A Sidewalk Encounter
In 1987, I began my career as the first Black associate at the largest law firm in the Carolinas. Less than a month into the job, my wife and I were strolling along a sidewalk in a tony section of Charlotte when I noticed a young partner and his wife approaching us. Happy to have spotted a friend in my new hometown, I smiled and began to speak, but the man clutched his wife as both dropped their heads and scampered past. This maneuver stung but did not shock me. During my youth in North Carolina, college years at Duke and stint at Harvard Law, I learned to dismiss these reflexive white gymnastics as garden variety ignorance, rudeness or racism.
This time, however, it was not so easy to dismiss.
How Will Race Affect Our Chances?
As a young associate, my success at the law firm depended on being mentored and evaluated by this partner and his cohorts. It made me wonder what should I expect from the lawyers in the firm? What assumptions would they make about me? Could I expect fair evaluations or even a chance to prove myself? Could I expect the same opportunities as other associates? Ultimately, I was able to put those questions aside, master my craft, and succeed in corporate law. For more than three decades, I hadn’t thought much about my encounter with implicit bias on the Charlotte sidewalk. That is, until last week, when I realized that it encapsulated hard realities still faced by Black professionals — and might offer a way for those Dr. King called “people of goodwill” to help us build a better America for all.
White Americans often point to the Black professional class — doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, and money managers — as evidence that the American ideal of opportunity for all has been realized. The harder truth is that whatever success Black professionals enjoy comes despite the fact that most white Americans practice a kind of economic apartheid. They almost exclusively hire, retain, invest in, or do business with whites or others who are not Black. Rarely do they even consider doing business with a Black professional or Black-owned business. White Americans could help instantly by integrating their economic lives.
The Economic Apartheid Audit
I’ve begun asking white friends to conduct a personal economic apartheid audit by asking: what race is my doctor, lawyer, real estate agent, stock broker, insurance agent, and accountant? Most admit that the question had never occurred to them and that the answer in virtually every instance is not Black. I accept that my friends are not racists — nor outliers. To broaden the lens further, peruse the website pictures of the boards and senior management teams of America’s large corporations. I know what you will see. As the New York Times recently reported, there are no Black members in senior leadership at CVS, Bank of America, JPMorgan, or Wells Fargo. In technology, there are zero Black members of the senior leadership at Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon.
The effects of this economic apartheid ripple deeply through the Black community. According to Duke economist William “Sandy” Darity and co-author Kirsten Mullen in their recently published book, From Here to Equality, the median Black household has ten cents to every dollar of wealth that the typical white household holds ($17,600 vs. $171,000, respectively), and Black-white wealth disparities exist at every income and educational level. This injustice is only exacerbated by the realities of physical proximity — in modern American society, highly-educated Blacks and whites increasingly work and socialize together, and often live in the same neighborhoods. Yet the barriers to doing business together remain. Marvin Gaye said it best: What’s Going On? How can Black people achieve significant economic progress if those with ten times their wealth fail to do business with them?
The False “Short Supply” Narrative
Despite the popular narrative among white executives that there is a “short supply” problem, the reality is that the supply of well-educated, experienced Black professionals has never been greater. I was reminded of the pernicious effect of the short supply narrative when a panelist at a diversity conference, without a hint of irony, explained to a ballroom of over 400 Black corporate lawyers that her bank would love to retain Black lawyers, but just could not find them.
Our Power to Change
Fortunately, we come to a moment when we have the power to change. If economic apartheid practices result from unconscious behavior, the solution may be in conscious action. Through concerted effort, individuals can seek out and do business with Black professionals and Black-owned businesses, and in doing so, put an end to the stifling system of economic apartheid.
Below are resources to start you in identifying such professionals and companies:
Accountants — National Association of Black Accountants
Architects — National Organization of Minority Architects
Black Founders — The Definitive Guide to Investing in Black Founders
Dentists — National Dental Association
Financial Services — National Association of Securities Professionals
Investment Companies — National Association of Investment Companies
Physicians — National Medical Association
Real Estate Brokers — National Association of Real Estate Brokers
Suppliers — National Minority Supplier Development Council