Angela Glover Blackwell, founder in residence at PolicyLink, an organization advocating for racial and economic equity, is a national policy expert, author and leader in the movement for equity in the United States. She has written many books and articles, including “The Curb-Cut Effect,” which highlights the ways in which targeting the needs of those who are most in need generally improves the circumstances of the entire society.
In her latest article, “How We Achieve a Multiracial Democracy,” published in the Spring 2023 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, Blackwell contends that understanding the racial history of the United States is essential for our democratic future. She illustrates that “diverse coalitions and movements are demonstrating the power of solidarity and exposing the lie that talking honestly about race divides us. Talking about race is in fact the only way democracy can succeed in a multiracial society. And if activists and organizations are successful, building and sustaining a vibrant multiracial democracy will be the next great U.S. innovation.”
Blackwell recently took time to share with Learning for Justice her thoughts on the significance of civics education in the story of our nation and creating a more inclusive democracy.
In your article, you note that as the multiracial majority becomes a potent force for political engagement and transformative change, it’s no surprise to see efforts to prevent teaching children about the nation’s racial history, “because what is more threatening to authoritarian leaders than an educated, informed citizenry?” How do you see the role of civics education in a strong multiracial democracy? And how can a historical framework that centers on race be applied in inclusive civics education?
Civics education and literacy are critical. Teaching and learning about race, racialized power dynamics, the freedom struggles of our ancestors, and multiracial organizing and citizen engagement are essential if democracy is to succeed in our multiracial society. The nation—the world—has never had a flourishing democracy within the context of profound difference. Yet a multiracial democracy is the only kind of democracy that will succeed in the United States.
I believe understanding how race and racism shaped the nation is the foundation of civics literacy. A history that honestly addresses race and racism in the United States is essential because it is a whole history that allows us to identify the root causes of enduring structural challenges and to develop effective, equitable solutions. It reminds us that history is alive and a powerful force in our everyday experiences.
A whole history must include three key components. First, it must show the origins of today’s seemingly intractable racial inequalities. Second, it has to explain how government policies and practices—at all levels—have baked racial inequity into institutions and systems, perpetuating the racial hierarchies that were created at the country’s founding. And third, it must unpack the complicated legacy of massive government investments in white communities—for example, federally backed home loans. Such investments exacerbated racial disparities, but they provide a blueprint for expanding and sustaining shared prosperity for everyone.
A whole history of the U.S. begins with the genocide of Indigenous people—the theft of land, forced removals, and ongoing attempts at cultural erasure and extinction. These actions created the contours of a hierarchy of human value and race-based structural violence. They were the first, vicious expressions of the nation’s foundational belief in white supremacy. Anti-Black racism was central to translating that belief into protocols of oppression, a combination of economic, legal, social, and psychological structures and practices used initially to enslave and dehumanize Black people—and justifying doing so!
These protocols have become so deeply embedded in our institutions and systems they now harm and marginalize people of all races. As a framework, the protocols of oppression do not ignore or minimize the histories or suffering of those who are neither Black nor white. Rather, they illuminate the interconnectedness of bigotry, structural violence, and devastating policy neglect, and they expose the biases at the root of oppression.
Can you give an example of how these protocols play out?
Unfortunately, there are many. Consider the nation’s response to the crack cocaine epidemic as it swept Black communities in the 1990s. If we’d treated it as a public health problem and invested in social support instead of criminalizing addiction, building more prisons and filling them with Black people, we would have been better prepared to address the opioid crisis before it ravaged low-income communities throughout the country. Similarly, the U.S. would not have had the highest COVID-19 death rate of any rich nation if we hadn’t neglected the health and health care of Black communities and starved public health systems of investment.
Democracy is about shared responsibilities and processes for working together, as equals, to have a meaningful say in our lives and our communities. Young people get this and they’re acting on it.— Angela Glover Blackwell
In addition to the crucial aspects of voting and the election process, what important elements of democracy would you like to see lifted up in the conversation about civics literacy?
First and foremost, we cannot have a healthy, functioning democracy without a just economy. A significant lesson we all took away from the COVID-19 pandemic was that the economy is only as strong as the people. Our economy is not only about businesses and jobs; it depends heavily on the health and well-being of people, their neighborhoods, and the planet. Democracy and our economy are inextricably linked.
In the same way that a thriving democracy has clear paths and processes that allow everyday people to have a say in how things are done and is responsive and accountable to their needs, a just economy is one that has clear systems and structures that work to create opportunities for mobility, prosperity, and economic dignity for everyone.
I love the framework I learned from my longtime friend and colleague, Manuel Pastor. In the book he co-authors with Chris Benner, Solidarity Economics, he makes clear that it’s not “the economy;” it’s “our economy.” And that’s because we created it. Our economy is not a set of rules handed to us by God or guided by the laws of nature. Our economy is the result of systems and structures people built and enacted, so it is something we can change. We can build new economic systems and structures that work for everyone, not just a few.
People are central to our democracy and our economy. Inclusive civics education can show us we have agency and teach us how to exercise our power to build a fair, just society for all.
Young people are living in a rapidly changing reality—shifting demographics; work transformed by the pandemic and the gig economy; skyrocketing costs for education and housing. And all of it within the context of climate change. What do inclusive civics education and literacy programs need to do to meet young people where they are today?
A wonderful thing we are seeing with this younger generation is a shift towards organizing and action, in big ways. And democracy is rooted in organizing and action. Democracy is about shared responsibilities and processes for working together, as equals, to have a meaningful say in our lives and our communities. Young people get this and they’re acting on it. They know what is at stake better than most of us. It’s their future.
I want to emphasize that when the activists and organizers from the multiracial majority of young people today work hard for what they need, they are also working on what the nation needs. Since 2013, the majority of babies born in the United States have been babies of color, which means the majority of kids in schools today, particularly public schools, are kids of color. By 2031, the majority of the young workers will be of color.
The fate of the nation is dependent upon the very people who are being left behind, and who are now fighting to make sure the future isn’t sacrificed to maintain systems that aren’t working for any of us. When young people today advocate for what they need to be successful, they are advancing what the country needs to become more plentiful and prosperous for everyone— things like universal health care; tuition-free public universities; high-quality, affordable housing; and generational investments in climate resilience. So we need to listen.
Civics education and literacy programs can support young people by nurturing their spirit of collective action and giving them the technical knowledge to make real changes in their lives. Young people see value in the practices of activism to make systemic changes, and those practices are essential to a thriving multiracial democracy. As an example of how civics education can support young people, I want to spotlight the work of Elizabeth Clay Roy and Generation Citizen, the organization she leads. Through a project-based curriculum that supports students as they engage directly in their communities on ideas they care about, young people learn about democracy.
The work of collective decision-making that is at the heart of democracy is difficult. Doing that work in the context of the profound differences that exist in the United States is even harder, but young people are already there. The more young people—and all of us—build the muscle of democratic engagement across differences, the stronger and better our whole system will become.
You have talked about emerging leaders, particularly from communities of color, who have moved from demanding equal rights to taking ownership over systems and creating new democratic structures that serve everyone. How can civics education incorporate this work and philosophy into programs?
I am so inspired by the leadership I see in the movement for equity today. There is a rich analysis of power combined with a deep generosity in their commitment to collective well-being. The people of color who are leading this are leading for all because they understand firsthand that if we don’t include everyone in the definition of all, it’s people of color—along with those experiencing poverty, immigrants, transgender individuals and people with disabilities—who will be left behind. When you have that understanding, the vision of the future you create is one where everyone has the opportunity to participate, prosper and reach their full potential.
“The fate of the nation is dependent upon the very people who are being left behind, and who are now fighting to make sure the future isn’t sacrificed to maintain systems that aren’t working for any of us.”
—Angela Glover Blackwell
Civics education programs can step in and support this in many ways. I want to talk about two. The first is by embracing the vision of a true multiracial democracy. Today’s equity champions know that the founders of American democracy never meant to include people like them in their visions of representative governance. However, they know that American institutions and our fundamental liberties are strongest when democracy grows and stretches to include everyone. When all people are served and protected by American democracy and its governmental institutions, they also have a clear stake in protecting those institutions.
Today’s leaders have held fast to the vision of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people—all people. They know that when all people truly have a voice and the opportunity to participate, the government can produce extraordinarily equitable results. Inclusive civics education has the opportunity to help students and ordinary people develop a vision for a thriving multiracial democracy so they can engage in the ongoing work of collective self-governance to improve the world around them.
Second, the equity leaders of today are building massive, global coalitions for collective and planetary thriving using transformative solidarity. Transformative solidarity is not based on shared issues or even shared experiences; it’s based on the shared principles of human dignity and a belief not just in a right to exist but to thrive. A radically inclusive, thriving multiracial democracy will only be sustained if we begin to interact with each other in different ways.
Transformative solidarity provides a blueprint for how we can work together, across the issues that are so important to our lives and our collective well-being, to create a just society for everyone. By helping a new generation come together across our shared goals and shared humanity, inclusive civics education is able to empower millions of people to see and seize their power, which is essential for achieving a radically inclusive, thriving multiracial democracy and a just economy.