An Independence Day for All
Juneteenth was celebrated last Friday and through the weekend, as it has been in the black community for over 150 years since the end of slavery. This year it had more visibility than ever, thanks to the continuing attention to the lived reality of black Americans. Juneteenth is more than just a celebration, wrote author Veronica Chambers in an opinion piece in honor of the holiday.1 Chambers quotes sister author Saidiya Hartman saying “How to live a free life, how one can live, is the pressing question for black folks in the wake of slavery’s formal end.”2 Juneteenth as celebration doesn’t replace freedom and equality for African Americans, but as Chambers writes, its core theme is hope, and it allows a belief “that the world you want to come into existence can happen.”
Like Juneteenth, our traditional independence day on July 4th is a uniquely American holiday. It has been our opportunity to celebrate both freedom from control by others who used the fruits of our labor for their purposes, as well as freedom to chart our own course, and make and live by our own rules. As fundamentally American as July 4th is, though, it is incomplete. It doesn’t acknowledge the struggles and successes on the same issues by large and essential groups of Americans.
Black Americans today are not so different from the white revolutionaries of the 18th century, although their path began in slavery rather than as a colony. They too want freedom from differential persecution and the opportunity to participate in policy creation that affects them, and that embodies American ideals they have been steeped in. Hope for a just society is motivating, as is the pursuit of a moral society that allows similar opportunities for livelihood, for accomplishment, and for public service.
Just as the Revolutionary War wasn’t won in a day, neither has the path to freedom and inclusion been swift for black Americans. And yet they celebrate their partial victories, they celebrate their resilience and the elements of their community and of our broader American culture that have supported them; they celebrate with Juneteenth. In a revolutionary effort of imagination, it complements and expands the celebration of July 4th. If we want the very real benefits of diversity across our society, culture, and economy, we need both.
The Economic Basis of Exclusion
As financial advisors, a core part of our role with clients centers around how to invest in a home, how to finance it, how to support one’s children’s ability to buy a home of their own, and how the accumulation of home equity helps finance retirement and personal care later in life if needed. More liquid assets in savings, or the stock and bond market, are crucial supplements to home equity as well.
Home equity was built very disproportionately in white and black communities over the last eighty years due to discriminatory policies put in place codified during the 1930s.3 Over the generations since the Great Depression, white families have thus had a disproportionate opportunity to create wealth through homeownership. The racist redlining policies of the 1930’s FHA were eliminated with the 1968 Fair Housing Act, but change on the ground is slow, and a great deal of informal discrimination persists.4 Currently, white homeownership rates are in the 70% range, and black rates of homeownership closer to 40%, rates which have not changed materially in the last 40 years.5
As for liquid savings and investments, most Americans accumulate these supplemental assets through retirement savings plans, and black Americans have somewhat lower rates of participation – and much lower average balances. Today black men earn 67% of the incomes of white men (still an egregious disparity), but black wealth overall including retirement account balances is only about 15% of the same for white Americans.6
The racial disparities in livelihood and wealth accumulation in our country are rooted in economic disparities. In the African American community in particular, the disparities have persisted over many generations. Without economic power, there can be no effective participation in politics, and that element of true freedom – to participate in creating the rules by which we all co-exist – is not available.
Corporate America: Investors Seeking Impact
Leadership on economic issues shifted after the 1930s and 1940s from the government to corporate leadership, as the post-war economic boom meant dramatic growth in corporate profits, and growth in corporate capacity to resist government regulation. This trend has only strengthened in recent decades. In response, activism among shareholders has grown steadily over the last 50 years. This expands their voice beyond the political voting booth to the corporate proxy voting booth, in a more direct attempt to pursue progressive social change, bringing new meaning to the phrase “get out the vote.”
Progressive investors have pushed for better opportunities for workers and business owners alike. Corporate records are uneven on protections for lower income workers, who are disproportionately people of color. Investors have sought changes across multiple industries in the arena of workplace safety, hazard pay, paid vacation and sick leave, flexible work hours for families.7 For minority business owners, a key issue is access to capital (which we discussed in an earlier article on The Privilege of Debt). That capital has been difficult to come by from conventional money-center banks for black entrepreneurs, but community financial institutions have stepped up to provide capital, and also provide an impact opportunity for investors who deposit capital there.
In addition, investors have held corporate boards and managements accountable for addressing the needs of all stakeholders, and not just shareholders. Part of that effort has included an insistence on diversity by race and gender in the boardroom, in management, and among the broader workforce. “Diverse and inclusive cultures are providing companies with a competitive edge over their peers,” said the Wall Street Journal’s first corporate ranking of diversity and inclusion among S&P 500 companies.8 When members of diverse teams see things in a variety of ways, they are poised to recognize new and different market opportunities, and they can better appreciate unmet market needs – and their margins are nearly 10% higher.9 Companies with more diverse leadership really do have better financial results.
“Let America Be America Again”
Diversity leads to better social results as well.
In his 1936 poem, Langston Hughes puts his finger on the racially differential experience of freedom in America, and the need for us to make a reality of our country’s ideals in order for us all to be fully American:
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—“10
How do we bring that world fully into existence, that hasn’t yet been? It takes conversation, to be sure, and also thoughtful ideation, and action through policy by the people in power to begin and persist to create that change. Those with financial and cultural power won’t share it easily if they can’t imagine the benefits of integration, if they don’t have conviction in the strength of diversity, and if they believe it is to their detriment rather than to their benefit.
Our national conversation on race has been long, with disagreements, violence, times of challenge, and times of conciliation. It included a civil war in the 19th century, and policy wars in the 20th century, and recently the black community has endured a controversial and divisive increase in police violence. Can the 21st century bring more integration, and a lasting peace that includes healing and celebration?
We hope so. We believe in a future beyond the ugly actions of an overly militarized police presence, and the terrorizing actions of white supremacists. We believe in the future in which we have the courage to speak up and acknowledge all Americans have the birthright of inclusion and participation. We believe in a future that embraces our ideals of freedom, opportunity and strength in diversity, a future in which Juneteenth is fully recognized as an independence holiday for all Americans.
1 Veronica Chambers, “What is Freedom? Juneteenth is an invitation to build the world you want to live in,” New York Times, June 21, 2020.
2 Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, W.W. Norton & Co., 2019. Hartman is a professor of African American Literature and History at Columbia University, and was a MacArthur Fellow in 2019.
3 Terry Gross, interview with Richard Rothstein, “A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The US Government Segregated America,” Fresh Air, May 3, 2017.
4 See “Historical Shift from Explicit to Implicit Policies Affecting Housing Segregation in Eastern Massachusetts,” The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, 2015.
5 See “Nine Charts About Wealth Inequality in America,” Urban Institute, February, 2015.
6 See “Nine Charts About Wealth Inequality in America,” Urban Institute, February, 2015.
7 See the website of As You Sow for background and current information on shareholder activism.
8 Dieter Holger, “The Business Case for More Diversity,” The Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2019.
9 Stuart R. Levine, “Diversity Confirmed to Boost Innovation and Financial Results,” Forbes, January 15, 2020.
10 Langston Hughes, ”Let America Be America Again,” Esquire Magazine, July, 1936. Revised and republished in a collection of his poems, A New Song, International Workers Order, 1938.
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