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Taking the Historic View of Economic Oppression, Opportunity

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The United States is inarguably one of the wealthiest economies in the world, with the largest gross domestic product on the planet.

But one thing rarely discussed is the fact that America’s economic standing has roots in centuries of oppression of people of color.

This analysis of our economic history has much to tell us about the state of current race relations and the powder keg of conflict we’ve seen emerge around racial bias in policing.

One of my college professors, internationally acclaimed conflict transformation scholar and practitioner John Paul Lederach, describes the importance of an expansive view of the present when dealing with conflicts.

He talks about the “200-year present,” which he defines as not just your own life experience, but the life of the oldest person you’ve known and the youngest person you know and their potential life span.

It is very easy to presume that conflict is just about what is happening right now, but for one or more factions, it is almost always about decades, if not centuries, of lived experience.

For black Americans, the “present” could include parts of this country’s 245 years of slavery, 100 years of legal segregation and economic discrimination and almost 50 years of the war on drugs and mass incarceration that continues to disproportionately affect people of color.

This “present” for whites could include immigration, fleeing from oppression in other parts of the world and poverty, among other trials. But it could also include slave-holding, white supremacy and participating in or benefiting from legal oppression.

So what do we do with this? First, I think it is essential to listen without defense to the stories of the “200-year present” of your neighbors or to those you disagree with.

Finger-pointing, name-calling and blanket sharing on Facebook isn’t particularly conducive to progress. But real conversations, relationships and pragmatic action toward healing and change are.

For many white people, this fearsome work can induce guilt, frustration and a deep sense of not knowing what to do — but listening helps discern further action.

So why is this article in the business section?

At Assets, over and over we see ways that our racial and economic history adds up to unequal opportunity for our clients — especially people of color — who are seeking to start or grow their own businesses.

Through the programs we offer, we see our clients working to expand their economic opportunity, but often see that it takes a system disruption to ensure their success.

For example, it took the creation of a new financial product not provided by our financial system — a credit building microloan — to truly meet the needs of some of our clients and provide a greater chance of business success.

In general, due to many of the systemic reasons outlined above, people of color have amassed just one-tenth of the wealth that whites have in this country.

The average cost to start a business is $30,000, which far exceeds the average net assets of most people of color. Such a reality is a proxy for our larger conversations around race and class: Equitable development and progress is a mixture of personal effort combined with access to appropriate and equitable systems and structures.

I challenge you to ask questions, dream up new disruptions and build systems that are equitable and true to the American dream.

We don’t need to look far for opportunities for engagement. Here are several:

— Lancaster County’s school achievement levels are widely disparate based on race and class. Can we collaborate across districts to further integrate students, gain efficiencies and pilot new programs that one district can’t do alone?

— Lancaster County’s business ownership is not reflective of its population. Can your household intentionally move some of your buying power away from large corporate stores that siphon profits away from the community to local businesses owned by people of color and women instead?

— Our elected representation is not reflective of our racial and gender diversity. Could you run for office or support underrepresented candidates?

— Lancaster city’s poverty rate exceeds Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s. Can your business explore the possibility of hiring someone with a barrier to employment or raise the wages of your lowest-paid workers?

— Many have described current race relations as a tinderbox. Are we going to fan the flames or learn about what is making this so incendiary and do something productive about it, even if it is the harder thing to do?

I encourage you to engage in real conversations with a wider group of people across racial and economic differences that consider our 200-year present and barriers that may be beyond our own making and help come up with new solutions.

• Jessica King is executive director of Assets, an organization that seeks to create economic opportunity and cultivate entrepreneurial leadership in order to alleviate poverty and build vibrant, sustainable communities.