Fifty-seven years ago, 250,000 Americans convened on our nation’s capital for the historic March on Washington, punctuated by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Often overlooked a half century later, the full name of the gathering was actually the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with a heavy focus on closing the stark gap in employment, prosperity, and economic opportunity between white and Black Americans. More than a half century later, while we have made some progress, that stark gap remains, and the work to close it remains as important and urgent as ever.
The opportunity to obtain an education, secure a job, start a business, or provide for your family remains stubbornly determined by the color of your skin. For decades, Black unemployment rates have been consistently twice as high as white unemployment rates. Black students are twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools than their white peers, and Black business owners struggle to access capital for their ventures. Additionally, Black Americans are more likely than whites to be arrested, convicted and sentenced, making it more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to re-enter the job market and build a new and better life.
“The persistent racial disparities we see today did not happen by accident,” the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s states in Business Case for Racial Equity, “they arose from a long history of deliberate policies based on race, and have been perpetuated by biases that remain.”
Systemic inequalities hurt individuals, communities, our economy, and our society, and they are deepening amid the economic shock of the coronavirus and in the wake of recent protests around racial injustice.
A recent report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife found that minority-owned small business owners are more likely than non-minority owners to report difficulty obtaining loans (13 percent vs. 8 percent), express fears about permanently closing (66 percent vs. 57 percent), and predict declining revenue in the coming year (24 percent vs. 17 percent). And there has been a 17-point increase (52 percent to 69 percent) from the beginning of 2020 in the number of small business owners believing minority-owned small businesses face more challenges than non-minority-owned ones.
The pandemic and corresponding economic crisis has thrust these issues into the national spotlight. It’s time for policy and business leaders to capitalize on the momentum and enact real change to ensure that the enduring inequality of opportunity rooted in racial bias remains in the past. It’s time to pass smart legislation to close opportunity gaps and promote upward mobility.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently endorsed — and thus will score members of Congress on — a package of bipartisan bills that propose tangible solutions to start addressing injustices, and is part of the broader Equality of Opportunity Initiative, and effort to advance business solutions and policy recommendations to bridge opportunity gaps and ensure that Black Americans and people of color have greater opportunities to succeed. This effort, of course, is a small part of the needed public-private response.
Driven by data and informed by conversations with business, government, academic, and civic leaders, recommendations include supporting more equitable educational funding; promoting diversity in corporate leadership; improving access to capital for Black-owned businesses; and enhancing educational and employment opportunities for persons formerly incarcerated.
More than a half century ago, Americans marched on the promise of equal opportunity – equal opportunity for good jobs, economic mobility, and the promise of a brighter tomorrow. It’s on all of us across the private and public sectors to finally deliver on the promise of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which echoed through the streets of America in the protests that followed the tragic killing of George Floyd.
We can and we must seize this moment to help close the longstanding opportunity gaps for Black Americans and Black communities. Equality of opportunity simply cannot wait another 50 years.
Rick Wade is the Vice President of Strategic Alliances and Outreach at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organization in the world.