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A Black Exec Does the Math

Life is profoundly different for Black folks in America.

Unbeknownst to too many of our white fellow citizens, neighbors, colleagues, friends and family members, living under the weight of race in our society is a vastly different and challenging experience. 

For African Americans to "make it" here, despite the profoundly disenfranchising barriers that we’ve faced, means that ours is actually a contrasting experience to that of the popular perception: far from African-Americans being disproportionately unsuccessful in our country, I’ll assert that our very existence today attests to the reality that resilience is our superpower.

As the The New York Times chronicled so brilliantly recently in its award-winning series 1619, Black people have been in this country for four centuries now and we’ve also had to live with and triumph over an astonishingly broad and deep set of structural barriers to stay here.

What do I mean?

Let’s let the math establish the point: 

  • Africans were brought here in chains in 1619, an enslavement that officially lasted almost a quarter-millennium (i.e., 246 years).
  • After the Civil War, we were briefly free during the Reconstruction, which ended after only a dozen years, but can be rightly remembered as a time when the formerly enslaved demonstrated great promise and leadership in our society.
  • After the Compromise of 1877, we were plunged into a legal apartheid, which was the reality of Jim Crow for African Americans, that lasted for almost another 88 years.
    • Here’s the math: using the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the official end of Jim Crow, that’s 246 years of slavery plus 88 years of legal apartheid, which equals 334 years of utter disenfranchisement during the 401 years of our residence (or 83% of our time) here in America.

Why does this matter?

Because no matter how successful African Americans are, because of the continuing ubiquity and perniciousness of race in our society, we are still not fully free. Even now, we fight to be accepted—let alone to be embraced and included—in domains of our society that have long been disproportionately and purposely exclusionary. Should anyone doubt this, take a moment to reflect on the utter lack of diversity in our shared advisory profession.

To drive the point a bit further, consider:

  • As Harvard Prof. Khalil Gibran Muhammad illustrates so powerfully in his book The Condemnation of Blackness, appearing within a mere dozen years or so after the institution of Jim Crow, a particularly ruinous component of the social control to which Blacks were subject was the creation of the myth of their proclivity to moral depravity and criminality, a demonstrable falsehood that lingers to this day.
  • Even worse, this false and demeaning "reputation" has morphed into public policy in the 20th and 21st centuries, as Prof. Michelle Alexander has pointed out so brilliantly in her book The New Jim Crow, which recounts how African Americans (especially males) have been proactively targeted and disenfranchised by their own government and a racist criminal justice system, a phenomenon we’ve come to call mass incarceration.
  • Economically, Blacks have been consistently disenfranchised by racist policies enacted and enforced by the U.S. government in partnership with private actors in myriad industries. Among the most unconscionable has been the actions of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and its affiliates, which have repeatedly and proactively denied African Americans access to decent housing and the financing to procure such while cravenly confining them to deteriorating ghettos crafted specifically to contain them and create residential segregation throughout the country, often where it didn’t exist previously. Didn’t realize this or still struggling to believe it? Read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law; this will clear it up for you in depressingly thorough detail.

As I hope you realize and agree, life is profoundly different for Black folks in America, even today and even for the "good" or successful ones. As African Americans, every day, in ways both large and small, and no matter who we are, we fight the hidden battle against race and racism in our society. Every day we must overcome the Black Disadvantage that’s the decidedly lesser flip side of White Privilege. Every day we fight for our lives to matter … and if you think about this aspiration, isn’t "matter" a minimum?

This is the reality of race in America as we live it today and it is what we’re trying to change. This is the kind of negativity that lowers us all (both socially and economically as the economist Heather McGhee’s research has shown). This is the (scientifically illegitimate but socially prohibitive) barrier between us and the opportunity to experience America fully. This is the cause with which we ask you to engage fully, the eradication of Difference as a delineator of the dominant.

P.S. Though I’ve grounded this piece in the reality of race and racism as I and others have experienced and lived it here in America, I’m just as passionate about and committed to the eradication of all the other -isms that continue to plague our society and world. I pray that we are just as successful at eradicating sexism, heterosexism, religiocentrism, classism, xenophobia and all of the other false frames of mind that prevent us from engaging, embracing and celebrating the glorious diversity and idiosyncrasy that make us all unique. And when we achieve this goal, we’ll finally have realized the promise on which this country is ostensibly founded. Then, truly, we’ll all be able to experience life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Walter K. Booker is the chief operating officer of MarketCounsel, a business and regulatory compliance consultancy for investment advisors.

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