Use your racial privilege to dismantle the system that gives you that privilege
Here are stories and reflections from members of the Church and Society Committee spurred by this topic. We hope that it will trigger your ruminations, and insights.
My first remembrance of race was when I was 5 or 6, and my Father, Grandfather and I had gone to an Indianapolis Indians, minor league baseball game. My grandfather lived in a transitioning neighborhood, where white flight was accelerating. As we drove west on Tenth Street to take him home, he told my Dad, “Don’t stop at this red light.” There were black men standing at the corner which made him fearful.
I was terrified by what I saw on that little black and white TV.
That little girl was in danger. She was on the way to school and grown-ups were yelling at her with awful, distorted faces. I’d never seen my aunts and uncles or anyone act like that…I was terrified. What had that little girl done? She looked nice and about my age. I surely didn’t want to do whatever she had done to make those grown-ups so angry.
I really wanted to start Kindergarten. It would be a milestone in my young life and I wanted to go to school like my big brother did. I was starting to have second thoughts about school if I was going to get yelled at like that.
I asked my mom what was going on. She turned and looked at the television. I asked her what that girl did and if I was going to have problems like that when I went to school. I might have been crying.
Mom told me not to worry; I was safe. This little girl (shame on her parents) was breaking the rules. Rules were that white children went to white schools, and black children went to black schools. This little black girl wanted to go to a white school and the white grown-ups were trying to stop her. Then she turned away; the conversation was done.
It didn’t make any sense. I looked at the TV again and eventually saw a girl with a different skin color. I remember where I was sitting in the front room when we had that conversation.
It must have been around 1954 or 1955 because I started school in 1955. Five years before Ruby Bridges entered William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana (1960). Looking back on this, it must have been that other brave souls of color had tried and not succeeded. I believe that school integration resulted from a long civil rights effort. I still wonder who I saw on TV that day.
My Junior year in College, I had an internship with the City of Indianapolis in their Relocation Office. The office was set up to take people who were involuntarily displaced by urban renewal projects and find for them, “safe sanitary and decent housing.” Even then, nearly fifty years ago, there was an acute shortage of such housing, further reduced by affordability. I remember two stories from that summer. One where I went to deliver a moving expense check to a very nice woman who had been relocated, she invited me in and offered me tea, and then asked me “how I liked her pets?” Her dog was sitting on my foot and so I assumed that was her reference and I told her that I liked dogs. She said, “no, I mean the one’s behind you.” When I turned, the wall was covered in cockroaches. A second event was a woman who had 6 kids needed housing. In order to follow the Federal guidelines, you had to find a minimum number of bedrooms, conforming with the adults and sexes of children in the household. She needed 4 bedrooms, a literal needle in the haystack. When I reached my last week of work before returning to College I found a unit that met her needs. It was about seven miles from the downtown area. I called her up to say that I had found a unit on the eastside of Indianapolis. She said that it was great that she had kin on the eastside. She lived about 4 blocks from the center of the city, and to her the eastside would have been about 6 blocks from the city center or six and a half miles from the unit that I found for her.
I abandoned my plans to go to law school, and instead sought a graduate school in urban studies. I was totally intrigued by urban geography, demographics, data and disparities. During the summer I did a study interviewing inmates from Marion County incarcerated at the Pendleton Reformatory. I was studying nostalgia and longing, and had inmates draw maps of the City of Indianapolis and their home neighborhood. The task was to pretend as if they had a visitor come to visit them and what would they show them as landmarks important to see and know about Indianapolis and their neighborhood? One inmate that I interviewed had been incarcerated for armed robbery, where gunfire was exchanged with the local police. Reports from the Prison Counselors said that he had been a model inmate, taking classes working on a college degree and a DJ at the prison radio station. After he did his map for me, he told me that he would soon be going before the Parole Board. When I went to do a second round of interviews he had been moved into solitary confinement, as guards had found “contraband” in his cell, allegedly books on bomb making. In prison there is no due process before a hearing “of innocence until proven guilty” and when in solitary, anywhere you go out of your cell is in shackles. A counselor told me that it was likely that there was a long memory associated with his crime and that police had sent word to friends in the prison that he should appear before the parole board in shackles.
Where have you seen or experienced discrimination and injustice, how has it affected you?
I spent most of my career working in community economic development, with 36 of those years leading non-profit institutions. Some important insights came to me in working on microenterprise, small business lending and asset development. I learned there are three ways to create wealth in America, own a home, own a business or save money, with education a proxy for a path to higher income and likely wealth. One of those moments of learning came from meeting and reading the book of Dr. Michael Sherraden, Assets and the Poor. The premise of the book is that Federal policy has focused on income where the path to wealth had been and continued to be the intergenerational nature of wealth. He wrote, “that some people are born on third base and believe their whole life, that they hit a triple.” He also looked at our nation’s history where major events had boosted wealth, the homestead act, turned thousands into land holders in the settling of the west, but at the expense of indigenous people. The GI Bill made homeowners of thousands who mustered out of WWII. These major historical events that had built substantial and intergenerational wealth, and most often excluded people of color, and patterns of discrimination continued legally until civil rights legislation in the late sixties.
Michael and others insights helped to shape my work, particularly helping to make new small business owners through loans and coaching, designed to support their success. I could see in families like the Walton heirs, the Trumps and many more the families whose kids hit triples. It took me many years to see that many more white families had hit singles and doubles including my own. I knew families who were homesteaders and enjoyed the value of land and asset accumulation that passed over multiple generations. My Father had built a two bedroom 1 bath house using his GI Bill benefits, which helped me be the first in my family to go to College.
Does your family history include singles, doubles or triples or does it include being excluded from our wealth building history?
Further in my work to make loans to small business owners, I learned how traditional underwriting is discriminating (important to banks to meet their fiduciary responsibility to savers), but also discriminatory. The five C’s of Underwriting universally used in loan making are; credit, cash, collateral, capacity and character. This is where there are disparities. First of all, a recent survey reported that only 41% of all American had sufficient savings ($500) to meet an emergency expense. However, when one looks at the five c’s by race, we find that white median savings are $8,200 compared to Latinos $1,950 and Blacks $1,510. Rates for homeownership are whites 71%, Latinos 47.5% and Blacks 42%. Credit scores are on average 734 for whites, 701 for Latinos and 677 for blacks. So returning to our five c’s to meet bank underwriting standards for a small business, you would need 20% equity, collateral sufficient for the bank loan (often a second mortgage on one’s home or other assets that can be pledged) and a high credit score. That is also why non-profits focused on capacity and character are critical to expanding entrepreneurship because traditional lending doesn’t adjust to disparities.
Where have you seen the impacts of discriminatory practices in undermining homeownership, business formation or compromising credit?
I have a good friend who we would join together to have a summer outdoor party in the home that I owned in the inner City of Indianapolis. It drew around 120 people for the 90 pounds of ribs, 60 pounds of chicken and multiple kegs of beer. He would come to my house at 6 AM along with his family recipe and cook until the event started at 6PM. For some period of time, I referred to him when I was among others, as my “black” friend. Finally, it dawned on me that he is my friend.
A few years ago, I was a coach mentor for the Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leaders Fellowship Program. There were over 100 fellows from 5 locations around the Country. One of my fellow coaches was an architect from the south. We each had to give a speech and one of my fellow white colleagues gave him what she believed to be a compliment, when she said that he was so “articulate.” This was a trigger that he pointed out was a microaggression, as it presumed that because he was black the presumption he should have been seen as inarticulate and in saying he was articulate, a unicorn?
Where have you seen language used that was insensitive, a microaggression or racist? How often does this occur?
The action of this week is to dismantle the systems of privilege, but first it is critical to understand how and where you see privilege. Once that is comprehended, discussion of past policies that must change or future policies to be developed should follow.
Oh and by the way, my Father did stop at the red light.