When I meet people for the first time and hand them my business card, there is almost always that moment of surprise — that split second when they are creating a scenario in their minds of how I became Chairman and CEO of a highly esteemed community bank.
If you are an accomplished Black, brown or female individual, you may have experienced this as well. In my case, they assume that I wasn’t born in St. Louis or, at the very least, that I came from “good stock.” In this context, “good stock” has to do with sorting people out by their family lineage. In my case, it was neither of those. There were no silver spoons in my growing up. They are surprised to learn that I lived in extreme poverty in North St. Louis, was orphaned at eight, lived in foster care until I was 21 and then was on my own to make something of my life.
We need to create the mindset for people to view Black achievement not as an anomaly or an exception, but as the standard. Once people put away their assumptions about me, they come to understand that I was shaped by my experiences, and those experiences are at the core of my purpose today. My purpose is to help more people live their best possible lives through democratized access to capital and opportunity.
I grew up from a lineage of slaves and the harsh equities of slavery, including segregation, redlining, injustice, and more generally, economic insecurity and deprivation. The way I was shaped informs my professional and civic pursuits and gives me a clear line of sight that one powerful path forward for our region and nation is shared prosperity.
“Shared prosperity” means that wealth creation and generational transfer of wealth are the domain of all people, not just the descendants of those who presided over our country on June 19, 1865, which has become known as Juneteenth. This annual holiday observes the end of slavery in the U.S. and marks the day when news of emancipation reached people in the deepest parts of the former Confederacy in Galveston, Texas.
History tells us that many times, when black people in aggregate demonstrated initiative and ingenuity to create wealth, there was a scheme to extract it. The Tulsa race massacre burned and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of a neighborhood that, at the time, was the wealthiest Black community in the United States, known as “Black Wall Street.”
While that happened exactly 100 years ago, recent history tells a similar story. In 2009, the New York Times reported that a large financial institution systematically targeted working-class black people in Baltimore with subprime mortgages, calling them “ghetto loans.” This phenomenon did not just happen in Baltimore, but in every metropolitan area in our nation. Across the nation, black homeowners were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis, with more than 240,000 Blacks losing homes they had owned.
And the staggering consequences of this subprime, predatory lending will continue to impact generations to come. For a typical Black family, median wealth in 2031 will be almost $98,000 lower than it would have been without the Great Recession of 2008, according to the Social Science Research Council, an independent, international, nonprofit organization.
Current practices perpetuate the growing wealth and income gaps that are well documented. According to The Brookings Institute, at $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family was nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016. And the gap between Black and white households appears to have widened again in the latter part of 2020, as the pandemic and deep recession took hold, especially hurting Black Americans.
It should come as no surprise that current practices and policies perpetuate the large and persistent Black-white wealth gap that has accumulated from centuries of policies that have systematically impaired Black Americans’ ability to build, maintain and pass on wealth.
It should come as no surprise that these practices perpetuate learned helplessness, which occurs when communities continuously face negative, uncontrollable situations, when promises are made but not kept.
It should come as no surprise that people stop trying to change their circumstances, even when they are able to do so. They have the ability; what they need is a chance.
Last year, I wrote and still wholeheartedly believe, “The way forward is through shared power, through policies that promote justice and through inclusive economic prosperity.” I believe that economic mobility impacts everything – from ideas to business ownership, from justice to education, and from health access to propensity to disease.
Economic mobility is most impacted by a more equitable approach to access, both to opportunity and capital. When we realize that exceptionality is not limited by race or gender, we will not be surprised when an inner-city kid, born into poverty and raised in foster care, hands you his or her business card and it says Chairman and CEO.
Orvin T. Kimbrough is chairman and CEO of Midwest BankCentre.
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