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Voting Rights Take Center State at Brookings Institution Black History Month Panel Discussion

Experts discussed issues, opportunities, and advice for Black Americans during this year’s Brookings Institution annual Black History Month program. The event, “Transcending and Thriving: Civil Rights in Black America,” took place virtually Feb. 13 and was led by the think tank’s Governance Studies program.Nicole Austin-HilleryNicole Austin-Hillery

The program featured panelists: Dr. Camille Busette, interim vice president of Brookings Governance Studies; Dr. Keon L. Gilbert, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow; Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation; Yvette Badu-Nimako, vice president of policy for the National Urban League; and Nicole Austin-Hillery, president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Several key topics were discussed, including voting rights and guidance as the nation approach the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election.

“Ever since 2013, voting rights has been under even more attack than in our last 20 to 30 years, that's when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act,” Austin-Hillery said. “And ever since then, we have seen many states attack voting rights by having state legislatures try to implement new voting laws and regulations that frankly make it harder for people to vote. And that has fallen predominantly Black and Brown communities and on poor communities.”

Although she noted that voter awareness and engagement was the best it has been in decades, Austin-Hillery advised voters to remain diligent and for more people to vote, saying that voter participation remained a key issue.

“If you are not aware of the changes that are pending and the changes that have actually been codified in your local jurisdiction, you may be in trouble,” Austin-Hillery said. “You may find yourself at a voting poll one day and thinking you're about to cast your ballot and you're going to be stopped for one reason or another because you haven't been able to adhere to these new rules and regulations."

Policing, panelists noted also remains a concern amid tragedies such as the recent killing of Ty Nichols. 

“We're seeing some really exciting new response models in states that acknowledge really what the president said in his state of the union address last week, that we expect police to be mental health experts, to be social workers, medical professionals,” Badu-Nimako said. “And we're seeing these new alternative response models that are really designed to reduce fatal police encounters and reduce the scope of what police are tasked with doing in our society."

At the federal level, President Joe Biden’s policing executive order, which he released last summer, still had pieces that needed implementing, Badu-Nimako said. But nothing can replace comprehensive federal policing reform, she said.

Austin-Hillery advocated for more community involvement in determining policing.

"We want communities that are safe but that also respect us and that also give voice to us and put us first, not a politician, not policymakers, but that put what the people in those communities want and feel like they need,” Austin-Hillery said. “We have to make sure that we are bringing community voices to the table, to these policy discussions. That's where it has to start. Because then, that's when you build upon camaraderie, inclusion, and making sure that these policies that we're talking are not these erudite things but are things that people really are saying work with them in their communities and are what they need to feel safe and ensure that they are having the right relationships with the law enforcement officers and the policymakers who are making decisions that impact their lives on a daily basis."

On the matter of public health, Gilbert said that life expectancies have declined, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. He suggested that more resources be devoted to community-based strategies and that various stakeholders not commonly associated with playing a role in health, such as businesses, should also be involved.

“A number of communities are recognizing that they have a very important role in addressing their health. And I think it's important for us to provide resources,” Gilbert said. “I think the Biden administration has some particular strategies or tools that can help with that in terms of making sure that we reach out to communities – whether it's churches, barber shops, local community centers, other community-based organizations. Even neighborhood associations are also becoming very much aware of what their particular role can be in promoting health."

In the digital realm, Black Americans are still lagging, and that digital divide is affecting people in a very real way, from education to healthcare, Turner Lee said.

"Here we are today in a communications ecosystem that only suffers from a digital divide, but has a lack of depth when it comes to media ownership by Black Americans in this country,” Turner Lee said. “Less than 3% of Black Americans own assets to television broadcast stations. Less than 3% of African Americans in this country have major roles at tech companies, which are constantly defining and redefining and misinforming many of these messages.

“We have a dearth in our communications ecosystem that allows for this messaging, this new contemporary attack on our storytelling to actually occur, which I think is worth talking about when you begin to look at the digital divide. ... We've also foreclosed in the ability of Black folks to get online and do the things that everyday Americans do."

And the digital divide may also affect how engaged people can be in their democracy, Turner Lee said.

"This is a divide that is actually determining first class residency in a digital democracy,” Turner Lee said, “the ability to know where your polling place is, the ability to know more about candidates ..., the ability to take your phone and record rogue police officers and post that so people actually see you, and the ability to share messages that validate the full lived experiences."

It is important to be mindful of the interconnectedness of all these issues, Austin-Hillery said, urging people to focus on the bigger picture.

"These issues are not siloed issues,” Austin-Hillery said. “When you are talking about civil and human rights and racial justice, you have to understand that all of these issues are interconnected. ... We cannot afford to say we specialize in one racial injustice over another. We have to understand that there are a panoply of issues and the dots are all interconnected. ... We do not have the leisure of just working on one issue at a time. I know it's work but we have to keep our eye on the full prize."

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