As we close out Black History Month, I reflect on our commitment this month and every month to confront the troubled history that still reproduces disadvantage for hardworking Georgians.
W.E.B. Du Bois debuted The Georgia Negro 120 years ago at the Paris World Exhibition. The project featured a variety of hand-drawn data visualizations that displayed the economic reality of Black life in Georgia during Reconstruction. In addition to fabulous data visualizations, Du Bois also brought hand-transcribed records of Georgia’s Black Codes, the laws affecting Black Georgians, to accompany the data. Du Bois displayed the codes at the exhibit to show that we cannot explain the outcomes without an understanding of how the law was used to create hardship for Black Georgians.
The Black Codes were passed by the Georgia General Assembly immediately after emancipation to codify the subordinate treatment of formerly-enslaved Black Georgians and maintain a pool of cheap Black labor. For decades to follow, Georgia lawmakers implemented, upheld and expanded egregious laws that blocked civic and economic opportunity and relegated Black Georgians to the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
Fast forward through nearly a century of racial terrorism, Jim Crow laws and the current era of mass incarceration, Black Georgians have made monumental progress “in spite of the machinery of white supremacist culture, politics and the law that surrounded them.” However, even with the Black Codes no longer the “official” policy of Georgia, the impacts of those laws continue to be felt across the state.
Past and current policies continue to stifle progress in Georgia and reinforce economic disadvantage. Explicitly racist terms are no longer enshrined in law, but so-called “colorblind” policies and talking points about Georgia’s economy today continue to inflict damage by pretending as if the Black Codes were never the law of the land.
For example, the overall unemployment rate in Georgia is 3.2 percent, but for Black Georgians, it is 7.2 percent. While leaders insist that we are living in a strong economy because unemployment is low, Black unemployment is still at a level that would be considered unacceptable in a thriving economy. This begs the question: Would we celebrate unemployment rates of 7.2 percent if it were that high for white people?
Black Georgians continue to face structural racism, outright discrimination and subconscious bias that contribute to higher unemployment. Even when education and skills are equal, research shows that white job applicants are more likely to secure job interviews than Black applicants. People of color are also more likely to get slapped with criminal records for minor or nonviolent infractions, have lower levels of educational attainment and lack access to quality job centers. Meanwhile, Georgia remains one of 40 states that has yet to expand criminal record restriction and continues to inequitably fund its school systems. These policy choices sadly fail to leverage economic development incentives in a way that promotes economic mobility in Black communities and extend the legacy of the overtly-racist policies of the past instead of correcting them.
At GBPI, we understand that disaggregating the data is not enough. We know we must continue what Du Bois did for Georgia over a century ago by naming the legacy of racist policy choices that continue to have an unfair and outsized impact on Black and Brown Georgians. In fact, in 2019, we adopted racial equity as a core value that applies to both our internal and external work as an Institute. We believe it is both a data-driven and moral imperative to lift up structural barriers and propose equitable solutions specifically targeted to break down those barriers if we are to achieve our mission of advancing lasting solutions to ensure economic well-being for ALL Georgians.
While we are known to report on the data involving racial disparities, we must commit ourselves to telling the accurate history, a history that remains in the living memory of so many Georgians. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, architect of the 1619 Project, reminded us at our 2020 annual conference, echoing the words of late Black historian John Hope Franklin, “We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.”