All families and communities should have the opportunity to reach economic security or success. However, individual, institutional, and structural racism work against families of color by producing disadvantages that build over time and limit opportunities to thrive.
US Census data from 2010 shows that there are 1.5 million people of color (or approximately one in seven) living in Washington state and that population is expected to grow to one in three by 2030. Despite strong representation, deep budget cuts to state programs that help build assets or provide support for basic necessities hit communities of color the hardest and worsen racial disparities.
Poverty Action’s racial equity work is grounded in the understanding that racism perpetuates poverty, and that to end poverty we must eliminate racism. We challenge ourselves to understand and dismantle institutional racism both in our organization’s practices, policies, and procedures, as well as in the Washington State Legislature by confronting the racial equity impact of proposed budgets and policies.
Eliminating the root causes of poverty through a racial equity lens ensures accountability to low-income communities and communities of color, and helps build an equitable, multicultural community with access and power for all.
Levels of Racism
Racism is most easily recognized at an individual level through personal displays of prejudice and stereotyping. An example of individual racism is when a person of color is treated disrespectfully by their bank teller when they are depositing a check.
More difficult to see is institutional racism. Institutional racism occurs within and between institutions. Institutional racism is discriminatory treatment, unfair policies, and inequitable opportunities based on race, which are perpetuated by institutions, such as schools, media, and banks. People within these institutions take on the power of the institution when they act in ways that advantage and disadvantage people based on race. An example of institutional racism is when a bank teller turns down a family of color for a home loan, based on the bank’s policy of not offering mortgages in neighborhoods historically made up of people of color.
Structural racism lies underneath, all around, and across institutions and society. Structural racism systematically and routinely distributes resources, power, and opportunity in ways that benefit white people, but produce long-term adverse outcomes for people of color. This results in sustained racial differences in wealth, power, and other dimensions of well-being such as education, employment, health care, and political representation. For example, because families of color have historically had difficulty getting a loan to buy a home, families of color often have lower levels of wealth (savings, property, other assets), even when they have the same income as a white family. According to the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), the median net worth for white Americans was $112,647, versus $8,803 for people of color.1
What we are doing about it
Ensuring accountability to communities. The Poverty Action Board always consists of at least 50% people with low incomes, 50% people of color and 50% people living outside the Seattle area, with the Board Chair always a person with a low income. Currently, people of color make up 40% of the Poverty Action staff and 50% of our Board.
Integrating racial justice into every aspect of our work. Each legislative session, communities of color face several bills that would worsen racial disparities in income, health, education, civil rights, criminal justice, and housing. We provide analysis of these bills in order to better understand the racial impact of proposed legislation or budgets. We have also launched an online racial equity bill tracker so that our members can stay informed and help our representatives keep the racial justice impact of their legislative actions in mind.
Participating in community coalitions to promote racial equity. Poverty Action currently has three representative on Washington’s Racial Equity Team—a people of color-led group of community leaders, activists, and lobbyists working to promote racial equity within the state budget and legislative process.
2006 – 2011: Poverty Action’s work to pass strong consumer protections stems from our analysis that predatory lenders, especially payday lenders, mortgage lenders, and debt collectors, intentionally target communities of color. These corporations have taken advantage of the fact that banks have historically red-lined these communities, leaving them with little access to fair loan products.
2010 – 2012: During the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions, Poverty Action actively opposed and helped to defeat “anti-gang” legislation that would have allowed law enforcement to issue civil orders—also called injunctions—against anyone they label as a gang member, even though no crime has been committed. These bills would have pushed youth of color into the criminal justice system based on bias and stereotypes around clothing, neighborhoods, and personal affiliations.
2010 – 2012: Poverty Action has also taken a stance on “driver’s license” legislation that sought to use citizenship status as a basis to get a driver’s license, thereby marking people as “undocumented” and putting many at risk of deportation or other penalties. We opposed these bills on the belief that a person’s ability to drive legally should not be based on their citizenship status and a drivers’ license is not the platform for addressing immigration.
1. Corporation for Enterprise Development (2012). “Assets & Opportunity Scorecard” retrieved at, http://scorecard.assetsandopportunity.org/2012/measure/net-worth-by-race