One advantage of the current political climate is an opportunity for a new and more honest conversation about race, gender and many other inequities we too often sweep under the carpet. President Trump's offensive actions and comments keep these issues in the spotlight, and the response from Arkansas's congressional leaders has ranged from vigorous defense of the president to complicit silence.
One of the most radical things we can do for a better future is to keep talking about social justice until we find the solutions that have dogged us for generations. And, despite the hatred and fear coming from those who would divide us, tackling these problems is actually a key to creating more opportunity and prosperity for all Arkansans.
That's one reason the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Citizens First Congress has begun an initiative to understand the history and roots of racial oppression and social injustice. We partnered with Race Forward — one of the nation's leading social justice think tanks — to conduct a series of workshops examining the history of racism and social injustice and how it operates in our culture, laws and institutions. Knowledge is power and understanding these systems is key to making progress.
Knowledge alone does not create change. We also need to build stronger communities across the lines that divide us. When African Americans, whites, Latinos and other people come together we have the power to create change that will bring opportunity and justice to all. What could be better than more knowledge and community in this age of polarization around race, politics, gender and economics?
We need to bridge the gap between what our communities' need to thrive and what our political leaders are doing. In Arkansas, home to one of the fastest growing immigrant communities in the country, we are represented by lawmakers who are leading the attack to deny Dreamers and massively cut legal immigration. In Arkansas, one of the states that's benefited the most from the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, we are represented by lawmakers who are among the most zealous to cut it. In Arkansas, near worst in the nation for poverty and income inequality, we are represented by lawmakers who are among the most zealous to cut social safety nets to fuel massive tax giveaways for the most wealthy.
Let me talk about one more elephant in the room. Being from Arkansas, I'm particularly sensitive to "shithole" comments about someone's home. You see, many people who have never been to Arkansas perceive us as a backward, shithole place. I get asked by people who've never been here, "Isn't it frustrating living someplace with such high poverty and so few opportunities?"
It's easy for someone from someplace else to grab a few data points and make broad negative assumptions. It's true that Arkansas is one of the poorest states, with the highest income inequality and big challenges. But people who define us by those challenges don't know the amazing people of Arkansas. They don't know our tight-knit communities, our history of overcoming political polarization to make progress, or how beautiful the Ozarks, the Delta and the Ouachitas are. They don't know we have one of the fastest improving education systems, or that we lead the South in access to health care, minimum wage or energy efficiency.
Many, if not most, Americans, are from places once considered "shitholes." Half of my ancestors came over during the Irish potato famine. The other came from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. Both sides of the family were poor and never would have been admitted to this country in a merit system. But my family story is one of excelling over challenges and contributing proudly to a stronger American society: poor, scrappy, independent risk-takers from places many elites considered shitholes.
That diversity and striving are not what holds America back, that's what makes us great! Today immigration is not a drain on Arkansas, but a boost of over $3.4 billion per year. White supremacy, beyond being a moral scourge, undermines opportunity for us all.
To get past those who would divide us with racist and ill-informed views, we need to come together, understand the history of social injustice in our society and build a collective strategy to challenge it. Our next workshop is this Saturday, Jan. 27, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Jones Center in Springdale. We will be holding more workshops in other parts of the state through the year. Learn more at CitizensFirst.org/events.
Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.