June 16, 2020

A Moment Like No Other

Brian McLaughlin of Enterprise Community Development

These are uncomfortable days. Familiar patterns have given way to a new “normal,” like wearing face masks. We are challenged regularly to look more closely at our world as we try to make sense of this invisible and cruel coronavirus. We’ve been forced into feeling our shared humanity and vulnerability as we’ve tearfully honored nurses, front-line workers, moms, dads, all taken by the virus. 

And then, back-to-back-to-back, “how can this be?” reminders of hurtful disregard for life were captured on videos and shared around the world. Mix in months of feeling powerless, anxious and isolated and maybe, just maybe, this became the spell needed for a heavy and dark veil over our country to begin to lift. We stand now with heavier hearts and eyes more open as we see and try to make sense of another sort of virus in our midst. 

We don’t have universal language yet to describe and characterize what lies behind the veil. Devaluation of black lives. Police violence against black lives. Racism. Systemic racism. Inherent biases. Racial inequality.   

Many of us working in the housing and resident mobility space often use words that lean more toward symptoms. Disparities in housing, health care, wages, benefits, wealth, graduation rates, access to opportunities, life outcomes.  

Still others have another language that draws from a stored file, filled with the details of each time we’ve been unfairly pulled over by the police (four and counting, including one with my young kids in the back seat), challenged in a store (including one jarringly memorable moment, involving a muffin and a receipt). Included there are also the looks, closed doors, and general life punches (too many to count).    

Watching George Floyd’s final minutes and seconds of life forced everyone with their own stored file to dig it out, open it up, and add a new note for reference and future survival. And while many prepared with anguish to lock it away again, they saw something different. A nod emerged to keep the files out, to say enough is enough, and to begin processing some of it collectively for the first time ever, giving a language and a voice to this moment that has no precedent.   

Even my grandfather could not have pictured this moment. He was one of six officers with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who created the Montgomery Improvement Association, launching and leading its 381-day bus boycott in 1955. It was the original mass-action protest that ignited the flame of the modern civil rights era. The movement was deeply concerned with “man’s inhumanity to man.” But its practical target was reasonable treatment and local Jim Crow laws and provisions.  

The demands of the bus boycott – actually typed up by my grandfather – called for fairer treatment in seating, the end of abusive language from bus operators and opportunities for employment. A genuine moral awakening wasn’t expected. The demand was for an end to the bitter and painful language heaped on black riders, and did not ask that the black riders be accepted as equals. It was well known that some riders had been killed “because they registered their disapproval of such insolence,” as my grandfather wrote. Seating was to be clearer, “first come, first served,” with black riders starting from the back and white riders starting from the front.  

No, a moment like now – that includes a global alliance with the likes of Auckland, Copenhagen, Sao Paulo and other cities where protesters have taken up the rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter” and started pushing conversations toward core and systemic causes – was unimaginable.    

As the current movement works to find its language and path forward, I’m proud to be at Enterprise. Our origin story is one of honesty and decisiveness in the face of inequality. Before founding Enterprise, Jim Rouse created the city of Columbia, Maryland, declaring that it would be “a truly open city” to anyone who wanted to be there regardless of race.   

Jim Rouse did this just 12 years after the Montgomery boycott began. It was the late 60s and Rouse was honest and decisive about the realities of that time: he sent a memo to every sales associate selling homes in Columbia, stating that the city’s color-blind policy must be “unmistakable to everyone.” He ordered copies of his memo to be “provided to every person who deals with the public in any way” and for anyone to call him directly if there were questions.    

Rouse’s vision and actions were part of a movement, and that movement opened the door for my dad to arrive from a still racially segregated Kentucky and become one of Columbia’s early homeowners. That house was my first home. I owe my path today in part to that home and the deep roots that made it possible. I know I have a part to play in this moment, as I also realize that behind it is a question of justice for the full spectrum of shades, backgrounds, ideologies and lifestyles who know profiling, prejudgment and devaluation.  

I think my grandfather said it clearly when he wrote circa 1962: “The boycott was a decided victory for the people of Montgomery and for the whole of humanity. It was never regarded by the Negroes as a struggle of blacks against whites. Rather it was thought of as a struggle of justice against injustice.”  

This moment today belongs to us all and I’m proud to stand with Enterprise as we all work to help find a just path forward. We’re all in. 

Brian McLaughlinBrian McLaughlin is president and CEO of Enterprise Community Development. He is based in Silver Spring, Maryland. 

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