We are a country with a history of racial inequality and violence. Our country’s original sins of slavery and genocide echo through today, as well as our treatment of other minority groups. We need elected officials who know and acknowledge our painful history and who will stand with us, together, against racism—insidious, overt, and deadly. We need leaders who will listen and then act, who understand that we are not and cannot be the nation we aspire to be until we honestly confront our past, address the inequities in our society, and find a path towards true equality.
We are also a country with a long tradition of legitimate protests that have propelled us towards tremendous change and progress—though we still have a long way to go. The fear-mongering that characterizes much of the commentary surrounding primarily peaceful protest is simply an extension of the divisive politics of the current administration and his supporters. We do not believe in the politics of fear and division, and we acknowledge that anger and frustration are the result of the most painful parts of our country’s own history. We do not condone violence. We are proponents of peaceful protest. We believe that Black Lives Matter. We believe in uniting people, not dividing people. It is up to us to figure out how to do that.
We need to reform our criminal justice system, including reducing the number of people in prison by bolstering the social safety net and opportunities for restorative justice, and by looking closely at inequity in our legal system, including private prisons and bail and parole reform.
We need to support issues of environmental justice, to ensure that disadvantaged and vulnerable populations are not disproportionately harmed by polluted air and water or exposed to potential pollutants. We need to respect the sovereign rights of indigenous Americans to keep their lands free from oil spills and other environmental damage. We need to protect communities that are often hit first and hardest by the effects of climate change.
And to restate: we need to address the inequities in our healthcare system, made even more apparent by the terrible toll COVID-19 has taken on communities of color. All Americans must have equal and affordable access to health care, and that care must address the current inequities in health outcomes for people of color.
We need to address the wealth disparities in our country, which begins with acknowledging the systems that continue to exacerbate those discrepancies: red-lining, predatory lending, access to adequate banking, and wage discrimination. We need policies that address the root causes of systemic poverty in communities of color, including access to safe, quality public education; affordable housing that leads to an increase in home ownership; support for higher education; and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Finally, we need to acknowledge and confront the systemic racism in our country and put in place policies that address this reality and begin to dismantle the disparities that have been baked into our justice, education, financial, health, and environmental systems over the course of U.S. history. Our country is strong enough to face our history, make amends, and move forward together as a nation that values all people and treats them equally.
We need serious police reform. While steering clear of labels that, at this point and unfortunately, derail conversation, it is very clear that we must make serious changes to our police departments, both practical and philosophical. Many in our nation’s police forces agree with these steps. There are some obvious ones:
In addition, we as a nation must take a hard look at our priorities and at the funding decisions that reflect those priorities. We do not need a militarized police force. We need to redirect resources away from equipment and vehicles and back towards the community. We need to increase the resources available to address our national mental health crisis effectively, and we need to ensure that communities have the funding and support needed to care for their people.
Police departments respond to many situations that would benefit from the involvement and support of other professionals who are in turn required to have their own training and qualifications to engage with their communities. Making sure law enforcement has the appropriate support to do their jobs safely—for everyone—should be a priority, and this will require both law enforcement and community activists to engage in honest conversation in order to create meaningful change. At the federal level, implementing reforms tied to federal resources is possible if we agree to uniform principles of law enforcement tied to federal funding.
Law enforcement is important, and many law enforcement officers are examples of service and sacrifice, a credit to their chosen profession. It is possible to support good police officers, to support the idea that Black Lives Matter, and to find police brutality unacceptable. All three of those ideas must be part of any conversation resolved to finding peaceful, equitable, and realistic solutions to our untenable current situation.
We must actively support the participation of all people in our society and in our democracy. Though this year is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we still have a long way to go in order to ensure true inclusivity and engagement. When policies that impact individuals with disabilities are discussed, people with disabilities must be part of those discussions from the outset. When we talk about how to improve living conditions, opportunities, and inclusion, they must be part of the conversation. That is step one.
The priorities articulated by the ADA (employment, public services, public accommodations, communications, and miscellaneous provisions) include many actions to improve the lives of people with disabilities, but enforcement and adaptation have not always fulfilled the letter or spirit of the law. In addition to ADA guidelines, there are a number of areas that we can and must focus on in order to create truly inclusive opportunities for all, starting with an acknowledgement of ableism (a prejudice against those with disabilities or perceived to have disabilities) and a commitment to fighting for full rights.
Our social safety net programs must actually ensure quality of life, not introduce new challenges, which means reforming them to allow for both economic security and the social and personal opportunities most of us enjoy. Our healthcare system must address the unique challenges of disabled individuals and include provisions for mental health parity and care, addiction services and intervention, and managed care.
We need to ensure that people with disabilities have access to a living wage and to the opportunity to work towards financial independence and economic security. That means no tolerance for discrimination and a wide array of employment options that move beyond minimum wage and into more meaningful long-term careers. This includes protecting and supporting disabled veterans in finding secure and fulfilling employment.
Enforcing existing laws and actively fighting against discrimination is essential. But it is just a start. We need to continue the commitment of former President Obama to recruiting and hiring people with disabilities for federal jobs, and we need to make sure that commitment is reflected in our policies and enforcement.
Access to education, technology, and transportation are also areas where we must ensure adherence to current laws as well as promote improvements. It is not enough simply to require accessibility if there is no oversight to make sure children with disabilities have full access to the same education as their peers. We need to increase federal funding for early intervention and child care options that support disabled children, along with elementary, secondary, and higher education programs that allow for full educational participation and success. This includes the use of appropriate adaptive technology (which extends beyond the school years, of course) as well as access to transportation that is timely, accessible, and responsive.
We must ensure that the civil rights of people with disabilities are protected and that they are able and encouraged to participate fully in our society. This includes addressing unintended consequences of the social safety net that force individuals to choose between marriage and benefits, looking carefully at custody rights and independent living arrangements, and identifying areas of criminal justice where improvements are necessary. It also includes understanding the additional challenges and discrimination faced by people of color and LGTBQ+ people with disabilities and acknowledging the work required to address the systemic barriers they face.
Finally, we must also ensure that people with disabilities are included in every aspect of our national political system. They must have access to meetings and proceedings and be able to register to vote, access their ballot, and have reliable access to polling stations to ensure that they are able to vote successfully. Educated participation in the political sphere is a right and expectation enjoyed by all citizens, and the challenges of a disability must not be allowed to impede or curtail that right.
Our nation was founded on two key principles related to religion: the non-establishment of an official religion and the free exercise of religion for any individual. Both are essential in a state and country of many diverse faiths as well as those who prefer to define their spirituality in other ways or not at all. The separation of church and state is a fundamental American notion—a principle that is both good for all religions and good for all levels of government. The First Amendment, The Establishment Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause protect and support all of us. They strike a balance so the state is prohibited from supporting any religion, and the people are free to practice their own religion, or no religion at all, without interference from the state, especially when state interests and individual rights intersect.
Freedom of religion exists alongside our other cherished rights, including our commitment to equality and to freedom of speech, and the right we all enjoy to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. When these inalienable rights seem to contradict or when people of conscience may have differing views, it is up to us to engage in honest and open dialogue in search of policies that genuinely honor the separation of church and state and our national commitment to freedom of religion.
The Equality Act updates federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964,and the Fair Housing Act, among others, to explicitly ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It also allows religious organizations to practice freely within the confines of their own religion, admitting and hiring at their discretion where such practices do not intersect with government interaction. Unlike the Fairness for All Act, which allows and codifies into law discrimination by religious organizations or individuals that act in the public sphere, the Equality Act makes clear that participation in the public sphere brings with it certain expectations and requirements. Religious organizations are free, however, to limit their activities to those that do not intersect with the government, thus protecting their freedom of religion.
Within their own sphere religions have the freedom to practice at their discretion as long as they do not hurt individuals. Within the public sphere we are all obligated as members of larger communities and a country of 330+ million people to adhere to certain standards of behavior—regardless of personal belief—including an absolute commitment to equality. Sexual orientation or gender identity, country of origin, or ethnic background are no basis for discrimination. This distinction between the private and public spheres is key, and respecting that line is paramount in protecting both the right to worship freely (or not) and the right to equality under the law.
Discrimination is not an American value. LGBTQ+ people must be treated equally, both as a human value and under the law. The Equality Act, currently stalled in the Senate, explicitly guarantees the rights all Americans should enjoy and are entitled to, and we need to move it forward.
We need to acknowledge the particular challenges that LGBTQ+ youth face and support a host of policies to improve their lives, beginning with a nationwide ban on conversion therapy and improved access to appropriate mental health care to lower the national rate of attempted suicide for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans youth. Banning discrimination in child welfare, foster care, and adoption systems is another way to improve the lives of both LGTBQ+ youth and adults.
As with so many other issues where people of conscience have differing views, we need an open dialogue to discuss discrimination that presents as religious freedom. The freedom to worship is indeed a core value of our country, and it should remain so. Religious freedom that invites, supports, or masks bigotry and discrimination has no place in our civil society, however.
We are a strong country because we have always been a welcoming country. We must support realistic pathways to citizenship. We must support DREAMERS, reinstate DACA, and create a reasonable path to immigration and safe, efficient systems to support asylum seekers. We need to look carefully at who and why we deport people, and we must reform immigration enforcement to eliminate abuses and restore dignity to the process. It should go without saying that families must be reunited and detention centers must be restructured. We need to honor our history by replacing our broken system with humane and welcoming policies that address both the concerns of our citizens and the humanity of those seeking a better life within our borders.
We must listen to women and create opportunities and policies that ensure equality in every arena: political, economic, education, home. We also need to be clear that “women” does not mean white women or only white women. Women of color face their own unique challenges in addition to—on top of—the challenges that all women face, and Black and indigenous women of color must have a real voice in our government if we are going to make progress.
The Equal Rights Amendment passed the U.S. Senate then the House of Representatives on March 22, 1972, but was not fully ratified until this year. On February 13, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 232-182 to pass HJ Res 79, the joint resolution to remove the original time limit assigned to the Equal Rights Amendment. The Senate has failed to move forward. It simply should not be this hard to make a declaration of equal rights part of our governing documents.
Ratifying the ERA, however, is not enough. Equal rights must include equal pay. The pay gap is real, and it is wrong. Women know their lives should be free from harassment and full of equal chances for hiring and promotion. They know they deserve the same leadership opportunities as men. Gender equity in the workplace means family leave, childcare, and healthcare policies need to catch up as well, including reproductive freedom. Everyone must enjoy the basic human right to decide when and whether to have children and also the right to care for themselves and their health using all the options modern medicine provides, including birth control, which is basic health care.
Read more about Kael Weston’s issue and policy priorities.