My friend and colleague Brian Frederick referenced in his recent blog post the Racial Equity Institute (REI) “Groundwater” training session. I attended that powerful session as well, and I was struck by the questions it raised related to the growth and opportunity challenges we face. REI suggests, and indeed proves with a hefty catalog of research, that it is no coincidence that white people do better than black people in virtually every arena of American life. We use different language to describe disparities in each setting – the “achievement gap” in education, “health disparities” in health care, “disproportionate representation” in incarceration rates. But the trend is the same everywhere, and the words that best describe the real phenomenon are, sadly, “systemic racism.”
While some would like to believe that racism is a “Southern problem,” the data show otherwise. In my hometown of Akron, Ohio, black babies are twice as likely as white babies to be born very premature. Black children are three and a half times more likely than their white classmates to fall below 3rd grade reading proficiency levels. In adulthood, black people in Akron are three times more likely than whites to be on food stamps, and four and a half times more likely than whites to be incarcerated (Source: Fund for Our Economic Future). With numbers like these, the American Dream is literally just that – a dream, a fiction, anything but a reality – for a huge number of Americans.
I suspect Brian Frederick wished, as I did, that the REI training would give us the answers, would arm us with the “five simple steps to end systemic racism in your community.” Sadly, no such simple steps exist. On the contrary, our nation has some hard work ahead of it.
We need to start by seeing and acknowledging the systemic inequity that exists in every setting. Only after that honest reckoning can we begin to strategize on how we can create different, more equitable outcomes.
In the area of economic development and community building, we need to double down on a Growth & Opportunity agenda. This agenda begins with the premise that the only economic growth worth having is the kind that intentionally connects wealth and opportunity to all members of our community. When we truly embrace a Growth & Opportunity agenda, we will see the choices before us with new eyes. We will understand that some so-called “economic wins” only serve to exacerbate income inequality, overwhelmingly to the detriment of people of color. We will also see that we can be intentional about pursuing economic growth strategies that are structured around opportunity, and that by doing so, we will simultaneously construct future prosperity and deconstruct the systemic inequity that has plagued us for so long.
The challenge is daunting. But we have to start somewhere. Pursuing a true Growth & Opportunity agenda is as good a first step as any.