategies do not require reliance on general purpose armed first responders, but they dorequire resources that many state and local governments do not now have access to. The federal government can help.

Finally, President Biden should lead a conversation in this country around doing safety differently. It should put at the center the stakeholders who shoulder the burden both of private predation and violence, as well as an excessive state response to these problems — armed police. Putting these voices at the center will demonstrate that what people get now is markedly different from the response many of these stakeholders have long made clear that they want: investment in public goods such as health care, decent housing, good education, and basic public utilities (heat, water, electricity, internet) that are necessary to community vitality.

Grace Kao

Grace Kao

IBM Professor of Sociology and professor of ethnicity, race, and migration, and chair, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

America prides itself as a nation of immigrants, but the previous administration’s stance was vehemently against this premise. Not only were they focused on building a physical wall, but they attacked undocumented immigrants, separated immigrant families, and prevented the entry of individuals by national origin. There are so many facets of our immigration system that can be improved. President Biden has already taken the first steps towards immigration reform.

According to the White House, there are 11 million undocumented immigrants. There must be a route towards citizenship for them (and not just those who arrived as children). Many immigrant families are mixed status; this means that in a single household, there may be children and adults who are U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and undocumented immigrants. In addition, we should be more welcoming of new immigrants.

At Yale and elsewhere, we embrace undergraduate and graduate students from all over the world. They are smart and motivated, yet there is no route for them to stay in the United States. Finally, as numerous countries face an aging population, one solution is for them to receive more immigrants as they are more likely to be working-age and can supplement the numbers of working adults.

Larry Gladney

Larry Gladney

Phyllis A. Wallace Dean of Diversity and Faculty Development and professor of physics, Department of Physics, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

I think we might see the most comparative progress by increasing opportunity for women of color. They suffer the results of bias along multiple dimensions that are not adequately considered in most discussions of mitigating the effects of bias on minoritized groups, e.g. for socioeconomic class as well as gender and race.

Federal commitments to improve the higher-than-average high school dropout numbers — and therefore lower-than-average high school completion numbers — for African American and Hispanic women would be important as these numbers are currently worsening. The fact that women of color are still more likely to receive a bachelor's degree than their corresponding male counterparts makes their underrepresentation in the academy — particularly in STEM fields — all the more dire. It's clear the nation is wasting potential talent. The places where federal action might help are in:

  1. Improving educational opportunities, particularly in STEM fields and particularly in school districts where the population of minoritized women is larger.
  2. Addressing childcare support through the number of childcare providers, educators for the youngest children, and requirements for accommodation by educational institutions. The particular damage done by the lack of coordinated effort to address this during the pandemic is certain to be massive.
  3. Continuing to impose on institutions the need to reduce instances of sexual harassment and an improved campus climate.
Michael Kraus

Michael Kraus

Associate professor of organizational behavior, Yale School of Management

Americans carry around $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, and this debt is overwhelmingly and increasingly carried by Black and brown people. These are working class Americans looking to live out the American Dream. Instead they are descending into a crippling financial situation that will narrow career and life choices for themselves and potentially their children. Student debt contributes to the racial wealth gap, which is already substantially larger than most Americans realize, and likely to widen as a result of the various horrors of racial inequality exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Biden had originally promised to cancel $10,000 in student loan debt for all federal borrowers. In his first month, the president should go beyond this promise and follow the advice of experts: According to a recent Roosevelt Institute analysis, a debt cancelation of $50,000 to $75,000 per borrower for households making less than $100,000 could build significant wealth, especially for Black households.

Sarbani Basu

Sarbani Basu

Professor of astronomy and chair, Department of Astronomy, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

The field of astronomy/astrophysics requires a proficiency in physics, mathematics, and statistics. All measures that ensure students get a grounding in STEM will help. It is often too late by the time students reach college. The support needs to begin at the very beginning, i.e., at the K-to-12 levels, by giving students a good education in a safe environment. Without access to STEM basics at school, a career in astronomy is impossible.

At the college levels, student-debt relief should be a priority. Too many students have to give up their dreams and go into a “practical” field in order to get jobs to pay off their debts. This reduces the number of students in all pure sciences, not just in my field.

Dr. Ayana Jordan

Dr. Ayana Jordan

Assistant professor of psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine

For decades, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) solution to lack of representation in addiction medicine has been pipeline programs [in which select individuals from target populations are supported throughout their schooling and provided mentorship]. And yet there has not been any real change in terms of who has money to look at interventions that are culturally informed to help slow the opioid crisis down. The latest opioid crisis has been going on since the early 2000s. We’re now seeing Black people outpace white people in terms of opioid overdoses. This is not surprising because there has not been any deliberate attention given to minoritized people who use drugs. Their whole existence and experience have been totally ignored by regulatory agencies, mainstream media, and federal funding mechanisms.

At the NIH, one of the largest federal agencies that funds research, there have been consistent gaps in funding Black scientists. So you have scientists from a particular background who are left out of the research required to be able to address a need of people that are systematically dying. That’s not happenstance.

In addition, the structure in which we even think about granting funds has to be totally rearranged. How can we think about leveraging who is the expert? We always look to people with degrees, physicians, people in the allied health professions. We don’t put as much esteem on people with lived experience, what we call “community informed expertise.” How can we bring them to the table to be able to think about solutions? We have to move beyond just funding trials on the mechanistic underpinnings of addiction and look at structural and implementation studies. A pipeline program will not fix a system that is inherently biased. For the Biden administration to take steps to combat the opioid crisis, they have to be brave enough to create an entirely new system.


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