Head Start

by Bob Zdenek 

I was one of the fastest kids in my class till the 4th grade when I started needing almost annual leg surgery to remove growth calcium deposits along my growing bones, called multiple exostosis.  This slowed me down significantly even though I was able to adjust and play competitive sports in high school and beyond.  I was no longer one of the fastest kids in school running exercises.  I  was always looking for a head start so that I could be competitive in the race.

I think having a “head start” is a good analogy that I benefitted from as a white male in society especially with people of color.  This “head start” of white privilege is both due to family and societal forces,  which have had a huge impact in inequality.  The Federal Government and state and local governments have historically discriminated against people of color, notably African Americans since the end of formal slavery, especially in the 20th century.  

The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) refused to provide mortgages to people of color in most residential settings.  Financial institutions “red-lined” communities and in many cases refused to provide loans for minority families and businesses.  The advent of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) mandated that lending institutions invest in communities where they receive deposits.  Billions of new dollars have been invested in these communities, but there is a long way to go, and CRA is under frequent attack, and has been watered down from its strong origins in 1977.  African Americans have 1/10 the assets of whites around $15,000 while the average white family has assets of over $150,000.  One major injury or setback can make the vast majority of families of color insolvent. 

The interstate highway system tore through many strong minority communities, and I have not even talked about urban renewal or what the distinguished author James Baldwin called “negro removal” .  This resulted in hundreds of thousands of families being displaced from their prime location neighborhoods.  The social fabric of these neighborhoods was torn apart.  Another huge issue is environmental degradation and the fact that nearly 75%  of communities of color live near toxic facilities.  I have learned from my work with 350 Bay Area that 3000 people die annually from particulate matter (PM) in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is spewed from trucks and fossil fuel refineries in the midst of minority communities.  

I could go on an on, but the point is what do we do as individuals and society to create a more level playing field for African Americans and other people of color.  We can start with children which is why I used the head start analogy.  The Head Start program which services pre-school children of color has done a significant job in helping low-income children get ready for school.  Senator Cory Booker has introduced legislation several times for Children Savings Accounts (CSA) to provide a down payment for education that is matched based on income and can create the resources to increase the likelihood of children of color attending and graduating from college.  Loan forgiveness and restructuring loans is another opportunity to reduce the disparity between African American and white wealth.

Climate change response needs to be centered in environmental justice work that removes environmental hazards, creates jobs, and addresses the social determinants of health so that African Americans can lead longer and healthier lives.  

This brings me back full circle to head start.  I benefitted from a head start from my family and societal policies and resources that have enabled me to have a productive and healthy live.  We need a new societal norm or contract that Black Lives Matter and that as a society we will develop the will, environment, and resources to improve opportunities and conditions for African Americans and all communities of color throughout the United States. 

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