As a Harvard-educated owner of America’s largest black bank, I straddle the world of money and power with the daily experience of #LivingWhileBlack. Given today’s divisive politics, I’m forced to take a side.
Years ago, I read a profile of a very successful black female executive who said she had not experienced racism. Flabbergasted, I surmised she was trying to assuage white guilt by letting her city off the hook for obvious structural defects that lead to unequal access and outcomes for blacks. Or, maybe she really hadn’t experienced racism and I was the delusional one.
I’m not delusional.
A tradeoff of occupying high-performing white spaces is that successful black people are perceived as proof of a lack of racism. Whether we have been less deterred by it or persistent in spite of implicit and explicit racism, our success, indeed, has a silencing effect. Often, many of us attempt to shield ourselves from the stress of daily racism by keeping our heads low, remaining silent and retreating to the relative wealth and comfort we have been able to carve out for ourselves.
Our silence is dangerous.
We exacerbate the economic divide that exists in the black community with a cultural divide grounded in access to wealth. You’ll hear it in conversations among blacks where we evoke the house negro vs. field negro trope, giving a side-eye to those deemed sellouts for being able to fit into white spaces and thrive. We can’t afford sellouts. Progress only happens when successful black people take a stand and defend all blacks from the suffocating effects of racism, be it access to jobs and education, public safety, housing and more.
The #TakeAKnee movement is one example. Here we have a cadre of college-educated, high-earning, successful black football players, beginning with Colin Kaepernick, who dare to speak up for criminal justice reform. The NFL’s attempt at silencing their truth is a tangible example of what many of us experience regularly in quiet ways.
Just as Kaepernick & Co. won’t give up their fight, black folks are leading their own forms of resistance in embracing the #BuyBlack and #Bankblack movement. I see the economic challenges the black community faces because, despite the surface-level success of the recent federal jobs report, folks still don’t make enough money. They’re also stressed on the housing and healthcare front, and struggle daily to meet basic needs because jobs gains don’t equal an income boost. As a bank owner, customers often complain about a short hold placed on their small deposits because their finances are so precarious.
I really do understand their struggles go beyond money. For example, being caught at the wrong end of a policeman’s gun is not an abstraction as I was sitting in my car one day minding my own business and was confronted at gunpoint by police.
A recent book, The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Mehrsa Baradaran provides a detailed history of how America systematically excluded the black community from building wealth. Each chapter documents in harrowing detail the policies and practices, including Jim Crow, redlining, housing discrimination and predatory lending, which resulted in 13 percent of the population owning less than 1 percent of the United States’ total wealth. Little progress has been made since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed over 150 years ago, Baradaran says. And without action, the next 150 years will be the same.
And yet, many of the most successful civil rights policy changes would not have occurred without resources of successful black Americans and their courage to speak truth to power.
We are experiencing challenging times when many Americans, including blacks, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants and LGBTQ community members are being devalued. We cannot afford silence. We all need to take a knee. And those of us with resources and courage need to speak out loudly — and white America needs to listen.
Teri Williams is President and CEO of OneUnited Bank and a BMe Community Public Voices Fellow.