On this MLK Day, we must acknowledge the racial injustices that remain

  • Kevin Morrison

    Kevin Morrison

 
by Kevin Morrison
Guest columnist
Posted1/18/2021 1:00 AM

Violent police killings of Black people last year exposed the deep, festering wounds of racism in America.

The callous murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and too many others spurred a widespread racial justice movement, underscoring the centuries-long mistreatment of Black people and people of color.

 

Today, more questions swirl. We're grappling with the Jan. 6 mob attack in Washington, D.C. and slowly emerging from a pandemic that has disproportionately affected people, neighborhoods and communities of color.

The brutal assault on our nation's Capitol 12 days ago laid bare the discrimination embedded in our systems. Law enforcement were almost wholly noncombative to an insurrection of mostly white men, who stormed and sieged the halls of Congress with jaw-dropping ease -- a mob that wielded weapons, zip ties and duct tape and breached the Senate chamber to pose for giddy selfies on the dais. It was a striking contrast to the treatment of peaceful Black protesters and supporters last year.

On this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we must remember: Our systems remain unjust and unequal. Our governments, institutions and economy do not work the same for everyone. Black trans women continue to be murdered in astounding, harrowing numbers and people of color, low-income residents and people with disabilities still have greater barriers to success and fairness.

In Cook County, before recreational cannabis was legalized in 2019, Black men were 10 times more likely than white men to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession. Black people make up 24% of Cook County but 75% of the Cook County Jail and the coronavirus pandemic is infecting and killing Black people and the Latinx community at higher rates than white people.

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Wealth inequality is also glaring in Cook County, where the median income for white households is $69,000 but $35,000 for Black households. Across Illinois, people of color are uninsured at higher rates than white people and experience larger percentages of strokes, diabetes and an overall reduction in anticipated life spans.

These injustices are clear. That's why we must commit, without reservation, to fighting racial disparities and implementing equitable policies in Cook County in 2021. Anything less is unacceptable.

As a Cook County commissioner, I'm proud of the initiatives we've already set in motion. But much work remains.

Last year, the Cook County Board of Commissioners approved President Toni Preck­winkle's racial justice budget investment, which allocated almost $100 million to be spent over the next two years in restorative justice, violence prevention, digital equity, public health, workforce training, affordable transportation and housing assistance. In December, the board unanimously voted to make Juneteenth a paid county holiday, honoring a day that too often is overlooked.

We have also developed a blueprint for tackling ongoing inequality. In 2019, I created and co-chaired the Cook County Committee on Addressing Bias, Equity and Cultural Competency. We published our final report in October 2019, detailing existing strengths, challenges and recommendations aimed at closing racial and economic gaps in Cook County.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

After hosting several town halls across the county, we determined Cook County must foster improved community engagement and accessibility -- including better translation, interpretation and ADA-compliant physical spaces -- to ensure greater equity.

In the Northwest suburbs specifically, residents resoundingly identified transportation, mental health access and housing as the pressing barriers to economic, health care and racial justice.

Let me be clear: Closing racial disparities in the Northwest suburbs and Cook County must include expanding access to public transportation, mental health treatment and affordable housing. These services are not equally available to marginalized communities and people of color and broadening them can curb racial imbalances in arrests, homelessness, health care and income.

For example, in the Northwest suburbs, "residents and service providers spoke of the great distances that those living with severe mental illness would have to travel to access services. Given those physical barriers and compounded with a lack of transportation and instable housing, many individuals do not get help at all, leading to homelessness or incarceration," according to our report.

That's why we must work to build on PACE and Metra in Cook County and focus on affordable housing solutions, including starting a landlord mitigation fund to help address landlords' reluctance to rent to individuals working with service providers -- many of whom are unstably housed -- and a flexible homelessness prevention fund. Cook County Health should also continue funding housing initiatives as part of public health solutions.

Make no mistake about it: These are ambitious but necessary goals and we must remain steadfast and vigilant in pursing policies that foster equality in the Northwest suburbs and across Cook County.

• Kevin Morrison, a Mount Prospect Democrat, is Cook County commissioner for the 15th district.

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