View of some of the leaders of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. Among those pictured are, front row from left, John Lewis, Mathew Ahmann, Floyd B. McKissick (1922-1991), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), Reverend Eugene Carson Blake (1906-1985), Cleveland Robinson (1914-1995), and Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1988) (in sunglasses). The march provided the setting for Dr. King’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
An unchecked pandemic. Mass protests in response to the killing of Black citizens. A siege on the U.S. Capitol that featured guns, nooses, and the Confederate flag. The past 12 months have been among the most tumultuous ever for Americans, and for Black Americans in particular.
As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy again this year, we’d like to offer an appeal. Let’s not only celebrate his dream of a just and equal America, but redouble our efforts to make it a reality. And let’s do it by utilizing one of the great hallmarks of our country: our system of capitalism.
King himself recognized the essential link between capitalism, economic opportunity, and racial equality. Few remember that the landmark 1963 Washington, D.C., event at which he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech was actually called the “March for Jobs and Freedom.” King knew that the tools White Americans use to build wealth and increase their social mobility–buying a home, starting a business, and securing a good job–are key to promoting opportunity and freedom for everyone.
As leaders of two organizations that support these goals, we also see the pressing need to make these tools available to everyone who’s been shut out from using them. The urgency is especially great for Black Americans. The 2018 Annual Business Survey found that Black people own just 2.2 percent of the roughly six million businesses in the U.S. Today, the racial homeownership gap is even wider than it was in the 1940s. And the median net worth of Black households in 2016 was just $17,150, compared with $171,000 for White households.
Covid-19 has only exacerbated this inequality. In addition to its disparate health impacts, the pandemic has also had a much greater effect on Black businesses and employees. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently reported that 41 percent of Black-owned businesses–about 440,000 enterprises–have been shuttered by Covid-19, compared with just 17 percent of White-owned businesses. At the height of the pandemic’s first wave, Black unemployment topped 17 percent, and it is back on the rise now.
Yet despite this tumult–and perhaps because of it–there are signs of hope. The video of George Floyd’s murder last spring not only impelled millions of Americans to make their voices heard in favor of racial justice. It also compelled thousands of business leaders to examine how they can use the tools of capitalism and corporate power to create a more just and equitable society. Notably, their responses this time have gone far beyond donating to worthy charities and issuing empathetic statements. We’re seeing real evidence of companies using the structures of finance, employment, and social capital, with the specific intent of supporting Black entrepreneurs, business, and employees.
For example, Netflix announced that it is moving $100 million in deposits into Black-owned financial institutions. The consulting firm EY is leveraging its vast network of clients to connect diverse entrepreneurs to mentors, capital, and customers–access to which Black entrepreneurs often lack. Mastercard announced a $500 million investment to uplift Black entrepreneurs. Moody’s and Adidas are expanding opportunity pipelines to good jobs in their firms by expanding college internship programs, and making even greater efforts to recruit Black and Latinx candidates.
Actions like these show that businesses and corporations are essential to dismantling systemic inequalities. But there’s one more essential partner: the government. Just as the U.S. president and Congress did in Dr. King’s day, the Biden administration and Congress have a huge opportunity to use current spending on education, the economy, and workforce development more effectively. The new secretary of education should champion entrepreneurship and career awareness education in our public schools.
The next secretary of labor can help direct federal job training dollars to help teenagers and young adults start their own businesses. Congress should pass the Next Generation Entrepreneur Corps Act, a bipartisan bill offered by Democrat Chris Coons and Republican Tim Scott that would create a national fellowship program to build the next generation of diverse entrepreneurs.
Five decades ago, millions of Americans were inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership to push for Black Americans’ basic civil rights. Now we’re at another inflection point, marked by the imperative to include all Americans, and especially Black Americans, in the promise of American capitalism.
As Dr. King put it in his most famous address: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir … America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned … But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
Today, the bank of justice remains solvent–even in these turbulent times–because our fellow Americans and American businesses are continuing to make deposits. So on this Martin Luther King Day, consider that bank to be open–and waiting for your contribution.
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