Insight by WashU at Brookings

WashU at Brookings panel explores historical, economic roots of racial crisis

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“Sixty-five years after Emmett Till’s death, we’re in the middle of this long summer of Black death. How did we get here?”

On a Zoom webinar attended by more than 200 people, moderator Adrienne Davis, vice chancellor and director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Equity at Washington University in St. Louis, set the tone for an evening of frank discussion on race. Davis reminded attendees of the upcoming 65-year anniversary of the murder of Till at the hands of white supremacists.

Moments earlier, Mark Taylor, dean of WashU Olin Business School, had introduced the evening with a nod to Jacob Blake, a Black man police shot several times who lay in the hospital as the panelists spoke.

So began the WashU at Brookings-hosted event “From Ferguson to Minneapolis: Where do we go from here?,” a conversation on race, values and equity in light of current events. Moderated by Davis, the event featured Missouri Senator Brian Williams and Brookings Institution Fellow Andre Perry. WashU at Brookings is a partnership of the Brookings Institution and Washington University.

“These are difficult but necessary conversations, underscored by all-too-often events,” Taylor said. “We must all stay actively engaged to make progress on the challenges we face in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

New fervor is sparked every time a Black person dies in an encounter with police. But it wasn’t until the death of George Floyd this May that the issue of racial justice took root and spread to cities across the United States and around the world.

“When police can snuff out Black lives with impunity it is not only homicide, it is a values statement about Black life that permeates housing, corporate America and all areas of our lives,” said Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.

Perry is a nationally known commentator on race, structural inequality and education. The author of  “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,” Perry has analyzed Black-majority cities and institutions in America, focusing on assets worthy of increased investment.

“I’m glad we’re having this conversation in a business school,” Perry said. “Too often we separate social issues from economic ones. They are absolutely linked: The same racial injustices exist in business, in corporate America.”

His Brookings research has illuminated how certain forms of social distancing historically accelerated economic and social disparities between Black people and the rest of the country.

“People refuse to see the connection between policy violence and physical violence. These policies rob thousands, millions, of Black Americans from self-actualizing.”

Williams grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, and earned an undergraduate degree from Southeast Missouri State University and master’s degrees in public administration and legal studies from Washington University. He represents Missouri District 14, part of St. Louis County.

“As a state senator, my job is to look at injustice from the perspective of what laws we can change. How can we, as Missouri, look to be an example for the rest of the country?” Williams said.

“This fight is personal for me. Racism, like COVID-19, is a virus. And it’s having an impact on all of us.”

Studying government and public health policy led Williams to pursue a career in public service. After graduation, he worked as a congressional staffer and oversaw the rollout of the Affordable Care Act Marketplace in Missouri as a congressional ACA coordinator. Williams is a member of multiple standing committees and serves as a board director for People’s Health Center, where he helped develop a behavioral healthcare center for children in underserved communities.

“If we start creating an equitable environment where we invest in all communities and level the playing field, we can tackle some of these systemic challenges rooted in racism and enhance the quality of life for all Americans—especially people of color,” Williams said.

“What would it look like if we put the same energy into ending structural racism that we do curing cancer?” Davis asked while kicking off the event. “For our undergraduates to study anti-racism? Let’s lead in finding a model for urban equity and democracy.”

WashU at Brookings’ executive development courses are known for showcasing expert perspectives on policymaking, global trends, social awareness and personal leadership. “From Ferguson to Minneapolis” was emblematic of the programming regularly offered. Topics are informative, timely and rooted in Olin’s principled leadership as demonstrated through a values-based, data-driven approach to decision-making.

Through such courses as “Influence and Informal Leadership,” “Ethics in Action: Leading with Integrity” and “Global Studies: The Middle East,” as well as certificate programs and the LEGIS Congressional Fellowship, students gain a nuanced understanding of subject matter, receiving a “behind-the-scenes” view they often describe as transformational.

You may watch the event here on YouTube.