The Cost of Color
For many years, I felt that the only color that mattered was green, as in money. I believed that providing the business case for diversity, equity, and inclusion would hasten not only economic but also racial progress. If hearts wouldn’t open fully, certainly, wallets would. If you could help people acquire more money legally and ethically, then skin color couldn’t really still matter, right? We had the Sixties and the sacrifices of the Greatest Black Generation. We have Oprah, Robert Smith, and local examples as well, so we must have overcome the stain of America’s original sin. Heck, we elected a black man President not once, but twice (although he didn’t come close to winning Louisiana either time).
Yet, recently after his two terms as Leader of the Free World, that same man, former President and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Barack Obama was compelled to write,
“ For millions … being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal.’ ”
I always knew that this was the case. My parents gave me the speech about working twice as hard to get half as far. My parents were not alone in giving that speech. My faith journey has allowed me to experience and express love across racial boundaries. Yet, as we work to safely reopen more of the local economy in the aftermath of the most consequential public health and economic crisis in nearly a century, we are not talking about green, but black and white.
A white knee on a black neck on the asphalt of an economically enviable city like Minneapolis.
Over the years, amid accumulating contradictory evidence, I held firm in my belief that black exceptionalism and focus on contributing economically, would kick open doors that moral persuasion did not. I believed that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King passed the baton to entrepreneurs like Dr. Trivia Frazier, Greg Tillery, and Sevetri Wilson, and their entrepreneurship would finally deliver the economic justice that Dr. King was seeking when assassinated.
More money, more jobs, fewer challenges of economic disadvantage, more visibility of black humanity. Perhaps, I should not have been so confident in the promise of green making black more acceptable on the color spectrum. As the events of this past week demonstrate in striking relief, I needed to ask different questions, “why must green replace black as the color that is seen first at all?” “Why can’t seeing black not cause toxic, and often fatal, responses?”
“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that at the dawning of the 20th Century and certainly, he was a man ahead of his time, but he still shouldn’t be right. This past week convincingly suggests that he is.
In Du Bois’ 20th Century, while A.G. Gaston, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, and Madam C.J. Walker built personal market-based entrepreneurial fortunes, Black Wall Street was destroyed in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida was burned to the ground.
So as an economic developer in a majority person of color city, where does that leave me? Where does it leave me when I am not wearing my bowtie, as a black man with three black children? In an America, where vastly different economic vulnerabilities were laid bare by COVID-19’s disparate racial impact, through Godly wisdom, I will find the words to tell our children.
To my children, my beloved ones, I’d say that I tried to move the needle, but I didn’t move it far enough. All white people are not racists, but there has been a permanence of racial hegemony that has affected our nation, placing black people at the bottom. Despite what the world tells you, you are the bottom to no one. You are God’s creation, like every other living being, fearfully and wonderfully made for a divine purpose. Yes, pursue entrepreneurship, yet recognize that your bank accounts and pedigrees might not be able to protect you from the enmity that your melanin arises in too many.
My children, it will be up to you to fully solve the problems of the 20th Century that have taken the breath of too many black people in this, your 21st. Rise above the madness of racial strife that threatens to choke out love. Never become numb or accept madness; rebuke it for the spirit of darkness that fuels it. Welcome engagement with others about race, although their words may not come out quite right. Don’t exhaust yourself by explaining your right to be black. Demand and create a new normal, yet don’t feel that you must do it alone.
American society’s inability to see black correctly has wrought untold economic losses. More tragically and far more importantly, it has extracted a far greater human toll. I believe that we can (and we must) end these losses now. If I lose something in this process, then so be it; I must try for my three children. I owe them that much.