Alex Rossman: How baby steps can lead to great strides on racial equity

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist at a June 4 march against police brutality in Southeast Michigan | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Last week, the Michigan League for Public Policy held our annual policy forum, going entirely virtual for the first time. This year’s topic was “White Laws, Black Lives and the Need to See Color,” and featured a keynote address from Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and a panel discussion with Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), Angela Waters Austin from Black Lives Matter Michigan and Dr. Renee Branch Canady with the Michigan Public Health Institute (MPHI). 

The event was amazing and the discussion on the need for anti-racist policies and actions in Michigan was both powerful and empowering. But one particular question — and answer — stuck out to me. 

A participant asked the panelists, “Is incrementalism the only way for political change?” 

In response, Canady said that “incremental change is lasting change. But … that doesn’t have to be slow. If you think about baby steps, if you know any toddlers, they take little bitty steps, but man, they move fast. Let’s take these bites that we can handle and let’s keep advancing change.”

My first thought went to my twin toddlers. Their little baby sneakers can still cover a lot of ground, and quickly.

And then I thought about our forum as a whole and the broader conversation on racial equity in Michigan, and how all of the speakers showed that we are making steady, positive progress, albeit incrementally. It gave me hope.

Michigan sees decline in racial disparities in COVID-19 cases, deaths

In his keynote address, Gilchrist spoke about being a witness, a beneficiary, and an agent of incremental change on racial equity. From his election as Michigan’s first Black lieutenant governor to chairing the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, he and the Whitmer administration have made a concerted effort to tackle racial inequity — work that preceded the COVID-19 pandemic but has become all the more important since it began.

“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the staggering impact inequality has on the health of people of color, especially in the Black community, where the health of our friends and family has been disproportionately impacted by the virus,” said Gilchrist. “Every metric, every data point that comes from COVID-19 is a person, a mother, a father, a son, a daughter. I have personally lost 23 people to COVID-19. This is deeply personal for me.” 

Back in April, more than 40% of coronavirus deaths were Black residents, yet the state’s Black population is just 14%. The Task Force set out to reduce the racial disparities in the mortality rate of COVID-19 while also addressing the historical and systemic inequities that underlie them. And thanks to this work, Michigan residents are seeing a difference. In the early stages of the pandemic, the virus was killing Black people in Michigan at a rate of five times that of whites. But in the past two weeks of available data, the state has made significant headway, with Black residents now accounting for 8.2% of cases and 9.9% of deaths

The lieutenant governor also noted the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer administration’s work to require implicit bias training for all state government employees and health care professionals in Michigan, which was announced in the governor’s State of the State in January 2020. The administration has also created the Black Leadership Advisory Council and named racism a public health crisis.

Declaring racism a public health crisis was an incremental win for a lot of our forum participants. League CEO Gilda Z. Jacobs, Austin and Canady participated in a webinar on that subject on Juneteenth. Black Lives Matter Michigan and MPHI worked to have this declaration made by local county health departments, including in Ingham County, and the statewide recognition was a powerful culmination of all of this work.  

Austin shared another great example of incremental progress in talking about Black Lives Matter itself: “Black Lives Matter began as a love story. It was a love letter to the grieving Black community, that led to a hashtag, that led to a movement.” She also shared how her work is informed by her faith, further dispelling outlandish misconceptions about Black Lives Matter and its work. 

1st BLM-organized rally brings thousands to Lansing in peaceful celebration of Black lives

Anthony spoke about her efforts to bring about change in the Legislature, and what that will really take. 

“It is not an absence of knowing, it is not an absence of data, it is not an absence of conviction. It is an absence of a combination of leadership and an urgency for now,” she said, punctuating the point by lifting up several dense reports on Black well-being from the past three decades. “The first step that I have been trying to challenge my colleagues to do is to look at every single system with an equity lens.”

The representative also talked about needing more public will and public support to push big issues and ideas to make a more equitable system over the finish line, but reiterated that some positive work is being done in the Legislature with broad and bipartisan efforts on criminal justice reform.  

Canady wrapped up the panel discussion with a Bible verse, “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not,” and simplified it as “Don’t get tired of doing the right thing. It is so easy to say ‘This ain’t never going to change,’ but we know that change happens, so don’t get tired of doing the right thing, because eventually we are going to reap, we are going to benefit.”

And when Canady says “we are going to benefit,” she means all people, not just Black people. A more equitable state and a more equitable society benefit us all in a variety of ways, and it is why everyone should care about racial equity regardless of their race. 

Considering the political and social climate right now, I was admittedly worried that our forum was going to come across as negative or that the work is futile. But every single person that spoke is approaching the work of racial equity with grit, perseverance and optimism that we can and must do better. I hope that every single person that joined us or that is reading this will, as well, and will remember that that starts with little — yet swift — steps.