Building a Better Normal

Building a Better Normal: Addressing Racial and Economic Disparities as We Rebuild from COVID-19

“The status quo does not work. The status quo is not effective, and it is harmful and unsafe.”

Wake Up! with United Way recently returned in a virtual community gathering on Thursday, July 9th to discuss “Building a Better Normal: Addressing Racial and Economic Disparities as We Rebuild from COVID-19.”

Panelists included Dr. Rasul Mowatt, IU College of Arts and Sciences professor in the departments of American Studies and Geography; Dr. Kosali Simon, IU O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs professor and Associate Vice Provost for Health Sciences; and Efrat Feferman, Executive Director of United Way of Monroe County. Mark Fraley, Associate Director of IU Political and Civic Engagement, moderated.

As the discussion began, we heard from Mowatt, “The present circumstance just doesn’t work.”

He pointed the audience’s attention to important issues such as exploitation of labor, state violence, discrimination, social determinants of health, and more. He noted the nation’s responses through protests for reform, policy change, and even abolition of police and prisons.  

According to Mowatt, some groups are calling for a re-assessment of budget spending. This approach focuses on inequalities such as school closings due to poor test scores, hospital beds reductions for cost savings, and large amounts of spending on police equipment.  

Other approaches include opportunist actions with little effectiveness, he said. Funding is being put toward programs like implicit bias training or mindfulness training that has little correlation with better crime solving or public relations, according to Mowatt.

“Abolition, however, is ending and reconstructing society overall,” he said. “This is not an easy feat. It may need to be taken in several steps. At the heart of abolition is trying to reorder or rethink the world beginning at the local and moving up to the national and global”

Mowatt proposed that systems like public education that began with noble intentions need to be restructured to return to those beginnings. But systems like law enforcement need to be restructured completely to eliminate issues like systemic racism.  

Simon continued this discussion by recognizing these issues of racism and discrimination are present in health systems that affect communities of color during public health crises like COVID-19.  

She explained that many of these historical disadvantages have been present for centuries. While the public perception is often that these disadvantages must have been improving over time, this is not always the case.  

“Shockingly, some of these economic gaps are increasing, not narrowing,” said Simon.  

According to Simon, the real median household income for Black families in 2000 was $43,000, while it was $67,000 for white families. The gap has actually worsened since then. 2018-2019 Census data shows the real median household income for Black families as $42,000, while it is $71,000 for white families.  

These disparities are present even during times of economic growth, according to Simon. During health crises like COVID-19, job losses affect Black and Hispanic families harder than white families, she said.  

“Even though the job losses were greater for Hispanic families and Black families, the gains back to employment are slower,” said Simon. “And this is consistent with research from the Great Recession recovery.”

Feferman then shifted the discussion to how United Ways are responding to these issues.  

“Racial justice has long been a value of United Ways, but I’ll be the first to admit that articulation is meaningless without action,” she said.  

United Ways have been focusing research on families that are considered ALICE, which means Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, but Employed. These families make just enough to fall above the poverty line and do not qualify for government assistance. However, they are struggling to afford necessities and are often at close risk of poverty or homelessness.  

One out of five in Monroe County are in poverty by federal standards, said Efrat. In addition, one out of three are ALICE. This totals more than half of our community’s population.  

She explains that within these numbers are overrepresentations of Hispanic and Black families, causing these issues to disproportionately affect those communities.  

“Where race and income and their intersection are barriers that keep individuals in our community from the pursuit of liberty and justice, the pandemic really has exacerbated this for many,” said Feferman.  

To further explain this issue, Feferman quoted Human Rights Commissioner Vauhxx Booker, who said while advocating for housing as a human right, “Our individual abilities to withstand illness are influenced by a host of socio-economic factors, and the truth to be reaped from histories of contagion response, is that we’re only as strong as our most vulnerable.”

After exploring the disparities that exist in our systems presently, the discussion shifted to the future. How can we build a better normal?  

Simon looked to changes in healthcare, specifically expanding healthcare options that are independent of employment.  

“I think an approach to take is to just try to imagine and also work on removing aspects of legality in the society,” said Mowatt.  

He explained how things like criminalizing loitering in a park after dark leads to unnecessary incarceration or possibly dangerous encounters with law enforcement.  

“If we remove the legality, then we can entertain discussions of what are maybe more hopeful types of policies,” he said.  

Feferman looked inward to the world of philanthropy and how it can change to better address these disparities.  

She explained that many philanthropic efforts lean toward the “white moderate mentality” that can cause organizations to be “part of the problem, even as we try to solve problems.”  

Some issues within the field include reluctance to fund Black and Indigenous organizations, reluctance to support policy change and advocacy work, and marginalization and discrimination within organizations. These are all things Feferman said need to be addressed to ensure philanthropic organizations are effectively addressing racial and economic disparities.  

“I think it is something we have really examined in our world and will change how we do things, and already has,” she said.  

Wake Up! with United Way’s move to online still allowed audience members to engage via chat and Q&A. Community members engaged in important discussions about things like implicit bias training, the court system, and more.  

You can watch the full event here:

The chat also allowed for panelists and audience members to share resources to help further this discussion. If you’d like to learn more, explore the following resources:

Resources shared during the discussion:

Helpful Resources:


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Wake Up! with United Way is a collaborative project of United Way of Monroe County and IU’s Political and Civic Engagement Program, with thanks to The Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce and the Bloomington Board of Realtors for series support.