Systemic Racism, Your Business (Stephanie Jackson Commentary)

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If you’re doing business only to increase earnings, please stop here. Read no further.

This space will speak to a community of Arkansans who understand there’s collective benefit in ending systemic racism. How we do business represents who we are as a society — inextricably linked, as Martin Luther King Jr. said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I hope your mind is open, and that you’ll help us out of this centuries-old mess.

This is an Opinion

But what does enduring systemic racism have to do with you and your business? I need to answer this straightaway, sharing my expertise and, in this case, my heart with the business community.

When the United States forced the end of slavery, it intentionally reconstructed a country that held fast to the ideals of Blacks being less than equal. It instituted codes, polices and laws that kept Black Americans from obtaining the key to stability and wealth — capital.

While white Americans took advantage of government programs to acquire free land, Blacks were largely shut out. The federal government reneged on General Tecumseh Sherman’s Civil War plan to divide up plantations and give each freed slave “40 acres and (borrow) a mule” as reparations. Later, it explicitly tied mortgage eligibility to race—known as redlining—by refusing to insure mortgages in Black neighborhoods. The Federal Housing Administration backed $120 billion in home loans between 1934 and 1962. More than 98% went to whites.

The legacy of these devastating injustices is everywhere. You see it in health outcomes (look at the disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases and deaths), in our still segregated neighborhoods where Black-owned property is valued lower, in rates of home ownership, in gerrymandered electoral districts, in the criminal justice system, in how we unjustly finance public education. The system is plainly choking Black people but stifling economic growth as well.

The Pew Research Center reports that the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016. And the income gap between Blacks and whites is almost as bad as it was in 1970. But there’s more: You can’t separate high income inequality in the U.S. from low social mobility. This is antithetical to the ideals we believe in as Americans. John A. Powell, a widely recognized legal expert and professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, stated in the documentary “Race — The Power of an Illusion” that “The slick thing about whiteness is that whites are getting the spoils of a racist system even if they are not personally racist.”

So, what does all this have to do with your business? Systemic racism is still doing extreme harm to my community. But not discussed nearly enough is what it’s doing to this country overall. It’s a big factor in income inequality, which is suppressing growth in demand. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute warns that “inequality-induced drag on demand translates directly to slower economic growth overall.”

You can do something about it. We need Arkansas companies, hospitals and educational institutions to be a part of a pressure campaign on the government to collectively force a corrective course.

We need more people of color, Black women in particular, at the decision-making table, and they need to be heard. Listen to them. Take their recommendations. Invest in your community by supporting organizations working to narrow the education gap. A more educated population and workforce will pay off in economic productivity. Financially support the state’s historically black colleges and universities or HBCUs. Collectively, they produce more black doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals than predominantly white institutions. Force our lawmakers to pass hate crime legislation. Invest in economically depressed communities. And earnestly educate yourself about systemic racism and the contributions of Black people to the state of Arkansas and the nation.

Our nation is too big to fail

Stephanie Jackson is director of public and media relations at The Design Group, a full-service multicultural communications firm in Little Rock, and serves as communications director and spokesman in the Office of Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr.