Resiliency Begins with Equity: Honoring Dr. King’s Sacrifice
This disparity of outcomes highlights the racial inequities Dr. King fought against his entire life.
But the day also provides an opportunity to consider what we have learned in the last year about the connections between resiliency and equity. Resiliency has become the watchword of the COVID-19 era. The pandemic reinforced the need to build more resilient institutions and societies that can withstand shocks like a global public health crisis. But resiliency begins with understanding how racial inequities perpetuate social and economic vulnerabilities that affect all of us and weaken the foundation of our society. Resiliency is strengthened by resolving the inequities we know exist.
The latest studies on COVID infections and deaths among Black Americans do not reveal an innate vulnerability to the virus. Instead, as Dr. Gbenga Ogedegbe of New York University has found, the higher rates of infection have everything to do with where Black Americans live and the jobs they do. Large numbers of Black Americans live in more crowded housing and work in frontline essential services like health care, food services, and transportation, making it more difficult for them to work remotely or socially distance. Access to health care is less available compared with white Americans and the rates of underlying medical conditions are higher.
These are circumstances that reflect decades of systemic barriers to better housing, education, job, and wealth accumulation opportunities. Those restrictions were not just an injustice of the immediate post-slavery and Jim Crow era. They continued into the second half of the 20th century and beyond with restrictions on GI Bill education opportunities for Black servicemen, exemptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act for Black-dominated agricultural and domestic service occupations, voting rights limitations, racial gerrymandering, and redlining housing policies, to name just a few.
The legacy and ongoing effects of those practices are stark. The 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances showed that the median white household had a net worth of $188,200, nearly 8 times more than the median Black household net worth of $24,100. The statistics on inherited wealth show even greater disparities.
Resiliency is strengthened by resolving the inequities we know exist.
A recent study by Brookings summarized disparities across a range of economic, health, and criminal justice outcomes in even more dramatic terms:
• 1 in 3 Black families have zero or negative net worth
• 1 in 2.5 Black adults were unemployed or temporarily furloughed
in April 2020
• 1 in 9 Black Americans aged 0 to 64 are uninsured
• 1 in 3 Black men born in 2001 will spend time in prison in their lifetime
Racial inequities have been hiding in plain sight for years. But the extreme examples of racial violence, illness, death, and economic devastation experienced by Black Americans in the last year reached a pitch that made thousands of Americans of all races take to the streets and to the ballot box to work toward a more equitable society. Those existential inequities undermine the very idea of the United States as a country in which every American, regardless of race or origin, can fulfill his or her potential. It is a shameful legacy we must all own and work to reverse in honor of Dr. King’s memory.
So, what can we do? While no one person or institution can change everything, I believe we each can do something. At State Street, we are taking action on multiple fronts. First, we are working with industry peers to collectively address racial inequities that have plagued our own industry and build coalitions to drive systemic change. That includes improving racial diversity in our own ranks. Our asset management business has called upon its portfolio companies to provide more transparency around the racial and ethnic diversity of their organizations, echoing our Fearless Girl campaign around gender diversity and better business outcomes. We have also launched the Small Business Strong initiative with the help of other business leaders in Massachusetts to support minority- and female-owned businesses that have been affected by the economic shutdown.
The State Street Foundation continues to support education and workforce development programs aimed at mitigating systemic racism. We have also contributed to the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, co-founded by State Street’s Chief Diversity Officer and other Black business leaders, which has already disbursed $1 million in grants to mostly Black- and Brown-led non-profits in the state.
Dr. King acknowledged that no single institution or individual can solve centuries of systemic racism. But he challenged each of us to be part of a lasting solution. As we begin 2021 with hopes that the new vaccines can help us return to our pre-pandemic lives, let us honor Dr. King’s memory and sacrifice by committing not to return to the normality of racial injustice. Let us instead rededicate ourselves to building a more resilient future for all Americans by ensuring equity and inclusion for all.
As chairman and chief executive officer of State Street, Ron O’Hanley is investing in people, technology and innovation. By encouraging independent thinking from his employees and taking strong stands on global policy issues, Ron is listening for ways to build a stronger future – for State Street and all of our stakeholders.