A presidential election year always brings strong feelings and 2024 is already shaping up to be particularly divisive. Yet, judging by the bipartisan group of attendees of the 47th annual conference of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, those policymakers universally agree that we can’t let our country be torn apart.
In today’s world, race or color is often stigmatized, which creates an additional obstacle for people of color who already deal with numerous challenges. However, Black legislators remain determined and refuse to give up. They understand that they represent the voice of their communities and will persist in advocating for the rights and necessities of those they serve, no matter how difficult.
Here are my takeaways about the top issues Black lawmakers are focusing on:
As Black representatives and senators gathered at the conference Nov. 28-Dec. 1, something extraordinary was happening for health in my home state of North Carolina. On Dec. 1, 2023, Governor Roy Cooper and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kody H. Kinsley celebrated the launch of Medicaid expansion to more than 600,000 newly eligible state residents. Medicaid expansion is a critical program that offers low-income residents the essential physical and mental health insurance they need while also providing vital support to medically fragile children and people with severe mental illnesses. It covers doctor visits, annual check-ups, and other medical expenses at little or no cost to participants.
For a decade, the North Carolina legislature had pushed back against expanding Medicaid as envisioned in the Affordable Care Act. When I was legislative director for Gov. Cooper, it was my top priority to change this. I like to say I helped get it to the two-yard line and Gov. Cooper and legislative leaders got it over the finish line after I transitioned to APCO.
The people who can now access Medicaid are adults aged 19 through 64 who earn up to 138% of the federal poverty line. That’s a single person earning about $20,000/year or a family of three earning about $34,000. There are still 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid, so moving that needle was a hot topic at the conference among Black lawmakers. They report hearing concerns frequently about health disparities from real people in their communities.
Much of the conversation at the conference centered around how Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the nation are funded drastically less than their traditional state university counterparts. Sixteen of the nation’s 19 historically Black land-grant universities have been underfunded by an inflation-adjusted total of $13 billion, according to a federal analysis of per-student state spending data from 1987 to 2020. The land-grant university system was established by the federal government in 1862 and in the 1890s, formerly Confederate and border states established separate land-grant universities for Black students, and underfunding has persisted for these institutions.
But Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are educating just as many graduates and serving more first-generation college students. They are an important component to producing a strong and prepared workforce to fuel our economy. Much of the conversation among Black lawmakers centered on how we could bring in equity and support these workforce-producing institutions. In the blue states, they are already working to balance these funding disparities, but in red states like North Carolina and Tennessee stark differences apply. In the article “How America Cheated its Black Colleges,” Forbes called out that the greatest disparity is at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University (NC A&T) in Greensboro, founded in 1891.They found that for 30 years, it was underfunded by an inflation-adjusted total of $2.8 billion.
I was heartened to hear from Rep. Felicia Robinson, a state lawmaker from Florida, about her state’s accomplishments in getting more money allocated for HBCUs. This highlighted for me again the importance of members working with majority parties to find a solution. I also see this as an opportunity where the private sector can contribute, such as offering technology to bridge the urban/rural divide—which is why I’m always thinking where my clients can add value and contribute to solutions for the priorities of policymakers.
I was privileged to tour Uncle Nearest’s distillery and met master distiller Victoria Eady Butler, whose great-great-grandfather is said to have taught Jack Daniel the art of making whiskey. Uncle Nearest’s given name was Nathan Green, and he began distilling whiskey as a slave and stayed after abolition, working as a free man. His whiskey was known for its uncommon smoothness and character, and “many believe he perfected the Lincoln County Process, where whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal prior to aging in charred oak barrels – a process that defines Tennessee whiskey and makes it unlike any other distilled spirit in the world.”
The brand was reinvigorated when founder and owner Fawn Weaver partnered with the family to uplift the legacy of Uncle Nearest. Now, Butler has been named a master blender by Whiskey Magazine and it was wonderful to see her passion for the community as we toured their 432-acre location.
For Black lawmakers, this tour stop was about economic development and what that can mean for the community in terms of private businesses employing people. It was also an example of a Black business offering scholarships to help educate others. Making this a priority is not about handouts, it’s about equity and fair chances. It’s about giving people opportunities to do the work.
It’s time for a strategic shift that considers the other party’s perspectives to establish common ground. Forward-thinking leaders must proactively modify their language to engage all stakeholders. In situations where diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a sensitive topic, we should be bold and speak about economic development instead. In North Carolina, for example, health care was not the primary focus; instead, job creation was.
Legislative leaders must communicate assertively and consistently to demonstrate their unwavering commitment to serving their constituents to the best of their ability. By prioritizing clear and effective communication, lawmakers can ensure that their efforts produce meaningful rewards for the people they represent.