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The Urgency of Now : Black Workers and Public Sector Jobs
By Reverend James Lawson
Published March 2, 2020

UCLA Medal Presentation
Rev. James Lawson Jr.
(photo credit: UCLA Labor Center)

As the sun sets on the last decade, we begin another year without a solution to the disproportionate Black homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, a consequence of an economic order in which Black people are still seen as commodities and not as human beings.

In his speech on “The Other America,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of two Americas, one flowing with opportunity and wealth, and the other ugly with poverty and the fatigue of despair.

 This is a manifestation of an ugly national history of unleashing a hatred of poverty on people, beginning with the Native Americans, then the slaves, then the workers. Conservative forces argue that people are poor because of their own decisions. Black poverty is directly related to 250 years of slavery and more than 150 years of Jim Crow and racialized terror. The current crisis of disproportionate Black homelessness and poverty is a direct result of a dominant political and economic structure that refuses to transform our economy into one that does not impoverish but allows communities to flourish.

Take for example the experience of Curtis. Just a few years ago, Curtis was destitute, moving from couch to couch, trying to get his bearings after the death of his ill mother and the subsequent loss of his home. He left his career to care for her, essentially uprooting his life to make sure she had quality care during the end of hers.

 Curtis is one of many Black Angelinos who has experienced homelessness, but only one of few who has overcome it. Through his church community, he was connected to the new Targeted Local Hire program for the City of Los Angeles, a program that pipelines applicants from marginalized communities into full-time, public sector union jobs that pay well and provide great benefits. Because of his employment, Curtis found a way to stabilize his life.

 Curtis’s story is a testament to the power of good jobs as a solution to the homelessness crisis and highlights the role our city should play in creating stable, full-time employment through the public sector. Los Angeles has recently been praised for its strong economy. Yet, we average a higher unsheltered homeless rate than anywhere else in the country. The economy is working, but not for everyone.

In Los Angeles, it could not be more black and white as white household median net wealth reached $355,000 compared to $4,000 for Black households.

 A large part of the direct action required is access to quality jobs as a means of creating economic stability for Black Angelinos and their families.

 Our government has a history of creating workforce pipelines for disenfranchised Black communities, beginning with the federal post office after reconstruction.

 The public sector is the largest employer in the state and more workforce development investments are needed as the public sector is the one area of employment where Black workers are equitably represented in quality careers. Based on the 2019 report An Ongoing Demand for Los Angeles: A Bright Future Requires Organizing More Black Public Sector Union Workers., public sector jobs create housing security and provide an invisible safety net for Black workers, their families, and their communities. The report found that two-thirds of Black workers in Los Angeles were sole providers for their families. Public sector work has historically stabilized Black communities and it has the power to continue to do that in Los Angeles during the current crisis.

 The City of Los Angeles has a local hiring program that also equitably hires Black workers. Created by a memorandum of understanding between unions that represent city workers and the City of Los Angeles, Targeted Local Hire is a jobs program that seeks to place the most marginalized Angelinos into stable city jobs. Since its inception in 2016, over 700 employees have been hired into public sector jobs. Nearly 34% of those hired are Black according to the City, but the rate at which Black workers are being hired is not nearly enough to make a measurable difference in the Black homelessness crisis.

We only have two and a half years left in this current mayoral administration to build an agenda that moves the needle of racial equity in our city. Mayor Eric Garcetti has the opportunity to leave a legacy behind for Angelinos, a legacy marked by racial equity.

At the end of 2019, the Mayor and City Council took steps to establish the City’s first Civil and Human Rights Ordinance, an Office of Racial Equity, and convened a strike team to strengthen racial equity and performance outcomes for our Targeted Local Hire program. What remains to be seen is whether these initiatives will equal a bold racial equity agenda that institutionalizes anti-discrimination protections and career pathways at the scale needed to move the needle on the economic violence faced by Black Angelenos.

What is clear is that without appropriate funding, measurable and clear implementation timelines, and credible oversight, this potentially transformative moment could be reduced to nothing more than business as usual.

Our leaders must stand up. We cannot and should not depend on brokers of plantation capitalism to author economic equality.

We must recognize that elected officials in Los Angeles have an awesome power to provide our communities with dignity and lift people from homelessness by sufficiently investing resources into Targeted Local Hire, a proven equitable program. Elected officials must maximize their ability to intervene and we must do whatever we can to make them use their power now. The City of Los Angeles has an obligation to do something and to do it immediately.

Categories: Op-Ed
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