June 29, 2020

So What, Now What?

David Bowers at FBDI Forum

"Piss or get off the pot."

"Do you want to be made well?"

These two phrases keep running through my mind in the wake of several recent killings of Black Americans at the hands of police and the resulting protests that have taken place. The statement was something my late mother used to say when she would call the question on folks. When there had been enough talk – too much talk at times – and it was the moment to either step up to action or sit down and hush and admit one wasn’t up to the task.  

The question – “Do you want to be made well?” – is one Jesus posed to a sick man lying at the Pool of Bethesda. Jesus knew the man had been in that condition a long time. He knew the man had it in him to get up. The question was, did he want to be well? Did he want his condition to change?   

From 1619 until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, Africans and their descendants were not slaves in America. Africans and their descendants were EN-slaved in America. It was an intentional act by whites in America, not some accident. They wanted Blacks to be enslaved. The Confederate leaders whose statues are the focus of so much debate today were leaders of the 11 states that intentionally waged a treasonous war against the United States for the primary reason of maintaining their right to intentionally enslave Africans and their descendants in order to continue profiting from their free labor. 

The enactment of Black Codes after the Civil War and later Jim Crow laws were not accidental. These laws were intentionally enacted to limit the freedoms of African-Americans and provide a continued cheap labor force for white Americans – perpetuating wealth gaps that persist to this day. They also were intended to limit the economic and political power of African-Americans. Whites in America wanted to deprive Blacks of the spoils of freedom. 

In a documentary about Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to win an NFL Super Bowl, he recalls how in the 1950s and 60s, the Ku Klux Klan held weekend rallies in his small town in Louisiana. These were intentional acts of terror by white Americans against Black Americans. Hearing Doug speak of that terror reminded me of stories I would hear in my family of my late grandfather, who lived in Louisiana. He used to say you always needed to have “a good white man in your pocket you could call on” in case you ever needed help getting out of trouble —trouble brought intentionally by white Americans against Black Americans, essentially designed to keep Black folks in their place and remind them of their place. 

Intentional Acts, Disproportionate Harm 

The discrimination codified in so many ways by residential redlining, captured so deftly in the Undesign the Redline exhibit created by Designing the WE and brought to cities across the country by Enterprise – including Baltimore, Columbia and D.C. – was yet another intentional effort by white Americans in the 20th century to continue to oppress and deprive Black Americans of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That language is from the Declaration of Independence signed by white American men, many of whom at some point held enslaved Africans. Connect the dots.  

Redlining in the 20th century was no accident. The predatory lending that was a key factor in the 2008 financial crisis was part of a collection of intentional, reckless actions by a range of players that disproportionately impacted non-white Americans. The greed and resulting loss of wealth caused by the ensuing economic collapse and foreclosure crisis again disproportionately impacted many non-white Americans, already far behind white Americans in household wealth.  

In June 2019, a three-judge state court panel ruled that North Carolina’s legislative maps were an unconstitutional gerrymander. Data found on a consultant’s computer after his death showed that racial balance had played a role in lawmakers’ efforts to create boundaries. Judges wrote that assertions by Republican lawmakers that this was not the case were “not credible for multiple reasons.” These were intentional attempts to suppress the power of people of color in general and Black Americans in particular. White elected officials wanted to suppress Black political power. In 2019. 

The officer who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while coldly looking into cameras recording his murder of an unarmed man who did not resist arrest and cried out for his mother – while referring to his killer as “sir” – was an intentional act of literally depriving a Black man of life. In May 2020.  

In June 2020 Atlanta megachurch pastor Louie Giglio caused an outcry after calling slavery “a blessing,” as the Washington Post reported: 

“We understand the curse that was slavery, white people do,” Giglio said during a conversation Sunday about race in America with hip-hop artist Lecrae Moore and Chick-fil-A chief executive Dan Cathy, who is an evangelical Christian. “And we say that was bad. But we miss the blessing of slavery, that it actually built up the framework for the world that white people live in.” After his comments started to draw backlash, Giglio tweeted that he was “not seeking to refer to slavery as blessing — but that we are privileged because of the curse of slavery. In calling it a privilege/benefit/blessing — word choice wasn’t great. Trying to help us see society is built on the dehumanization of others. My apology, I failed.” 

Does America – do white Americans – want  to be made well from the scourge of anti-Black racism in our country? Or are they okay with the “blessing of slavery” and its legacy? 

There have been and will continue to be many recounts of anti-Black racism in our country – from 1619 to today, from individual acts to institutionalized and systemic manifestations. The question is: So what, now what?” 

Agency and Responsibility in Real Terms 

Some may not be fully aware of all the nuances and data points. Yet to pretend that white Americans at a collective level do not know of the racist realities in our nation would be, to be kind, disingenuous. And there has been much written and discussed for generations about what could be done to change behavior and make amends. Like the man at the Pool of Bethesda, the time is now for white Americans to “rise, pick up your bed and walk.” While that charge came from Jesus – the actual act of getting up was done by the sick man. He had agency and responsibility. Jesus charged the man, after 38 years of lying sick, of making excuses, to essentially “piss or get off the pot.”   

In real terms, that means reparations. Hiring targets for boards, C-suites and all levels of positions. Targets for how much money will be done via business partnerships with Black-owned businesses. Whatever you spend money on, have real targets with accountability and transparency for partnering with Black-owned businesses – from banks to caterers, lawyers to landscapers.  

Stop family and friends from saying racist things. Plan meals that bring together white families and Black families.  

Support a strengthened Community Reinvestment Act. Support efforts to expand Black ownership of housing and businesses. Take a cue from Colorado lawmakers and support an end to qualified immunity for police. Ban police use of chokeholds. Support district attorneys who will seek justice at all times and not just when videos of killings become public. From the courthouse to the White House, city hall to Congress, vote for candidates who commit to tearing down the legacies of institutional racism and support policies that promote equal justice and equitable opportunities for all. 

To move forward positively, let me offer that starting with “I,” moving to “we” and then to “you” will be helpful to the cause. Let us ask ourselves: What am I doing to combat anti-Black racism in this country? How am I spending my money? How am I spending my time? What words am I using? Then move to your circle of influence and ask: What more can we be doing? Ask this of your family. Of your place of employment. Of your house of worship. Of your network of friends. Of your fraternity or sorority. Your book club.  

Let me model the behavior. In the last few years I have put in more time mentoring Black boys with the 100 Black Men of Greater Washington. I have increased the time spent on work to end murders in Washington, D.C.  

I have intentionally spent more of my personal money at Black-owned businesses. I opened an account at a Black-owned bank. During the coronavirus pandemic, I have promoted the goods and services of two Black-owned businesses to friends and family. I have made suggestions to my employer, Enterprise Community Partners, about doing business with companies owned or controlled by Black Americans and other minorities. 

On the “we” side, Enterprise’s Mid-Atlantic office started a process in 2018 called “The Obvious.” One item that came out of that effort was an intentional priority to bridge the racial equity gaps between whites and Blacks in Baltimore and D.C. in the areas of housing, wealth, health and education. Toward that goal, we have started to direct more investment into homeownership and healthy food efforts where they’re needed most. We have engaged elected officials with proposals on reparations/economic redress. 

The Work to be Done 

To be clear, we at Enterprise have much work to do. I don’t – we don’t – pretend to have all the answers. We have basic assumptions to confront, and there are still challenging conversations to have and standard operating procedures to address to further the cause. In some cases, we will get it right. In others, we will come up short.  

That said, we are not starting at zero. Months before the current wave of protests began, we made racial equity a pillar of our forthcoming strategic plan. Three years ago, we launched a  diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. And Enterprise has a history rooted in the faith and commitment to justice of three women at the Church of the Savior community who spurred Jim Rouse to create Enterprise and build an institution that has positively impacted lives across the country. We are called, like all of us in this moment – not to pat ourselves on the back for what we have done, but to ask: What more can we do, what more should we do? 

I say to all of us – but in particular to my white brothers and sisters: If you know that you do not want to be made well – that you really do not want to be better and do better in the fight against anti-Black racism and are not going to be about real and meaningful change – then please just acknowledge that. Better to say nothing than to speak hollow words. Better to be quiet and continue doing the often hard, challenging, out-of-your-comfort zone work behind the scenes that prepares you to move into real meaningful action.  

Stop with the “go away” money meant to appease. Stop with the press releases with no action behind them. Stop with calling and asking Black friends and colleagues what can be done when you have yet to ask yourself the “What have I done?” question. This does not mean you have to have it all perfect and figured out before you make statements or take action.  

To be clear, we want and need you in the fight against anti-Black racism. At worst, you have perpetuated it; at least, you have benefited from it even when you didn’t realize it. We want and need you to be vocal and active – as we have seen examples in recent weeks. Just don’t waste time posturing if you won’t be about the real intentional work that will be necessary to tear down 401 years of intentional racism in America. That work must happen in the spiritual, legal, policy and operational policy realms. At times, it will be a long and difficult slog. Yet as we are already seeing with policy and budget changes being made in state houses and boardrooms in the wake of Floyd 8:46, change can happen when folks decide they want to be well and simply rise, pick up their bed and walk.   

I wish my Momma were here to see it. 

David Bowers is vice president and Mid-Atlantic market leader for Enterprise Community Partners. He is an ordained minister and the founder of the all-volunteer NO MURDERS DC movement.  

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