Overcoming American Complacency

Can we use our country’s love of innovation to end racial inequality?

We often speak of America as a nation of dreamers and doers. We take great pride in our spirit of American Ingenuity and our ability to accomplish the impossible (see moonshots). Indeed, from the construction of Intercontinental Railroad to the release of the iPhone 7, Americans love to disrupt the status quo and break barriers in every sector — except on race relations.

Last month, Ta-Nehisi Coates called out Bernie Sanders for this very act, criticizing Sanders’s failure to use his “liberal imagination” and support racial reparations. Sanders supporters responded in an uproar:

“Ta-Nehisi Coates is making a mistake blaming Bernie Sanders for opposing the idea…The case for new reparations to African-Americans is weak” argued John McWhorter on CNN. “Coates’s latest attack on Sanders, and willingness to join the chorus of red-baiters, has convinced me that his particular brand of antiracism does more political harm than good,” added Cedric Johnson in Jacobin Magazine.

But what McWhorter, Johnson, and other detractors have missed is that Coates isn’t trying to crash Sanders campaign; he is trying to prevent Sanders from succumbing to the infamous legacy of American Complacency.

Mirroring our country’s long history of innovation in science, technology, and civics is a shameful record of complacency on racial inequality. From 1776-1865 while Americans were inventing electro-magnetic motors and submarines, they were also practicing torturous chattel slavery. Again from 1877 -1965, Americans built automobiles and constructed skyscrapers, all while quietly condoning lynching and Jim Crow.

Throughout history, American’s progressive spirit of innovation never stretched to include the creation of racial equality. And even when broad coalitions finally assembled to improve race relations, their most modest proposals were too radical, too fast, and too innovate for our country. This can be observed in the 1960’s with America’s reaction to the Civil Rights Movement.

‘In 1964, the American National Election Studies, as part of its biennial survey, began asking Americans whether they thought civil rights leaders “are trying to push too fast, are going too slowly, or are … moving about the right speed.” The responses are most telling. Among whites, 84 percent of Southerners, and 64 percent of non-Southerners, said that civil rights leaders were pushing too fast.’

From the 20th century’s Civil Rights activism to today’s Black Lives Matter Movement, Americans have constantly regarded racial inequality with measured complacency. Writers like Ta-Nehisi fight this notion, acting as gadflies encouraging politicians to think imaginatively about race. But even bold policy won’t be enough to overcome racism by itself. As Coates writes in The Case for Reparations, “…as surely as the creation of the [racial] wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.” Closing gaps in employment, housing, and education won’t only require action from policymakers — it will demand the efforts and ingenuity of leaders in the private sector as well.

America has the strongest, most innovative economy in the world. We invented everything from self-driving cars to the internet. So the question shouldn’t be if, but how our economy can be leveraged to create opportunity for the black community. But just like in politics, we hit a wall here. For not even the wunderkinds of the 21st century Innovation Economy can muster their imaginative powers on the issue of racial inclusion.

The technology sector hosts some of fastest growing, highest paying jobs in the United States. According to one article, “The average tech worker makes more than the median household income of a Black family and a Latino family combined.” And while, Black and Latino/a students earn 18% of computer science bachelor’s degrees, they only make up only about 5% of the tech workforce at the industry’s leading companies. Adding to this hiring discrimination against black computer scientist, technology investors also are also bias against black entrepreneurs, with only 1% of venture capital being invested in black startups.

Instead of tech leaders creating the new models for racial inclusion that America sorely needs, they’ve decided to embrace our country’s long history of discrimination, and they aren’t alone. The banking and mortgage industry fails to promote opportunity and equality too.

Banks have been discriminating against black homebuyers since the redlining of the 1940’s. When Blacks try and obtain homeownership, they are often rejected by a mortgage industry steeped in racism. The systematic bias has prevented generations of Blacks from leveraging real estate equity to pay off debt, finance college, and pass on wealth. For many black families, redlining ultimately prevented them from securing the American Dream. A 2013 study on housing discrimination in Baltimore illuminates the severity of the issue :

“[National Community Reinvestment Coalition] researchers found that African Americans received only 37 percent of the loans that they should have gotten considering their population size as compared with white borrowers, who obtained 210 percent of the loans considering their population share.”
“… As NCRC president John Taylor said of the report, “Until our financial institutions make a full and genuine commitment that creditworthy borrowers, regardless of their skin color, will be able to access responsible credit, the economies in these neighborhoods will continue to deteriorate, and we will continue to have the circumstances you see in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere.”
Maps highlighting housing discrimination in Baltimore City

From hiring to providing loans, racial discrimination runs rampant in the American economy. And when business leaders are confronted, how do they respond?

The answer: With complacency.

When tech companies were exposed for having abysmal diversity numbers, they didn’t reflect and return with innovate solutions. Instead, they defended racism under the guise of merit. They said things like:

“Diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar.” or “we’re interested in your students but only if they went to an Ivy League school….”

Laura Weidman Powers is the co-founder and CEO of CODE2040, a nonprofit that creates pathways to success in the innovation economy for Blacks and Latino/as. In a recent Fast Company article, she expounds on the thinking typical of many technologist.

“It is racist, for example, to approach a recruiting firm with the mandate to fill an engineering position only with someone from one particular Ivy League school, where blacks comprise a single-digit percentage of the student population. It is racist to rely on employee referrals for hires, when the typical social network of a white American is 1% black. And it is racist to impose standards of “culture fit” — the absurd notion that employees must behave (and sometimes appear) in a way that makes others feel comfortable — on job candidates.”

As Powers eloquently illuminates, these otherwise brilliant, progressive tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists regress to racist logic when time comes to hire and invest. And years later, and when their biases create overwhelmingly white, male companies and portfolios, they blame the education pipeline or create another excuse. Bankers and loan officers do the same, when they ascribe black families’ mortgage denials to “a lack credit worthiness” or “excessive neighborhood blight”. But try as they might, they cant hide their racism.

Far to often, these entrepreneurs and bankers fail to live up to our country’s ideals of equality and opportunity, and choose to embrace American Complacency. But why? It’s not the 1950’s. Open bigotry is no longer popular, nor the law of the land. Loan officers and employers know that prejudice is wrong, and if you asked them they would heartily denounce racism. So why do they continue to advance it? If these private sector leaders can have the courage to dream up wondrous tech gadgets and bold financing models, then shouldn’t they apply their ingenuity to important things like racial inclusion?

This last question is essentially what Ta-Nehisi was asking of Bernie last month. Coates wants Sanders to understand the scope of racism and white supremacy so he can create proportional policy solutions to address it. Abolitionists expected this of President Lincoln. Civil rights leaders expected this of President Johnson. And Black Lives Matters protesters and intellectuals expect this of Sanders and other presidential candidates today.

The task of creating racial equality extends to the private sector too. Just as activists, writers, and voters have done with government, our communities must unite and start asking more of business leaders as well:

How can inclusive tech hiring help grow the black middle class? How can banks use innovative financing to support black homeownership and fight blight and gentrification? How can agribusinesses and grocers address food insecurity in the black inner city? What can education companies do to address the racial educational achievement gap?

These questions are tough, but with stark racial inequality persisting 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, their answers are long overdue.

Today, 25% of Black families live in poverty and Black unemployment is double the national average. With such odds, it is hard to say exactly what kind of new policy and business solutions will be sufficient to close the racial wealth gap. But what’s clear is the worthwhile solutions will only start to emerge after we shed our complacency and begin applying the imaginative, innovative thinking of American Ingenuity to the impoverished, black communities that need it the most.

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