NAACP virtual town hall: Local, state and federal leaders say communities of color need more assistance

One PA Operations Director Steve Paul, state Sen. Christine Tartaglione, Minister Rodney Muhammad, NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference President Kenneth Huston and state Sen. Vincent Hughes participated in the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference virtual town hall Thursday (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Samaria Bailey

PHILADELPHIA — Communities of color will require more funding and assistance to address the socio-economic and health disparities exposed by coronavirus, local, state and federal leaders said in a NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference virtual town hall this week.

The town hall was the third in a four-part series that the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference has organized to discuss COVID-19’s impact on communities of color. Speakers included U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-1st District; Democratic state Sens. Vincent Hughes and Christine Tartaglione, and Steve Paul, Director of Operations for One Pennsylvania – Action Network.

“The [coronavirus] is…exposing what we already know and it’s just shedding a light,” said Kenneth Huston, president of the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference. “Unfortunately, it had to take COVID-19 to shock the conscious of people around this nation.”

Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and chairman of Labor & Industry for NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, moderated the discussion. He started by asking if current policy “errors” could force the country into a deeper recession and if the country is “still in deep trouble despite the economic relief we have already received?”

“Yes, unfortunately,” replied Congressman Boyle, who said he was on his way to Washington while on the call.

“I’m driving to D.C. to make sure I’m here for that vote where we will be voting on a plan crafted by the House democrats… a $3 trillion stimulus bill — the largest in American history. We absolutely need more help from Washington D.C. … For those who make under $40,000 a year, the unemployment rate is 40 percent. How can anyone look at that reality and say we can’t do more stimulus? The bottom line is we absolutely need it. [President Donald] Trump and [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell are dead wrong and the statistics make that obvious.”

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More than 1.85 million people have filed unemployment claims in Pennsylvania since March 15.

“In the last 20 years, the most we ever had in one year was 960,000,” Tartaglione said. “I can say that, without reservation, many are Black and brown people.”

Boyle said that’s because “essential workers disproportionately tend to be Black and brown people. That’s where you find the link between systemic racism and policies.”

Hughes said he and other legislators are working on a plan that would address the disparities.

“Congress just sent $2 trillion across the country. Each state received some discretionary dollars. Pennsylvania got $4 billion,” Hughes said. “We decided to put a plan together to get the conversation started. It’s called PA CARES.”

Hughes added that the plan, which includes hazard pay and paid time off, calls for funds to be “driven to front-line workers, first responders, individuals who are nurses, bus drivers, work in food service…individuals who run to the fire. Our plan is driven by folks who have been [hit] the most — seniors, first responders and the Black and brown community. Black and brown [people] have borne an unfair burden in this disease.”

Hughes said Black and brown business owners “have been locked out of the first money,” but in this PA CARES plan, “they get put at the front of the line to get this new money.”

Hughes reiterated that the plan “will have to be agreed to, we need a spirit of cooperation.”

Paul said that’s why it’s important that people vote in this year’s elections.

“Our society has been facing those issues. [Structural racism] will simply not go away because COVID-19 goes away, especially if elected officials don’t act in a way to put in bold policies that attack some of those issues,” he said.

“It’s… important to have folks on the front line, in the House and Senate who are speaking to these issues. This is a moment, that, two years ago people said if you flip a burger, deliver pizza…bag groceries, [you’re] not important. Now everyone is saying these folks are super important. This is an opportunity to put in longer term policies and legislation to give them $15 an hour.”

The state Legislature hasn’t passed a minimum wage bill since 2006. The current wage is $7.25 per hour.

“Minimum wages in all the states around Pennsylvania are higher. Some have changed it twice already,” Tartaglione said. “We have not been able to do that yet.”

The leaders also talked about paid sick leave.

Paid sick leave currently only extends to someone with COVID-19 or those who are caring for someone who has it.

“We are the only industrialized country in the world that does not have paid sick leave. We are looked at as barbaric,” Boyle said. “I believe it’s a matter of morality… It’s a matter of ethics. Just as a matter of health, for every single individual, it’s vital we ensure all workers have paid sick leave because it will affect the health of all of us.”

Hughes noted that the political party that has the majority in the state Legislature and in Congress controls what legislation moves and passes at each level.

Republicans make up the majority of both houses of the Pennsylvania Legislature. They also make up the majority of the U.S. Senate.

“Worker protections cannot move because they don’t want it to move,” Hughes said. “What we really need in place is a Marshall Plan that ripples down. COVID-19 exposed the cracks…they are huge and the only way you deal with that is a giant investment in the people.”

The Marshall Plan provided $12 billion (the equivalent of $128 billion now) to European countries to rebuild after World War II, as long as they developed programs for using the money. The plan, developed by then Secretary of State George Marshall, was based on the idea that European recovery would lead to political stability in each nation and on the continent as a whole, which would contribute to global stability.

“Black and brown front-line workers — the rich and wealthy are depending on them right now. Maybe the good Lord will put some wisdom in them, but it won’t happen unless we demand it,” he said.

Muhammad agreed.

“If we (African-American community) keep asking the government for more and more, it’s likely to seem like that we are asking for more and doing little with what we are getting. It doesn’t mean it is that,” he said. “We’ve never gotten the sum to match the condition we were put in, when you talk about people working 400 years with no paycheck…we’ll never catch up and repair the real damage. We are not asking for a handout but a handover, what you owe us.”

Samaria Bailey is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.