How racism hurts us all, including racists
President Lyndon B Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. The act was part of President Johnson’s “Great Society” program. (Hulton Archive | Getty Images)
An accomplished chef settles in New Hampshire. He breathes new life into an old diner in a struggling downtown district. Mindful of his context, he maintains the same menus and decor.
The chef is “Black” but the food and vibe he is serving are “white.” Things are going fine.
Five months later, in April of last year, Chef Gerald Oriol makes a change to the downtown Nashua diner he owns. After serving other people’s cuisine under other people’s banner for decades, the Haitian native gives Norton’s Classic Cafe a new name, Caribbean Breeze, to go with the dinner menu he has added and fulfill a longtime passion.
Breakfast and lunch are still the same. So are the black-and-white tiles and 1950s-themed sock hop booths in teal green and pink. But outside, in clear public view, the new awning signals something new in downtown Nashua: the first “Black”-owned business on Main Street has arrived. Oriol is no longer just a “diner cook” in the public’s eye – he is a business owner with a name and a vision of his own.
A few days after the new awning is unfurled, someone vandalizes his property by writing a racial slur in white marker on the front window.
Oriol has sensed resentment among some customers but chooses not to take the incident personally. He keeps quiet, trusting the police will complete a thorough investigation.
According to the police report, the “investigation” consists of reviewing the restaurant’s security camera, which does not capture the right angle. None of the other establishments on the busy downtown corner (which includes a bank and pharmacy) are contacted. No footage from their street-facing cameras is reviewed. No local inhabitants and potential eyewitnesses are interviewed. No one is apprehended. The case is catalogued as “criminal mischief,” rather than a hate crime, and closed.
Then in October, after a man plasters all of Oriol’s windows with a sticky white substance and police fail to update him on the outcome of either investigation, Oriol decides to go public.
These facts were recently reported by NH Business Review and the Granite State News Collaborative, which obtained a copy of the police report and interviewed Oriol and a neighboring business owner at length. Although the racist acts and problematic police response are specific to the case at hand, they are also familiar to other African Americans in Nashua, including my wife and kids, who have been called racial slurs and subjected to other insults.
More than that, the events are symptomatic of the disease of racism and white supremacy that still infects American life. Rather than the proverbial “bad apple” or a single polluted pond, the data clearly show that racism has tainted the very groundwater that feeds us all, regardless of whether we harbor racial biases of our own. The price we pay collectively, in social and economic terms, is staggering.
According to a landmark 2020 report from Citi Bank, racial inequality cost the entire U.S. economy $16 trillion in lost GDP over the last 20 years. That’s equivalent to $47,000 in reduced wages and economic activity for the average American, although the losses were not distributed evenly across the population. It also adds up to more than 6 million fewer jobs per year and trillions less in tax revenue that could be invested in better roads and schools and health care for everyone.
The report examined racial differences in business lending, wages, education, and housing, and found the bulk of the economic losses to American society came from lack of capital and discriminatory lending practices driving down small-business activity among African Americans.
For example, “Black”-owned firms have a harder time raising capital than “white”-owned firms with the same credit profile and performance, according to the Federal Reserve, and those that do get financing typically receive less than half of what they requested. In the relationship-based business of venture capital investing, a Stanford University study found that when “venture capital funds are managed by a person of color with strong credentials, professional investors judge them more harshly than their white counterparts with identical credentials.”
Of course, it doesn’t help that African American entrepreneurs have far less wealth, per capita, than their “white” counterparts, making it that much more difficult to launch a new venture on their own. A recent Federal Reserve study found that Americans of European descent have roughly six times as much wealth, per capita, as African Americans, and “no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between Black and white households over the past 70 years.” Not surprisingly, that’s equivalent to the six-to-one disparity in the number of small businesses, per capita, across racial groups.
Making matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a crippling blow to small businesses owned by African Americans, 41 percent of which shut down during the lockdown compared to 17 percent of “white”-owned businesses. It didn’t help that 95 percent of “Black” business owners are sole proprietors or independent contractors, which meant they were denied access to the government’s PPP loan program.
These disparities are not accidental. They are born of centuries of enslavement and overt discrimination, which prevented most African Americans from owning homes and businesses and even themselves from 1619 to 1865. They were maintained in the 20th century by elaborate systems of legalized discrimination on the part of government and private entities spanning housing, education, hiring, policing, health care, and more. And they continue to this day in persistent racial inequities documented in the Citi Bank report, which drive down economic opportunity for everyone.
Ironically, the people who vandalized Chef Oriol’s restaurant, in an apparent attempt to intimidate or even drive him out of business, are harming themselves in the process. As Heather McGhee, author of “The Sum of Us,” has shown, racism doesn’t merely damage its intended targets – “white” perpetrators of racist ideas, bolden to zero-sum thinking, lose out too by shrinking the pie of economic and social well-being. In the process, they inadvertently prevent public investments that would benefit us all. “The task ahead,” McGhee writes, “is to unwind this idea of a fixed quantity of prosperity and replace it with … Solidarity Dividends: gains available to everyone when they unite across racial lines, in the form of higher wages, cleaner air, and better-funded schools.”
As we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this month, we should take his 1962 words on the ethical demands of integration to heart: “The price that America must pay for the continued oppression of the Negro is the price of its own destruction.” By standing up not just to racist epithets but the underlying systems of racial inequity that give them fuel, we can build a stronger America for everyone – and enjoy more delicious Caribbean food in the process!
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