Selling Black People on The Infrastructure Act ... as It Goes State & Local

Communities must guard against the defeatist notion that they'll get nothing out of it .... but, everyone must play an intense messaging game as those dollars circulate to states & cities

Joint Composition | Charles Ellison & Dr. G.S. Potter

Ellison

As President Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law on Monday, it struck us as odd that White House administration officials and Democratic lawmakers were all crowded up around the South Lawn celebrating its final passage. Why? Because most of the American public still doesn't know what's in this bill and most folks - especially Black communities hit hardest by infrastructure failures, historical redlining and environmental injustice - have no idea how this benefits them directly.

What administration officials and Democratic policymakers on the state, local and federal level should have done, instead, is be on the trail. Bad enough this week’s news cycle is overcrowded with media obsession over all things Trump, including the legal troubles of his cronies. Hence, as Biden officially signed the Act with pen in hand, state, local and federal Democratic policymakers should have been - simultaneously - back in their districts or on the phone or Zoom or all of the above talking to every constituent group and local media outlet they could secure to explain 1) how these dollars benefit their communities and 2) how now is the time for constituents and residents to put pressure on their state legislators and local to county level officials to monitor the flow of these dollars and make sure they are channeled into distressed communities that need them the most.

While, yes, some decisions have been made about how this massive $1.2 trillion investment will be spent, much of the money at the moment is segmented into buckets of priorities that will now trickle into very intricate processes determined by state and local lawmakers in countless jurisdictions. We need to follow that money.

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Yet, the conversation in Black communities on this infrastructure law right now is: What does this have to do with me? Added to that is: We elected President Biden and nothing is in this bill for us, all the money is going to White folks and their businesses, Black businesses and contractors won't be seeing this money and there will be very few Black people seen on construction projects. That's, literally, the conversation unfolding in Black communities right now on the grassroots level as Democrats are celebrating in the White House and sharing selfies with fellow lawmakers on social media as they took bus trips from Capitol Hill to the signing ceremony. 

They need to get serious and hit the ground running because as far as their Black constituents are concerned, this law and its money are dead on arrival.

That's a failure in both messaging and civics. The messaging is still unclear about what exactly these dollars are being allocated for that could directly benefit these communities. The civics has failed because many in distressed, disenfranchised and jaded Black communities don't know or understand that the real work starts where they - as constituents and residents in their jurisdictions - now need to 1) know how much money is coming to their state, city and county and 2) put serious and aggressive pressure on their state and local elected officials to make sure that those dollars are being funneled equitably through grants and the contracting and procurement process.  No: not every cent of the money will go "to the White folks" .... but, it certainly will if we're throwing our hands up and failing to track it and making sure our elected officials are fighting for our interests to ensure the money arrives in our neighborhoods. 

It will be extremely important for residents to start calling, letter writing and, literally, bugging their elected officials about this. The Congressional Black Caucus should have already telegraphed this to their colleagues on the state and local level. Key organizations like the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (which is busy promoting yet another Annual Meeting) have yet to put out a statement or a plan for how it’s deploying its Members (nearly 700 Black state legislators, many who lead committees) to identify those dollars. Neither did the African American Mayors Association. Instead, it’s all platitudes and photo-ops ….

We need comprehensive plans.

So-called activists must start being aggressive advocates for these dollars by organizing the community and speaking on their behalf. We need everyone from Black churches to community groups to the local branches of major organizations like the NAACP, the National Action Network and the National Urban League to be put on notice that we need them to do this work and to hound elected leaders for these dollars. Organizations like the Urban League which focus on economic development need to activate their chapters to provide 1) advocacy for local infrastructure dollars and 2) technical assistance to Black businesses and non-profits on how they can secure that money for community projects. The race begins now ... and Black elected officials, along with Democratic leaders and President Biden need to seriously do the follow up if they want to energize these important base communities in 2022. This is not business as usual. These are dangerous, uncertain times plagued by an open-season surge of racism, pandemic and inflationary pressures. Do what you were elected to do: Follow up and step up.

Potter

The Democrats don’t just have a messaging problem. They are all but completely lacking a strategic infrastructure that can carry their message to Black communities – even if it doesn’t suck.   

You hit on many of the key problems with the current Democratic plan. They need better messaging. They need to be speaking through the media channels that Black people communicate through. Democrats need to ensure that Black businesses are securing the contracts attached to the infrastructure plan, and those dollars need to be monitored carefully. Community organizations need to be involved, and I would add that the Democratic Party must use voting wards and precincts in low-income Black communities as central hubs for information distribution, support, and voter mobilization. But first they need to start with better messaging. 

It’s not enough to hand out a few lines of rhetoric designed to appeal to, or at least not offend, every type of Democrat in the tent.  Democratic communication strategists need to tailor their messaging to specific communities, and help them understand how the infrastructure act works for them specifically. And that’s pretty easy to do.   

Broadband

Take, for example, the fact that the infrastructure plan is going to provide $65 billion for broadband and $14 billion is specifically dedicated to reducing internet bills for low-income citizens.  What does that have to do with Black folks? According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies

34 percent of Black adults do not have home broadband, and 30.6 percent of Black households with one or more children age 17 or younger lack high-speed home internet (over 3.25 million Black children live in these households)

Letting Black communities know directly that the infrastructure bill is going to bring Internet access to their homes and neighborhoods obviously serves both those communities and the Democratic party well. 

Water

Water infrastructure can also be re-messaged in a similar fashion.  The infrastructure plan calls for $55 billion for water infrastructure.  Forbes recently reported …

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data from 2016-2019 reveals that public water systems that constantly violate the Safe Drinking Water Act are 40 percent more likely to serve people of color, and take longer to come back into compliance among communities of color. According to the SOURCE Global PBC survey, 43 percent of white Americans say that they are “very confident” in their tap water, while only 24 percent of Black Americans, and 19% of Hispanic Americans indicate the same degree of confidence.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to target communities without access to clean drinking water to tell them that it is coming.  And it’s coming courtesy of the Democratic Party.   

Public Transit

And it’s the same with the $39 billion for public transit that’s part of the infrastructure bill.  An estimated 34 percent of Black people nationwide ride public transportation daily or weekly, and 23 percent of Black workers rely on public transportation.  Letting these folks know that more bus routes, more frequent access, and more comfortable and convenient vehicles would be on their way courtesy of the Democratic party would help them out a lot more than appearing on MSNBC and just saying there will be more money for public transportation.   

Talk to Black Media

But even with the best messaging, it won’t reach the people it needs to reach if it’s being communicated through the wrong channels.  Despite loss after loss, Democrats continue to rely on a communications strategy rooted in messaging through large scale national media outlets like CNN and MSNBC.  That’s fine if you want to reach a few middle class White people (many of whom have already made up their minds that their not voting for you because you are the Party of Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian people).  But this kind of top to bottom, trickle down messaging does not make it to the low income communities of color that need to hear it most.   

Sure, MSNBC boasts fifteen times more Black viewers than FOX News, but that’s still only 469,000 Black viewers. The Black community is 42 million people strong.  

The Democrats really need to start leaning into local media outlets, especially Black-owned and Black-oriented news outlets. And those same outlets need to ask Democrats, especially state and local legislators, tough questions about what they’re doing to secure those Infrastructure Act funds. That means they start paying for advertisements in Black newspapers and on Black radio stations.  They must stop pretending that talking is all there is to communications.  This is where the local voting wards and precincts come in.   

Localizing It

The Democrats need to place local voting wards and precincts as the cornerstone of both their messaging and organizing strategies.  

National, state level, and even city level communications strategies won’t be enough to reach low-income Black folks. These individuals and families are pigeonholed into specific communities where they are further isolated and disenfranchised.  These are the communities that must be reached.  Tapping them by their voting wards and precincts will not only help the Democrats get the message out, but it will help them form a communications strategy that is inherently designed to mobilize new voters.   

Take Philadelphia.  It has a Black population of nearly 44 percent.  The turnout rate in the most recent election was under 22 percent.  If that isn’t abysmal enough, if we take a closer look, we see that low income-Black communities were all but completely disenfranchised.  In Ward 7, for example, the voter turnout rate was only 5.88 percent.  In Ward 3, it was only 6.98 percent.  The low income people in these wards are exactly who needs to hear that help is coming and that the Democrats are going to do the work to make sure they benefit from it.

Fortunately, there is already a structure to do that.   

In Philadelphia, while the city organizes ward leaders and their committee members, it’s the political parties that are responsible for fundraising for the activities of these workers and volunteers.  This is why we see wealthy wards with websites, social media pages, fundraising events, educational resources, signs, flyers, ballot boxes and high turnout rates.  And this is also why we see low-income wards with nothing.   

Messaging alone won’t bring low income Black voters out to vote.  They need ward offices to serve as the locations where they can get help signing up for their low-cost Internet service.  It is where they need to find resources for clean water and public transportation information. It is where they should have been able to go for pandemic relief and rental assistance.  Local HQ’s for the Democratic party need to get out the message by securing those now famous “tangibles” for low-income Black community members.  And using wards as the focus of those efforts will help the community connect with the resources they need while simultaneously building the support systems necessary to help them get out to vote.   

Community organizations that are located within these wards also need to be prioritized in these efforts.  National level organizations and their local chapters absolutely need to be engaged, but again a stronger focus needs to be on the grassroots community organizations doing the work in these wards and precincts already.  Democrats need to outreach to these organizations and offer them the resources and support needed for them to also help their community members connect to the resources that will be offered through the infrastructure act.  The Democrats should be offering resources and support to local organizations to help their own patrons connect to the benefits of the infrastructure act. Doing so will not only help the Democrats spread their message more effectively, but it will build the infrastructure necessary to ensure that these wards continue to be politically engaged beyond the infrastructure efforts.   

In addition to mobilizing Black individual individuals and families to reap the benefits of the infrastructure plan, the Democrats need to actively begin identifying and registering Black businesses to receive the contracts and grants that will be made available through the act. You’re right: The community is already grumbling about how all of the money is going to go to White businesses.  We’ve seen it time and time again. Just allowing nature to take it’s course is not going to fix this problem. Active measures must be taken to ensure that Black businesses are front and center.  Creating national, state, and local committees charged with identifying qualified Black businesses in order to connect them with contract and funding opportunities would be a strong start.  

Finally, these efforts need to come with some teeth. Black communities know that just because federal legislation is signed doesn’t mean it will be upheld or effecting. HBCUs in Tennessee and Maryland, for example, recently won lawsuits against the state for refusing to provide them with funds that had been legislatively allocated to them. The vast majority of rental assistance that was supposed to reach renters in need because of the pandemic still hasn’t made it to them. There is very little trust that resources from the infrastructure act will be properly doled out even if it did pass the Senate.  You’re spot on about the need to trace every dollar and make sure it is getting to the people that need it.  We also need to have strategists and lawyers ready for when the GOP\Confederates attempt to gum up the works or reallocate the money to line their own pockets.   

In other words, the Democrats need to completely overhaul literally everything they are doing in terms of communication. They need to attach it to resource distribution and voter mobilization in low income communities of color.  And to do that they need to organize through low income voter wards and precincts, in alliance with local community organizations.  Democrats need to proactively strategize to connect Black businesses with contracts and opportunities provided through the infrastructure bill and they need to protect us from adversarial efforts to stop it.

They need to communicate through doing, not just saying.  And when they do communicate, it needs to be through the channels that distressed and disenfranchised Black people communicate through.  Middle class White strategists probably aren’t going to know how to get this done, either, so maybe hiring some strategists of color from the field would help them, too.  It’s going to take some work to overhaul their approach.  But if they do, the Democrats will be able to connect communities of color, especially Black communities, to the opportunities provided by the infrastructure act, and they will be able to build an electorate that is more reflective of their true base.