To The Mountaintop; Let’s Talk Race
Nineteen sixty-eight and 2020 have unexpected parallels: protests, riots and US spaceflight happened in both years but the context around them are different and worth examining. Protests in 1968 centered around the Vietnam War with growing frustration in the country with a war that seemed unwinnable. Martin Luther King came out strongly against the war in 1967 notably with such observations:
So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit.
King gave this speech exactly one year to the day before his assassination in 1968. That assassination gave rise to riots with decades’, or centuries’, worth of anger, frustration and grief spilling over into the streets of cities across the US. The cruelty of the American social, economic and political system that Dr. King had fought hard to change overwhelmed his message of nonviolence in the face of the heinous act of violence that killed him.
Today’s protests pick up from Dr. King’s — 52 years later we still see black and brown people being killed in front of us, in broad daylight by police officers with regularity. Protesters are here to remind us that Black Lives Matter and police should not be using their authority to detain, restrain and slay innocent people, especially people of color. If there is rioting in addition to protesting, it is because we have been through it all before. The Kerner Commission, at the request of Lyndon Johnson, outlined the underlying causes of riots as perpetual racism on the part of White America. Frustration compounds because it’s as if we have learned nothing from MLK and his death.
In the aftermath of the ’68 riots, the community development movement arose to rebuild the places — businesses, homes, facilities — that were destroyed. Many people saw community development — economic development for and by the community in which it occurs — was a chance to reflect the needs and desires of the people living there. Over the years, community-based organization have built millions of units of affordable housing, community facilities, small business loans and social programs that continue today. We still see compelling investment opportunities in community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and community-based organizations. Taken together, CDFIs have assets of almost $140 billion. Their work is impressive, but, compared to the larger banking sector with assets on the order of almost $20 trillion, they remain a small part of the market.
Once we understand that that the dominant social and market systems aren’t built to serve the needs of communities of color or low-income communities, then negative outcomes start to make sense. Looking at the 2008 financial crisis we can see that African-Americans were 3x as likely to have a sub-prime mortgage than a white borrower after controlling for income and other factors. The 2008 crisis with its associated foreclosures destroyed much of the wealth and success that community development efforts had built over the previous 40 years. We can take almost any issue — education, health, income or wealth — African Americans will experience negative outcomes at disproportionately higher rates than White Americans. Conversely, White Americans enjoy more wealth, higher incomes, and longer lives than African Americans. When we look at the ways COVID-19 operates in Black and White communities we see the pattern repeat.
Finally, we come to space flight. In 1969, the US put the first human on the moon. NASA led the way to a national achievement put into play by JFK earlier in the decade. The country rallied around its shared achievement and offered a respite from the nagging issues of the Vietnam War and smoldering social unrest. For ten years, NASA has not actively worked on a space mission instead it funded private companies to do the work for them. This week SpaceX delivered with a successful trip to the International Space Station. It certainly was great to see and is a feather in Elon Musk’s cap. However, this space project lacked the sense of collectivism that the 1969 landing had. Today, we are too far apart on issues of race, justice and COVID to come together before we can celebrate ambitious engineering feats together again.
Can we do it? Yes, we can. If we allow social movements like Black Lives Matter to gain power through the political process, then we’ll get the laws we need to uphold the Constitution and knit together a functional safety net; if we invest in communities torn apart by foreclosure, unemployment and COVID, then people can rebuild their local economies; if we recognize that poverty and oppression kill so many Americans of color, over time, then we’ll deliver quick justice for perpetrators of police brutality and get back to dealing with the racism that is holding all of us back. In his last speech, Dr. King addressed the crowd at Bishop Charles Mason Temple and talked about why it was important for him and everyone there to support the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. As the workers were on strike and wondering how they would survive day to day, Dr. King told his supporters what to do:
We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here to say to you that you’re not treating His children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment where God’s children are concerned. Now if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.
We can heed this call as impact investors and put our capital behind the people and the companies who are building the world that Dr. King could see from the mountaintop.
Kate Starr, Chief Investment Officer
We’re LIVE! Tomorrow, June 4th at 12:00pm ET, join our CIO, Kate Starr, and Senior Associate, Hayley Mole, for an interactive session on Timely Topics. This week we will be discussing the topic of ‘Affordable & Sustainable Housing’, and will be joined by special guests Aaron Fairchild from Green Canopy, a net zero energy housing developer and manager in Portland, OR, and Inna Khidekel from Bridge Investment Group, a national real estate developer with a longstanding history in developing affordable and workforce housing across the United States. Affordable housing and the contribution of the built environment to environmental damage were already pressing issues in the United States, but as the world copes with COVID-19, the need for stable, affordable housing options becomes ever more important, and we look forward to discussing trends, problems and solutions with experts in this space.
Please register here. We look forward to seeing you tomorrow!
Three more police officers have now been charged in the killing of George Floyd. Additionally, the charges filed against Derek Chauvin, the officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck, have been upgraded to second-degree murder.
Here are some potential ideas of where to donate to forward anti-racism causes:
- Minnesota Freedom Fund
- CPE: Center for Policing Equity
- EJI: Equity Justice Initiative
- Live Free
Check out this list of anti-racism resources.
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