For centuries Blacks have been denied full participation in the American Dream. But for the sake of our collective progress, as we recover from the crippling economic effects of COVID-19, our country has a mandate to acknowledge its history of systematic institutionalized exclusionary practices and not repeat them.
As I draft these words, elected officials in the House and Senate are considering what kind of stimulus package would adequately support the American family. We’ve seen proposals for $600-$2,000 per adult to help families meet their basic needs. But all this pales in comparison to the stimulus packages Black, brown, and marginalized communities were excluded from for generations.
Full disclosure, I am no historian. What I am is an avid consumer and astute observer of news and events as they have unfolded over the course of my lifetime. I know that the policies that have enabled white Americans to amass intergenerational wealth – the Homestead Act, the GI Bill, the VA Guaranteed Loan Fund, the New Deal, etc. – could be considered the stimulus packages of their time. But since Black people were excluded from participation, any financial assistance sent our way during the present economic crisis will simply not be enough.
I was raised by my maternal grandparents in the South during the 1950s and 60s. My grandfather, who lived from 1909 until his death in 2000 at age 91, and I would often spend many long hours together talking. I would listen to him describe his life growing up in the South during the early 20th century. Through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the strengthening of Jim Crow laws; he described to me the institutional barriers that were erected to keep him from voting, from getting a quality education, from owning property, and from gaining meaningful employment.
It has become clear to me that the troubling disparities impacting the Black community today have been caused by and are the direct result of 350 years of chattel slavery and institutionalized exclusion.
Combining my personal life experiences and the many conversations with my grandfather has given me a fairly insightful historical context – dating back nearly 140 years – of my family’s lived experiences here in America. Adding to that narrative are my two daughters. They both hold undergraduate history degrees from prestigious universities – one from Duke and the other from Northwestern. They have impressed upon me an extensive understanding and appreciation for what life was like for Black people first brought to America 400 years ago. The conditions they endured under chattel slavery over the next 250 years, followed by 100 years of legalized discrimination and institutional exclusion is a narrative that is oftentimes left untold during conversations about race in this country.
One might conclude that there has been a massive – conscious or unconscious – conspiratorial effort or prolonged period of national amnesia that seeks to either cover up or have us forget what happened during those 350 years. The period from 1619 until 1965 has shaped the attitudes of millions and molded so many of today’s institutions. Imagine the attitudes that must have existed and the institutions that were purposely constructed to enslave and subjugate millions of Black people for 348 years — attitudes that Black people were undeserving of human dignity or mutual respect and unworthy of compassion or empathy.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, I am, remarkably, the first in our family’s history in America to enter adulthood guaranteed the full rights of American citizenship laid out for all by the U.S. Constitution.
We have made significant progress. But there remains much to be done.
As a young corporate executive in the early 1970s, my most extensive training came in the area of world-class manufacturing, quality management, and continuous improvement. I was taught the importance of root cause analysis, which requires one to fully identify, analyze and understand what the real and fundamental causes are for undesirable outcomes. As one searches for the root causes of the many disparities impacting Black and brown communities today I suggest that one cannot ignore the tremendous adverse impact of those 350 years of oppression, denial and exclusion.
Today, our collective challenge – and I emphasize “our collective challenge,” for I believe that white America has an outsized role to play in this work – is two-fold, revolving around two central themes: our attitudes about race and our commitment to inclusion and equal opportunity.
Race is a very complicated subject in large measure because it is a man-made construct whose foundation rests upon unfounded schisms and phobias. Western civilizations, including America, must accept and embrace those unstoppable population and demographic shifts underway today within their borders; the shift toward multiculturalism. These are the inevitable results of over four centuries of colonialism and globalization.
Unfortunately, there have been and remain systems of institutionalized exclusion that have contributed greatly to the disparities that concern us all today. One contemporary glaring example is the Payroll Protection Plan enacted by Congress last year. The vast majority – over 80 percent – of Black-owned businesses have no employees, which made these businesses ineligible for the program. Projections are that 40 percent of Black-owned businesses will shut down as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This troublesome omission and example of institutionalized exclusion of Black people follows a pattern that has been set over the past century and a half in this country.
We must garner the will and courage to change this. We must intentionally dismantle systems of exclusion wherever they exist. We must replace them with systems of inclusion and equal access to opportunities for all. We must do this if we are to have any chance of eliminating the troubling disparities that plague the Black community.
For today, we can start by developing a just proposal for a stimulus package. Nothing less will suffice.
Carlton L Highsmith is the retired Founder and CEO of the Specialized Packaging Group(SPG). Carlton currently serves on the board of directors of Key Bank and is the founder and board chairman of the Connecticut Center for Arts & Technology (ConnCAT). He is vice-chairman of the board of trustees at Quinnipiac University, a member of the board of trustees at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and Yale New Haven Health System. Carlton served two terms on the Boston Federal Reserve Bank New England Community Advisory Committee.