To Understand the Riots, Consider the 'Valuation' of Black Lives
The CEO of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity contextualizes the unrest in stark financial terms.
Last Wednesday, Connie Evans testified before the Senate Small Business Committee. Evans is the president and CEO of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity. Over the course of her 25-year career — which began in community mental health, and moved toward “harnessing the marketplace” for equity solutions — she's advised everyone from the World Bank to the Clinton administration.
When Evans put her testimony together, George Floyd was still alive. She’d planned to brief the senators on structural inequalities for minority small business owners that had compounded to exclude the vast majority of entrepreneurs of color from receiving stimulus aid, and to recommend corrective legislation. But as she made her way to Capitol Hill, the country was convulsing.
“The protests didn't change my main message,” Evans says. “I didn’t want to get off into talking about the damages that are in some cases being caused to businesses during the protests. But the one thing I did say, more or less, was, ‘I cannot be an African American woman leader of an organization that supports minority-owned, black-owned, Latinx-owned, etc. businesses without at least pointing out the inequity, the injustices and the challenges that the demonstrators are speaking to. Main Street can't solve all those problems, but they do play out on Main Street.’”
Main Streets across America are where millions of people have gathered to make their voices heard — most of them peacefully. But where there have been riots and looting, that has also happened on Main Streets, to Main Streets. Particularly at the beginning of the protests, around dinner tables and in newsrooms, mostly white commentators seemed to fixate on the looting as a complicating factor in whether to support the protests more broadly. The destruction of public property was threatening to people who had always felt comfortable in and served by those Main Street spaces. It was difficult for them to fathom how other people might feel so little fidelity to the businesses and buildings in their communities, or see the unrest as a chance to gain materially.
In my conversation with Evans, she addressed this complicated issue. And she did so in language that will likely be familiar to many entrepreneurs: "Valuation."
In the context of business and finance, how do you think the more chaotic elements of the protests are best understood?
Evans: Well, I would like to think everybody of all races and ethnicities understands the outrage of the protests, and the long standing injustices and inequalities.
What they might not understand is the burning, the looting, the riots. Seeing those things on television brings up questions and fear — probably more for white people. And I think what needs to be shared is that those behaviors are a reaction to being undervalued. Valuation — that's a term that entrepreneurs recognize, right? The valuation of a company.
Consider how black people have been treated by the government, and by institutions. We can talk about banking relationships, or we can look at the stores and restaurants in black neighborhoods, which are mostly chains — not black owned, and not owned by the people in those neighborhoods. I think those things compound to make people in those communities feel that they are not valued. The individuals who are rioting or looting feel like, why should they value these things around them — these buildings, these stores, these corporate chains — when there is no reciprocal value or appreciation for them?
This whole issue of being seen as having value — I think that’s a message that everybody needs to hear. We're in a country that for all of these years has devalued the black individual — not only their communities, but the individuals themselves. To understand what's happening now, we need to truly recognize that all people have value and should be treated as such.
The economic "valuation" of black lives is so integral to our country's past.
Evans: Think about the history of this country in terms of slavery. That was a valuation put on black people — onto slaves and their labor. They were literally sold. So our ideas are rooted in the racism and discrimination and terror that stays with black folks today. I'm sure in your life you've heard somebody black say, "We have to work twice as hard to get half of white our peers are recognized as doing." All of that is about valuation, and how we're counted in this country.
What are some other areas of the economic landscape where we see stark devaluation of black communities?
Evans: I was recently reading an article about homeownership in Chicago, and it was disgraceful. It was about how every bank that gives out mortgages in Chicago would devalue every single building or home in a black neighborhood compared to the same home by square foot and everything in a white neighborhood. The value assessment of homes in black neighborhoods is pennies compared to the same homes in white neighborhoods.
We know that black-owned businesses have trouble finding capital to start businesses, and tend to stay smaller because they can’t get funding to grow. That’s part and parcel with the fact that the average black family has 10 times less wealth than the average white family. What are some less-considered impediments to black individuals amassing wealth?
Evans: I did some research back in 2006, at the height of when people were talking about remittances. [Remittances are funds that migrants send back to their families in their home countries.] I was the first black woman ever elected to the board of directors for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and during that time, a lot of folks were talking about all the remittances being sent to other countries. At one point, remittances made up the highest portion of GDP for the Mexican government. So the banks and Western Union and all these players were looking at how they were going to get a piece of that money.
I did some research and wrote an article about how black people, and in particular black women, have always been sending money to take care of our family. Right? I'm up north, but I’m sending money to help my mama down south pay for the rest of my siblings to go to school, or to do after school activities, or just to keep the heat on, or whatever.
My research showed that a large part of the reason that black women were at the bottom of almost all financial indexes was because — more than any other group — they took care of the extended family. And that was hurting their ability to build up their own financial wealth. And those contributions weren’t valued enough that any system in this country was capturing or counting them. We count what we value. If this country values it, they have a way to count it. The Federal Reserve could tell you exactly how much money is being sent to Mexico in remittances because it was valued. It was not — and still is not to this day — valued that black people are sending money across this country to take care of their extended family members.
The issue of value and valuation has been so distorted because of race and discrimination in this country. It started with the value of human beings in slavery, and it has permeated so many of our systems: Banking, business startups, the legal and justice systems. People of color, and black people in particular, simply have not been valued.