When we talk about economic justice in the Black community, too much of our discourse rests on individual actions versus institutional racism. But economic injustice is not the result of Black people’s personal failings or a lack of drive, talent or will. It is a result of entrenched racism that harms the individual and the community. This economic violence is upheld by racist policies and by leaders who sputter the rhetoric of justice while subjecting those around them to the reality of white supremacy.
This is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting when he died 53 years ago. As we celebrate and honor Dr. King, we must do so while holding accountable people who talk about his values and principles but fail to live by them. Decades after Dr. King’s passionate fight, I see the need for economic justice and inclusion at every turn.
One of the most egregious cases of economic injustice is playing out in the halls of power in New Jersey. Despite Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy winning 94% of the Black vote when he was elected, his leadership team has done little to remedy harms sustained by Blueprint Capital Advisors, New Jersey’s only Black-owned asset management firm. According to a legal complaint, the firm developed a proprietary investment, which it took to New Jersey’s Division of Investment (DOI) with the hope of doing business with the state. The legal complaint alleges that the DOI fraudulently misappropriated the proprietary tool and launched the exact same program with another firm, BlackRock headed by Larry Fink. Murphy and his administration have been accused of ignoring Blueprint in an attempt to prevent it from ever managing DOI funds. This case will play out in the courts, but it raises serious questions.
A December 2020 hearing on economic justice in New Jersey surfaced similar claims and concerns by Black business owners. This leads some to believe that Black people in the state continue to get minimal and sometimes no economic value for their vote.
But sadly, this matter not only impacts the firm in question, but it also impacts the surrounding community. When Black firms prosper, the communities in which they live benefit. When Black firms thrive, they give back by hiring more diverse teams, donating to community-based organizations and helping to stabilize local communities. Senior Brookings Fellow Hugh Price noted that “Black giving makes an enormous difference in the lives of our people and our nation.”
But when we hear of Black firms detailing their experience with racism and economic injustice, know that for every public case, there are scores of others without the resources, capacity and ability to tell their stories. It takes a tremendous amount of personal and professional capacity to withstand such racism and abuse and then discuss it publicly. One risks retaliation and isolation.
What we learn from these sorts of cases is that racism is alive and well, even in unexpected places such as a Democratic administration. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. surmised decades ago, “racism still occupies the throne of our nation.” We are accustomed to seeing the manifestations of racism in harmful policies that spur police violence, mass incarceration, unfair sentencing, education inequities, housing discrimination and the like. But racism is wreaking havoc on our prospects for economic justice as well. And it is past time to change this.
As we celebrate another King day holiday, we must force those who profess to care about justice to reckon with economic justice too. We must force our friends and allies to account for the ways they have perpetuated harm. And while apologies are noteworthy, we need tangible action to remedy harm. There must be specific policies passed to ensure that economic justice is not just a platitude, but a reality.
As a pastor of a predominantly Black and working-class congregation, a lawyer with two MBAs and a counselor to a host of business leaders, I know the pain that economic injustice spurs. We see it in unemployment disparities and in the collapse of Black small businesses. And while opening and maintaining a small business has long been difficult for Black people due to access to capital and racist policies, the rate of Black-owned small-business closures is nothing short of deplorable. Due to ongoing racism coupled with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half of Black small businesses in the nation have shuttered.
While Dr. King fought for racial justice and inclusion, it is up to the rest of us to finish what he started. We have the right to sit at the lunch counter. Now we need the resources to purchase from its menu. We have the right to enter the establishment. Now we need the path cleared so we can own the establishment.
The priority of the day must be clearing barriers so true economic justice is finally possible. I encourage the community to hold all leaders accountable. The economic success of the Black community depends on it.