Systemic inequality is leaving trillions on the table

Many of us will take a moment over Thanksgiving to give thanks for our good fortune, however small or great. My sincere hope for those who read this is that the words of the women I interviewed, when combined with some of the facts laid before you, help to inspire how we think about ourselves and each other in a society that has huge promise but kneecaps itself by failing to fully reckon with its systemic racism.

Racism is not cheap.

When it doesn’t cost a person of color their life, it exacts tolls in other ways. For those outside the protection of their whiteness, those tolls are collected on a seemingly endless highway of hate and prejudice that goes back hundreds of years in America, where dimly lit off ramps are often a mirage and if not, amount to a circuitous detour beating ever back to this ugly thoroughfare.  

To admit that racism and its institutionalized form—white supremacy—are as much a part of our collective story as they have ever been, we are telling ourselves a truth. No matter how maligned this reality may be by those who are blinded by ignorance or cynicism, or both, the fact of the matter is the cost of racism comes at a high price that everyone—and that means everyone—pays one way or another.

Financial giant Citigroup released a study last year assessing just how much racism costs Americans. In 20 years, the study found, $16 trillion was lost in the country’s gross domestic product due to this illiberalism. And as news articles put into perspective when discussing the report last fall, the United States’ GDP in 2019—$19.5 trillion—was only slightly higher than what this discrimination cost for two decades.

A million dollars is hard to imagine, and the mind boggles when it tries to conjure what a trillion individual pieces of paper might really look like in the cold light of day. Compound that 10 or more times and, well, forget it. It’s not something that most of us could visualize with any sort of real accuracy.

What is far more tangible, however, is to imagine the ways in which that $16 trillion could have been spent, or better yet, invested for future returns for the wealth of our entire nation and all its people.

For weeks, the U.S. government has worked itself into a lather as it seeks to stave off default on its debt—about $28 trillion—while also bitterly debating how President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan should be allocated.

The infrastructure price tag waffled in negotiations, hovering at times between $1 and $3 trillion, which even at the high end is still a small fraction of what racism forces to evaporate into thin air. That evaporation, for those who are not clear, comes courtesy of America’s plague of discriminatory lending practices, unequal access to higher education and housing, as well as wages it squanders because those in positions to hire are too often unwilling to pay the actual value of a person’s labor.

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a new round of widespread grappling with this nation’s original sin of treating Black lives as disposable for reasons that cannot, ever, in good faith, be rationalized.

The sweeping movement in some cases prompted and in others reignited a conversation about how our nation functions on separate tracks when racism leaves its rotten thumb on the scale.

The response by corporate America, namely its top 50 largest companies, was to trot out somber messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and vow contributions in dollars and cents to help stem an unceasing tide of inequity.

But as The Washington Post revealed in August, of the nearly $50 billion committed by so-called titans of industry, most of the donations (about $45 billion) came in the form of “loans or investments they could profit from, more than half in the form of mortgages.”

A corporation’s virtue can be debated if one wishes to expend energy on such endeavors, but in real-world practice, there is no virtue present when people of color in the workplace, on average, continue to earn less than their white counterparts for the same work, or are promoted less often and as a result, have less disposable income to pump back into the economy.

No amount of bootstrapping or using one’s own interminable will to escape the bonds of mediocrity at best or abject poverty at worst can suffice for huge swaths of this nation where racial barriers are baked in.

It’s not to say ambition can’t overcome odds when stacked against a person. But the exception is not the rule and this has born itself out: Social mobility has declined in the U.S., and the wealth gap between the richest Americans, the middle class, and the poor continues to widen.

In terms of violence, Black men are at the highest risk of being killed by police of all other racial and ethnic groups in this, the “land of the free.” As for Black women, while they make up 13% of all women in America, they comprise 20% of women killed by police and are killed more often than any other race of women in the U.S.

Then there is the violence transgender and nongender-conforming people of color face. The Human Rights Campaign reported that 37 transgender and nongender-conforming people were killed violently last year, but with widespread underreporting by law enforcement and an incomplete survey of the trans and nonbinary population overall, of the estimated 1.5 million people who make up this segment of the population, how can one actually say what the true numbers are?  

If the grim immorality of this violence is not sufficient cause for concern, in the crassest of terms, need we really remind ourselves that a dead person spends nothing and contributes nothing to the hallowed American economy?

In an interview about the role racism plays in our economy, Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew, a consultant, author, and vice president of strategic affairs for the State Fair of Texas said: “People of color are limited from the opportunity to fully engage, create, and make an impact within organizations and corporations.”

“Biased thinking along with systems that create obstacles limit people of color from showing up in the totality of who they are … Companies are not benefiting from the intellect, experience, and innovation when we do not allow access and availability to opportunities for involvement and leadership,” she said.

Where some may rely on racist caricatures or tropes to justify this debarment, the truth is, it’s not rocket science, it’s institutionalized racism with its gaping maw eating a little more each day into the nation’s mutual prosperity and its potential.

Consider this: Black women alone represent 60% of the nation’s labor force. In just the 20 years since the U.S. left that aforementioned $16 trillion in GDP on the table, Black women have persevered to become more educated. And yet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, as a group, they remain more likely to stagnate in poverty than all other racial groups, save for Indigenous women.

Despite being more educated, harder-working, and even representing a greater share of the labor force, racism has still left Black women to be promoted only 58% of the time, though they’re seeking promotions at the same rate as white men.

And the higher up the corporate chain one goes, the fewer people of color one sees.

To wit, the Institute for Women’s Policy research found Black women make up just 1.6% of corporate vice presidents and 1.4% of C-suite executives. White men, however, comprise 57% and 68% of those same positions.  

The Federal Reserve’s triannual survey of consumer finances found at its last count in 2019 that Black families have less than 15% of the wealth white families do. The Economic Policy Institute reported 19% of all Black households have no net worth at all, or find themselves in the negative, where, comparatively, just 9% of white families are as poor.

“There have been conversations regarding the role of reparations in making the playing field level. No matter what side of the fence you may be on regarding this conversation, I think it’s important to explore what true investment looks like to make things equitable,” Booker-Drew said.

“Solving these very complicated issues can’t be addressed solely by those in power because they are often disconnected from what’s going on. They make decisions based on their limited experiences and intel from their homogenous networks. For true change to occur, the people most impacted must be involved, at the table, and given the opportunity to speak into the process and decision-making on what happens,” she said.

Dr. Renee Carr, a political and corporate adviser, was reminded of the Seligman Theory of “learned helplessness” when discussing the state of play for many people of color in a nation that has yet to reconcile its institutionalized racism.

In 1965, American psychologist Martin Seligman tested the bounds of classical conditioning with dogs by ringing a bell and then lightly shocking them. As the dogs were shocked again and again at the sound of the bell, Seligman eventually found that even when the bell would sound and no shock was delivered, the dogs nonetheless reacted as if they had been shocked.

Seligman then put those same dogs into cages evenly divided by a low, easily scalable fence running down the middle where one side of the floor was electrified and the other was not. When Seligman shocked the cage, he found the dogs would simply give up and lay down instead of jumping the fence to escape.

Seligman tried the crate experiment with dogs that had not been conditioned by the bell test.

Those dogs jumped, without hesitation, to the safe side of the crate.

“That’s how it is in our system for people of color,” Carr said. “You can only get shocked so many times. You do your best, no promotion. Or you do your best, you still get fired. You try to do your best and you still don’t get scholarships or you or your family still can’t afford college or, even when you get in, once you get out, even if you are the best in your class, you’re still overlooked more often for your white counterparts.”

“You aren’t given a fair chance to succeed. And not only does it impact the individual person, leaving them to feel hopeless, then it makes that person feel that not only can they not change their situation but now, there are forces working against them collaboratively to prevent them from ever becoming successful,” Carr said.

The oppression becomes internal as well as external.

“It leads people to think that ‘No matter what I do, people are trying to stop me from being successful’ and we have tangible proof of that for generations,” she added.

That emotion is attached to depression, lack of energy and motivation, which in turn can lead to things like alcohol and drug abuse and domestic abuse.

And no amount of tokenism of people of color, be it in the labor force or in academia, will resolve these forms of oppression because the root causes remain unaddressed. Even when Black boys, for example, are seemingly given a head start by merely being born into the middle or upper class, they are still less likely to stay in that echelon than their white counterparts.

Afeni, a core organizer for Freedom Fighters D.C., a largely Black-led group of abolitionists and organizers, believes that despite these barriers, there is a path forward to reconciling America’s racism and its pattern of exploitation.

But it will involve, first, a “focus on mental health and the mental health structure of this country,” she said, as well as an investment in a “full and deep education and educational history on what this country has done.”

“If we actually talk about the atrocities that the U.S. military or the CIA, for example, have waged against Black and brown people, or in Black or brown countries, if we talk about all of the different types of violence … All these different things that attribute to a lot of conservative white people’s exceptional view of this country because they have really drank the Kool-aid of American propaganda—if we really tell the full history of this country and counteract it by actually being honest about how these systems infect us today and the ways they show up in our institutions, then we can break down those barriers,” she said.

This starts with white people talking about race plainly.

“As a Black person, I talk about race every day because my race and identity affects my experience in this country and because white people are living in a usually unbothered experience, they don’t have to realize the role they play in upholding white supremacy or their role in upholding the racist institutions of this country,” she added.

Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew emphasized that having conversations about two very sensitive things, like money and race, means that trust must be at the fore.

“Trust only comes when we create the space to be proximate to others, that we spend time learning and listening,” she said. “It’s hard to have these very difficult conversations without knowing that you are heard. So often, when I’m in meetings, some white people become defensive. Instead of truly listening, they are spending more time justifying their positions.”

It’s deeper listening plus an “unlearning of so much of what has been taught,” Booker-Drew said, as well as a willingness to recognize that you may not know something or have the answer, is integral.

“As much as we talk about vulnerability, it’s not something that is really a part of our culture in America. We see vulnerability as a weakness and right now, our lack of honesty and transparency by covering up these issues is causing harm … We must change the paradigm from ‘someone wins and another loses.’ When we are all successful, there can be a benefit for everyone,” she said.

Dr. Renee Carr advocates for recognizing that at the core, “everyone is trying to survive and live their most adequate life” and that starting with genuinely internalizing this concept may also, in turn, help “take the sting off white people,” who might immediately shut down a conversation about inequity before it even begins because they fear that even discussing race implies something nefarious.

“Recognize that talking about race does not mean you are a racist. If we just talk about it, we can come to understand what each person is experiencing, what each race is experiencing and then learning from each other from a human perspective,” Carr said.

If we are only fixing the surface of economic inequalities and not addressing the root problems, like the “historical blind eye and deaf ear to the practices that make unemployment, underemployment and underpay of Black persons common,” she said, “then we will only continue to see the voices and actions of social unrest amplified.”

Booker-Drew underlined that Americans may not realize the role social networks and social capital have in the role of inequity and racism.

“We don’t realize the role of relationships on the job especially when it comes to advancement and the role of mentors and sponsors. If senior leadership at a company is primarily white and male, what does that mean for a person of color to have access to be mentored or coached if it isn’t a priority of the leader to do this?” she said. “I don’t think people understand that these relationships have a direct impact on your ability to move up in a company.  The list goes on and on … whether it is with your neighbors, the folks you shop with, et cetera. If my network looks just like me, my ability to understand you or even advocate for you will be limited if you are different.”

While no fault can be found in connecting to people similar to ourselves, she noted, change means there must be an “intentionality” to connect to people different than ourselves.

“Especially for those in a position of power or with privilege … Allies are important but, at this moment, we need co-conspirators. We need folks who are willing to get deep in this and get dirty to address racism—in themselves and others,” she said.

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