We were just children in 1968 when the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy shattered our world.
It was then that the drumbeat, the commitment to equality and social justice, became firmly etched in our heads and our hearts, and it has remained there for the last 52 years.
Since then, we’ve worked, individually and collectively for a more just and peaceful world, seeing signs of progress as well as frequent setbacks.
Yet, the echoes of 1968 that we hear in the current protest movement are striking; the anger and rioting that King described so poignantly as “the language of the unheard.”
Today, two things have effectively coalesced to reinforce why we need comprehensive, holistic change if we are ever to achieve Kennedy and King’s visions of racial, economic and social justice.
The pandemic-induced public health crisis has put 40 million Americans out of work, a majority of whom are people of color. A recent study found that half of Black America is unemployed.
At the same time, the constant stream of unarmed Black people senselessly murdered by law enforcement has further illuminated the pervasive fear, violence and sense of hopeless anguish that is the reality of being Black in America today. Black and Brown Americans constitute an overwhelming percentage of the population in jails and prisons. But even if we fixed the criminal legal system overnight, without economic pathways for these communities to thrive, degradation will continue, unabated.
As King noted, “I cannot see how the Negro will totally be liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life.”
Relationships between Black communities and American financial institutions are terrible at best, with hurdles to access capital and credit, as well as major disparities in wages, positions of power, and pathways to success.
There is no quick fix, but several small actions together will drive substantive change.
The practice of “redlining” — explicitly excluding Blacks from owning homes in certain areas — began with the National Housing Act. The rate of Black home ownership — the greatest wealth creator for middle-class families — is lower today than when the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968.
Read:President Trump considers ending housing regulation that advocates say was created to combat racial segregation
Also:Black homeownership has declined since 2012 — here’s where Black households are most likely to be homeowners
The St. Louis Fed found that between 1992 and 2016, college-educated whites saw their net worth increase by 96%. Blacks saw their net worth decline by 10%.
Furthermore, as Robert Smith, the nation’s wealthiest Black investor, points out, of 4,700 banks in America, only 21 banks are Black-owned and led. Equally alarming, the total assets of Black-owned banks is $5 billion, less than 1% of the $20 trillion in total assets of all commercial banks in America.
Read Howard Gold:The racial wealth gap is at the heart of America’s inequality
In recent days, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Compass Investor Program has released concrete actions that the business community can take to better the lives of Black Americans.
They include asking investors to screen portfolios, across all asset classes, to eliminate and rectify injustices in their business models, products and practices that support a racist economic and legal system.
Companies should name more Black executives to boards and within investment communities. They should also allocate at least 5% of existing capital in investment funds to Black-owned firms and businesses.
Proactively supporting policy initiatives and campaigns working to dismantle racist practices and structures while supporting new systems that create positive change is essential.
Emulating work done recently at the University of Chicago, corporations, museums, colleges and institutions must re-analyze and re-design contracts, enabling more Black-owned businesses to compete in all departments.
Ariel Investments has made many of these commitments a cornerstone of its work. We sponsored the Ariel Community Academy on Chicago’s South Side with a program focusing on financial literacy, recruiting and hiring from historically Black colleges, encouraging companies to partner with Black-owned businesses, and pushing over 40 portfolio companies to hire Black leaders in the C-suite and on their boards.
Positive change comes not only from the top down, but the bottom up. The business community must also do a better job of getting close to distribution channels, so that the Black community can learn about finance. That means partnering with public schools, helping Black students to understand that careers in financial services are possible and available to them.
There is no quick fix, but several small actions together will drive substantive change. Kennedy knew this and stressed this in his now-famous “Mindless Menace of Violence” speech to the Cleveland City Club the day after King was killed. Kennedy addressed the violence of institutions, the “indifference and inaction and slow decay.”
“This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter,” he said.
“This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done.”
We make that same plea to the business and investment community today, and with more urgency than ever before.
Read:The racial wealth gap and other forms of inequality limit U.S. economic strength: Moody’s
Kerry Kennedy is the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an international social justice organization based in D.C. John Rogers, Jr., board member of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, is the founder, chairman, chief executive officer and chief investment officer of Ariel Investments.
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