The Black Resilience in Colorado (BRIC) Fund Blog features the unique voices and perspectives of people who make up the diverse fabric of the Colorado community who are engaged in philanthropy. It's a platform to share their comments and opinions on how people in the Black community give back. This month, we invited Rich Lewis, President and CEO of RTL Networks, to be our guest blogger and share his thoughts on why Giving Black is Good Business.
To understand why philanthropy within the Black community is important today, it’s essential to understand the history of Black communities in America, where an overwhelming need for philanthropic support and investment remains.
Many contend that the race-based barriers of the past are “ancient history” and that all communities are now on a level playing field. But these claims don’t match the facts. For example, Black job applicants whose resumes were “whitened” by removing race revealing cues are significantly more likely to be asked for job interviews, according to a 2016 study. Similarly, a 2020 study in Greater Boston revealed that Black apartment seekers are shown about half the number of apartments as their white counterparts and given less incentives to rent. Also consider that as of June 2020, only four (0.8%) of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies were Black, despite the fact that Blacks represent approximately 12% of the US population.
How can such inequities be present in today’s world, where the words “BIPOC,” “equality” and “equity” are generously used throughout corporate America, and are the subject of countless working groups and coalitions working to address racial disparities across multiple domains; and what about all the Black millionaires and billionaires we see in the news and social media every day? Doesn’t their existence mean America is racism-free?
Indeed, America has always had Black success stories. For instance, immediately following Emancipation, there were 4,047 millionaires in the United States, and six were Black. Some Blacks even acquired wealth during slavery. In the 1800s and 1900s, successful Black millionaires such as William Leidesdorff Jr., Jeremiah Hamilton and the well-known Madam C.J. Walker made headlines much like Jay-Z, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey do today. There has always been just enough success in the Black community to provide the illusion that equality has arrived. But the truth is, the percentage of wealth owned by Black Americans today is not much different than it was 100 years ago. In fact, the Black community has lost ground. In 1968, the median Black household had just 9.4% of the wealth of the median white household, according to federal data. In 2016, that ratio fell to just 8.7%. The wealth divide widened over nearly a half-century of what’s commonly regarded as a period of notable progress for Blacks. The recent pandemic and financial crisis has widened that gap. In December 2021, the jobless rate for Black workers was 7.1% compared to 3.2% for white workers. To add more perspective, consider that the top 200 richest men in America — not even enough to fill a movie theater — possess more wealth than the nation’s entire Black community.
Although social conditions are better today than in any time in this country’s dark past, biases and structural racism persist. The 2018 report “Income and Wealth Inequality in America, 1949–2016” asserts that “No progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between Black and white households over the past 70 years.” Sadly, I think this article understates the lack of progress.
While Black Americans have attempted to build wealth (and in many cases succeeded) throughout American history, these efforts have been simultaneously impeded. Slavery was replaced by convict leasing, sharecropping and Jim Crow. Lynchings, race riots and massacres that destroyed entire communities were regular occurrences from the late 1800s into the early 1900s and millions of additional acres were taken from the Black community through threats to the life and livelihood of Black property owners by whites and by Federal laws and policies.
While America aspires to embody its founding principles, with Emancipation and more race-neutral laws enacted as a result of the Civil Rights movement; sophisticated tactics were simultaneously used, often orchestrated by the government, to continue discriminatory practices. Discrimination in lending by U.S. governmental organizations such as the Department of Agriculture resulted in Black farmers losing their land while industrialization lured others into factories. Tax and probate laws and practices also caused untold acres to be forcibly bought out from under rural Black families. When the Black community migrated from the South to regions with better jobs, practices such as redlining and deed covenants, combined with unfair lending practices by banks and the U.S. government, limited Black access to favorable locations.
These policies and practices prevented Black Americans from starting businesses or purchasing homes that would increase in value. This created ghettos, food deserts and education disparities that still exist today. Black business ownership still lags today and today Black families are still 40% less likely to own their homes than white families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This may have been a bit of a history lesson for some. But, a look at our past, influences why I think deeper philanthropic engagement within the Black community is needed. This same look at our history also reminds us that Black communities have a rich legacy of resilience and collective care when systems failed them or attempted to hold them back, and they know best how to address critical issues in their own communities. The truth is, philanthropy has always shown up in the Black community. We’ve always self-cared, and have given back, supported, and uplifted each other — from preparing food for sick and mourning neighbors, to raising the children of siblings or neighbors, and creating formal organizations to address systemic issues. The Black community has a unique opportunity and responsibility to engage in and transform philanthropy. It’s time to turn the tides to the racism and oppression that has been central in philanthropy. Those of us who have achieved at any level should do what we can to answer this call, understanding that countless others came before us — Black Americans who failed, sacrificed, marched, toiled and died fighting against the barriers this country constructed to block Blacks from opportunities. If “The Dream” has not yet been fully recognized, then we have a responsibility to honor their sacrifices by continuing to do what we can to level the playing field and invest in ourselves, contributing our time, our talents and our financial resources to improve individual well-being and strengthen our communities. There are also opportunities for non-Black partners to invest in the Black community.
Overall, investing in the Black Community is simply good business for any company or individual who values the notion and ideas of community as a whole. But more importantly, the return on investment is worth it considering both economic and social impact it can have on local communities, as well as state and national economy. When the Black community thrives, the impact is great. In the article How Liberatory Philanthropy and Restorative Investing Can Remake the Economy, writer Rodney Foxworth speaks to how Philanthropy needs a liberation; a movement to redress systemic failures of giving and restore equity. “To make liberatory philanthropy a reality, foundation leaders need to take a hard look at how they manage and invest their endowments.” In this approach, called “restorative economics,” foundations must “acknowledge the impact of the extractive economy on marginalized communities, repair the harms of our long history of exploitation, and reject the continued accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few.”
I hope the machines of structural racism will finally fall and the biases against the Black community fade. Until then, let us leverage philanthropy to uplift a community that continues to write the check that America has “cashed” repeatedly.
President and CEO of RTL Networks
BRIC Fund Advisory Committee Member