George Floyd protests

Opinion: Focus on scalable growth, access to capital and pardon reform — and listen to Black Philadelphians

We need a vaccine for the racist pandemic.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at Philadelphia police headquarters on Monday, June 1

Hundreds of protesters gathered at Philadelphia police headquarters on Monday, June 1

Emma Lee / WHYY

Protests decrying the continued police killings of Black Americans have coalesced all over Philadelphia for days on end. In some cases, the peaceful daytime actions were followed by what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the language of the unheard.” Referred to as “riots” in the 1960s and now more accurately called “civil unrest,” they represent decades of repressed rage sublimated into property destruction.

Are we willing to work as hard to find a vaccine for the racist pandemic that has been afflicting the world for 520 years as we are for COVID-19?  Are we going to turn this crisis into an opportunity for transformation?

Black lives in this country and this city are demonstrably less valuable than white lives, on virtually every measure.  The stats the Economy League has pulled together for our “Color of Inequality” Leading Indicators series show this starkly on the city level.

In Philly, if you live in a majority-Black census tract, your median household income is 48% of a white-majority tract, and the overall poverty rate is 2.6 times higher.

As an example, median household income where I live in Northern Liberties is $84,000 and life expectancy is 74.4 years. About a mile and a half west in Sharswood, median household income is $15,000 (about a fifth of the former), and life expectancy is 64.4 years, a whopping 10-year difference.

In a powerful message on Tuesday, Donavan West, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, noted the incredible emotional toll faced by African Americans by the twin stressors of a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted people of color, exposing a “host of race and socio-economic disparities.”

Said West: “Do you mean to tell me that I also have to be reminded that I am not able to talk to a white woman about her dog without fear of incarceration, jog and check out a house under construction…without fear of being hunted and killed, sleep in my house without fear that I’ll be killed, or be detained by the cops without fear of losing my life?”

He called upon his non-Black colleagues and friends to “move your focus from the riots/demonstrations to the actual root cause.”

Rather than meet the anger bubbling up for decades from centuries of not being heard, are people like me — with the gift of white male privilege, in a “good” ZIP code with the “right” skin tone — going to respond with compassion and love and understanding or with fear and hate and force?  Are we ready to listen to understand?

There are plenty of things we can be doing differently and better on the local level to focus on “the actual root cause,” and toward that vaccine.

We can double down on strategies to create opportunities for Black-owned businesses to achieve scalable growth, such as harnessing the purchasing power of our large institutions and creating access to equity capital. We can build a more collaborative, coordinated workforce system that is responsive to needs of employers so that more people get connected to employment opportunities.

We can work toward pardon reform, so that those disproportionately impacted by the so-called criminal justice system can have a better shot at a decent job after doing time.  We can convene our civic leaders across sectors and lines of difference and explore ways to create what we at the Economy League are calling “inclusive agility,” resilience with equity that has been found lacking in so many of our big systems like workforce development, education, transportation and mobility, retail, hospitality, and others.

And perhaps most immediately important, we can work with allies to ensure that our police department becomes a true agent of public safety for all Philadelphians.

We need to demand that police on our public payroll are carefully chosen, well-trained, and led by people who understand the notion of community policing. We need to eliminate a “cover-up culture,” as West put it.

At the Economy League, we pledge to deepen our work with our allies at the African American Chamber and elsewhere.

People with my demographics in positions of leadership need to hear — to really hear — “the language of the unheard.” We need to work together like all of our lives depend on it. Because they do.