The Business of Equity – by Deborah Levine

Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press

Editor-in-Chief Deborah J. Levine

Our Tennessee state legislature has made it illegal for educators to say that systemic racism is an American phenomenon. Making sure to successfully intimidate teachers, they’ve threatened to withhold funds if the proper words in their estimation aren’t used.  At the same time, Chattanooga’s Chamber of Commerce took steps to promote the economic and racial equity that has been systemically limited. Its pledge for racial equity has been signed by corporate CEOs, organization directors, and diverse business leaders.

Was anyone surprised by the push-back to the Chamber’s pledge from the conservative organization, Hamilton Flourishing? Saying that the goal of Chambers of Commerce is to recruit new businesses to the area, not just help a few businesses and certainly not by radically changing our economy and culture.

This takes me back a few years, actually more like a few decades, when I first began my urban planning masters degree at the University of Cincinnati in 1972. That’s when I was told that my economic development work with impoverished communities should focus on Appalachian-related areas, not Black neighborhoods. The White folks had a chance at getting out of poverty, but the African Americans were so historically trapped into segregated areas that their fate was sealed.

A decade later, I decided to complete that degree, this time at the University of Illinois at Chicago. By then, there was some movement in Chicago to address the economic and racial inequities that had been built earlier into the city’s infrastructure. Social justice was touted, but policy changes were more likely made because inner city land was needed for expanding downtown. So residents in poor, all-Black public housing were relocated to suburban areas. But when I visited one of these new suburban housing area, I found that it was located away from the rest of the suburb including its malls, grocery stores, and businesses. Hidden from view by thick rows of evergreen bushes, it was an economic wasteland.

Research calculated that it isn’t just people of color who are affected by such systemic economic and racial inequity. The Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California (PERE) reported that if communities of color had similar average incomes as Whites in 2012, Americas annual GDP would have been $2.1 trillion higher, a 14% increase. And our major metropolitan areas could grow their GDP by 24% by addressing racial inequities. That meant a potential gain ranging from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars.

Some claim that inequities are just ancient history. But in 2020, the median Black family’s wealth was just 12.7% of that owned by the typical White family. And COVID has widened economic disparities. Unfortunately, n ew research shows that the impact may be long term. College enrollment is down substantially, particularly at community colleges which often serve disadvantaged communities. The next generation’s struggles may be epic, limiting the American Dream for us all.

Every elected official should be working to address the inequities, not deny them. That means looking at affordable housing, transportation and internet access. It means funding and networking opportunities for Black-owned businesses. It also means enhanced access to education. All of the above require collaboration on policies and implementation, not to mention an end to time-wasting partisanship. Our new mayor has signed the Chamber’s pledge. Will every Tennessee elected official focus on building an economy and culture that benefits us all? We must encourage them to concentrate on what matters. Call, write, text… do whatever it takes to ensure that we have a prosperous future.

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