When Generational Promises Are Made But Not Kept

By Orvin T. Kimbrough

This article was originally posted in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on 6/18/2021

When people I meet for the first time read my business card, I sometimes witness their minds creating a scenario to explain how I, a Black man, became Chairman and CEO of a highly esteemed community bank. I imagine my experience is shared by other accomplished Black and brown people as well as many women.

Many assume I either came from “good stock” or was born elsewhere. The truth is that I lived in extreme poverty in East St. Louis and north St. Louis, was orphaned at age eight, and was a foster child in multiple settings until I “aged out,” still hoping to make something of my life.

Black achievement should not be an anomaly or an exception. It can be the standard outcome of a society where all people have access to the conditions that enable success. I grew up in the lineage of slaves, with artifacts that include segregation, deprivation, redlining, injustice and other practices that created general economic insecurity. These shaped my professional and civic pursuits to help people live their best possible lives by gaining democratic access to opportunity and capital, setting the stage for shared prosperity.

The Juneteenth holiday observes the end of slavery in the U.S., marked on June 19, the date news of emancipation reached people in 1865 at the deepest reach of the former Confederacy (Galveston, Texas). At the time, Black Americans werepromised40 acres, which never materialized. They were encouraged to place their savings into Freedman’s Savings bank and deposited the equivalent of $20 million in today’s dollars. The bank failed, and many Black Americans lost their hard-earned savings.

Time and again, when black people demonstrated initiative and ingenuity in creating wealth, there were many schemes to extract it. Among these was the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when white mobs looted, burned and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of a neighborhood that was then the wealthiest Black community in the country, known as “Black Wall Street.”

In more recent history, a large financial institution systematically targeted working-class Blacks in Baltimore with subprime mortgages in 2009, calling them “ghetto loans.” This phenomenon extended to every metropolitan area of our nation. Not surprisingly, the foreclosure crisis disproportionately affected Black homeowners, with more than 240,000 losing homes they had owned. The staggering consequences of this subprime, predatory lending harm generations to come by the erasing capital investments in homes and future value gains.

Systems that perpetuate the growing wealth and income gaps by race are well documented. According to the Brookings Institute, the average net worth of a white families, calculated at $171,000 in 2016, is nearly 10 times greater than the average Black family at $17,150. Reports in late 2020 documented the still-widening wealth gap between Black and white households, as the effects of the pandemic and looming recession were felt.

The unacknowledged truth is that current practices perpetuate the persistent Black-white wealth gap that has accelerated from centuries of policies that systematically harm Black Americans’ ability to build, maintain and pass on wealth. These practices perpetuate learned helplessness, which occurs when communities continuously face a negative, uncontrollable situation and when promises are made but not kept. It should come as no surprise that people who repeatedly experience such circumstances stop trying. Opportunity and access means giving people an equitable chance.

Last year I wrote, “The way forward is through shared power, through policies that promote justice and through inclusive economic prosperity.” I continue to believe that economic mobility impacts everything – from the ability to generate ideas to business ownership, from justice to education, and from propensity for disease to healthcare access. Economic mobility is shaped by a democratic approach to opening the way to opportunity and access to capital.

When we succeed in shaping systems that no longer place the false limits of race, gender and economic origins on exceptionality, we won’t be surprised when an inner-city kid, born into poverty and raised in foster care, hands you his business card and it says, “Chairman and CEO.”

Orvin T. Kimbrough is chairman and CEO of Midwest BankCentre.

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