How I know racial justice isn’t possible without economic equality
“What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?’’
This is the quote I’m thinking about today as we reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. There is no doubt that the topic of racial justice has dominated the news over the last year. But as I read the headlines and watch the news, I can’t help but think back to Dr. King’s quote and the stories that don’t make it to the front page of the paper about impoverished Black Virginians. The woman working two or three jobs to support her family. The man facing the threat of eviction because making rent in the middle of a global pandemic simply isn’t possible on his salary.
The bottom line is that true racial justice also means economic equality.
When I was a magistrate judicial officer, otherwise known as a magistrate judge, I saw true racial wealth inequality on a daily basis. The people who appeared before me came from all backgrounds — suburbs, cities, racial backgrounds, education levels. Often, bond would be posted, and if a person could pay for their bail — 10 percent of their bond — they could go home and return later for court proceedings related to their case. Ten percent, the “fee” to go home, was usually about $100 or $200. As a magistrate judge, I saw a clear pattern with regard to who got to go home and who had to sit in jail because $200 was out of reach. People sat in jail for no other reason than the fact that they were too poor to pay for their freedom. A person was more likely to sit in jail pretrial if they were poor and innocent than if they were wealthy and guilty. And the vast majority of the folks who couldn’t pay were Black.
As I watched Black defendants regularly sit in jail, too poor to pay their bond, I thought about what else they’d lose. Sitting in jail often meant they were going to lose their job, their home, and in some instances, their children. And the amount of time and money to get it all back was enormous. These barriers grew higher and higher, until there simply wasn’t a way out — a perpetual cycle pushing people deeper into poverty.
Observing the experience of poor, Black Virginians wasn’t new to me. I grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, and I witnessed poverty up close, in my own family and my friends’ families. The inequities that stem from poverty, such as poorly funded and performing schools and the entry of violence in our community as jobs left our town, were clear to me. Growing up, we had to make tough choices based on what wasn’t in our bank account. I remember having to cut my grandmother’s medication in half because we couldn’t afford her expensive prescription drugs. I worked long days in minimum wage jobs at fast food restaurants, wiping grease off my hands and the end of the shift, just to try and help my family out. I have first hand experiences of what poverty does, and I know that we must fight as hard for economic equality as we do for racial equality. In many ways they’re one in the same. Even if we were able to achieve racial equality, it wouldn’t matter if Black and Brown communities didn’t have the finances to sustain our families, to pay our bills, to be able to make investments, to grow generational wealth, to send our kids to college.
It’s expensive to be poor. People who are poor pay a high percentage of their income for everything from food, to clothes, to taking out loans — everything is more expensive for them. I became a public defender to represent those people, who reminded me of the folks I grew up with in Petersburg. The people I met as a public defender were people facing the hardest times imaginable. Many were homeless, finding their next meal amongst the food others discarded. In the winter, I commonly represented kids charged with stealing because they had no money to buy clothes to keep warm. Again, the majority being Black.
As a delegate, I successfully advocated for policies to level the playing field for all Virginians. That’s why I successfully pushed for a higher minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, more COVID-19 protections and testing, and legislation that gave small minority-owned businesses better economic opportunities. And, I fought for legislation that cracks down on companies that don’t pay their workers.
Now I’m running for Governor of Virginia, and I will be dedicated to continuing my fight for economic equality and ending the race wealth disparity. We cannot have racial justice until we have economic justice. We’re going to do that by focusing on supporting workers, labor unions, and families in a real way so that Virginians don’t just survive — they thrive.
And that’s what Dr. King’s vision was — that’s what he was fighting for. In 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated, he was in Memphis going to sanitation workers’ protests because they were protesting unfair wages. He died fighting for economic equality. That’s the legacy we’re picking up and carrying forward — today and until we truly achieve economic equality.
Poverty is violent, insidious, and unjust. It destroys communities by limiting people’s ability to access health care, attend safe and well-funded schools, breathe clean air and drink clean water, and live in communities free from gun violence. My governing philosophy is to move people out of poverty permanently. In a post-COVID economy, we have an opportunity to change the status quo as we rebuild because it simply isn’t working for everyday Virginians. With policies aimed toward lifting families out of poverty and ensuring every person has a shot to succeed, I will work everyday as Governor to build a more equitable Virginia in which opportunity is available to all.