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Guest editorial

Ordinary people lobbying Congress for racial justice

In the not-so-distant past, a politician who made a racist comment was shunned, but as Trump takes office this week, once-shamed politicians are being nominated for key posts. As citizens, we have an opportunity and moral responsibility to ensure progress continues toward racial justice.

Racism not only runs deep in our nation's history — it is embedded in our economic policies and tax code. For example, the Homestead Act of 1862 gave land at little or no cost to western homesteaders — as long as they were white. And after World War II, the GI Bill helped many veterans pay for their education and obtain low-priced mortgages, but such assistance was denied to our veterans of color. Even up until the 1960s, redlining and other discriminatory practices in the housing market effectively kept Blacks from building wealth in the most common way: home ownership. In recent years, the trend continues with lower tax rates on capital gains, stock dividends, and inheritances, this asymmetrically benefits wealthier (and mostly white) Americans.

Such policies — intentional or not — have contributed to a situation where the total wealth of the average black college graduate is less than that of the average white high-school dropout. In fact, for every dollar of wealth held by white households in America, Black and Latino households hold just 6 and 7 cents, respectively. Without accumulated savings, these families live in constant risk of falling into (or deeper into) poverty.

As citizens we can work to enact fair public policies. Here in Utah, I lead an advocacy group called RESULTS, (www.results.org). We have volunteers from many backgrounds: doctors, teachers, lawyers, students, stay-at-home moms. We receive support to understand the issues affecting those living in poverty and we lobby Congress for policies that will help the most vulnerable.

As Utahns, we have the ability to lobby Senator Hatch, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. With a Republican majority we may see major reforms to the tax code and we, as concerned citizens, should be sure our tax code helps everyone. Currently, the U.S. spends more than $400 billion on tax incentives to help us save, but only 3% of that benefits the bottom 40 percent of earners. We can make significant progress in ending the racial wealth gap by providing incentives to save that would be targeted to lower-income earners. For example, we can create programs that incentivize personal savings during tax season, when many low-income Americans receive a refund due to the Earned Income Tax Credit. We can help savings grow more quickly by matching funds in long-term accounts. Programs like these would benefit all low-wage earners, but would disproportionately help Blacks and Latino workers.

In the four years I have been a RESULTS volunteer I have seen amazing victories: expansions in the Earned Income Tax Credit that helped 16 million Americans (8 million of these were children) and a pledge made to the GAVI Alliance that will save the lives of 5 million children worldwide by providing vaccinations. Here in Utah, a small handful of volunteers have been successful working with our Republican delegation on both domestic and global poverty issues.

This is an important time to be involved: much is at stake for people of color, for the poor, for our divided country, and the world at large. We can work directly with our leaders to bring change. If many of us were deeply engaged then we would have a society that reflects our shared values of honesty, fairness, and equality.