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As we commemorate Juneteenth this month, it’s important to note that it is more than a one-day celebration. It is an appreciation of African American history and culture. It is recognizing that the Black past is intertwined with the larger American story which includes racism and economic injustice that stems from the legacy of slavery.
Imagine a race between two people from New York to California. One person receives a bicycle and the other an airplane. The first to get to California is the winner even though it’s an unfair race with rules stacked against the bicyclist.
That's what the wealth gap is like for Black families in America: an impossible race. Not only do their white counterparts have a 400-year advantage on wealth, power, and economic mobility but they are not slowed down by unfair biases and denied opportunities.
And it bears stating: the system is not broken — it was rigged like this by design. The pervasive, generational inequality is systemic and structural. This kind of racism creates disparities including wealth, the criminal justice system, employment, housing, health care, education and more. In other words, this inequality is so ingrained in our daily lives that it becomes “just the way things are.”
As a small business owner, entrepreneur and financial educator, I am reminded daily that we cannot deliver economic justice without simultaneously struggling toward racial justice. In fact, I won a lawsuit that proves this point. Before I started my business in 2014, I had to go to several institutions to get even a portion of the startup capital I needed, despite sterling credit, ample collateral and other qualifications. Even after the business took off, licensees who, like me, were African American had difficulty getting financing; however, the first white licensee was able to quickly borrow more than twice what I’d originally received.
Most of us see physical violence and recognize it. But, when it comes to economic injustices rooted in racism — redlining, discriminatory lending practices, housing discrimination, the ever-growing wealth gap — how many of us recognize these as violence?
One reason for the wealth gap in America is that white people had a 400-year head start on wealth creation. The system is rigged in favor of the wealthiest, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow and Black people fall farther behind since they are rarely among the wealthiest. Of the nation’s 742 billionaires, only seven are Black.
When you add a 400-year head start with the power of compound interest, it's nearly impossible for Black people to catch up without massive structural changes to our rigged systems. A good start would be taxing billionaires and the rich in order to generate the revenue we need to finally give everyone an equitable opportunity to get ahead.
Economic violence leaves scars that we can't see on the outside but feel deeply on the inside for generations, even when we apply for small loans and rental leases. It cannot be rooted out without also dismantling the systemic racism that undergirds it. My hometown, Waterloo, consistently ranks as one of the worst cities in the country for Black residents.
As we celebrate Juneteenth, we need to remember it’s not just another holiday or day off. Our country has mounting work to do in dismantling this racist economy and building one where those who have been left behind and forced out are finally set up for success. If we ever expect racial injustice to end, this must be central to our struggle.
ReShonda Young is co-founder of Bank of Jabez based in Waterloo.