In centuries past, miners would bring a canary down into the mineshaft with them. Any toxic gases would kill the canary first, warning the miners.
Today, people of color are America’s — and San Francisco’s — canaries in the coal mine, and we’re having trouble breathing.
When the economy struggles, Americans of color feel it first and worst. We’re feeling it now.
According to figures released by the Census Bureau last year, for every dollar of wealth a white family owns, the median Asian family has 63 cents, the median Latino family has 7 cents and the median African-American family has less than a nickel. A study just released by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that black and Latino households lost net worth at more than double the rate of whites from 2005 to 2011.
There was a time when circumstances like that could be ignored. The white majority so dominated America’s political, cultural and economic life that “minorities” could be left on the margins and white America might never feel it. Those days are over.
Today, communities of color already make up about 60 percent of California’s population, and will be the American majority by around 2040. If we don’t prosper, America can’t prosper.
The organization where I work, The Greenlining Institute, was founded 20 years ago by men and women who recognized that, as they wrote in a 1996 Los Angeles Times column, “the next phase of the civil-rights revolution [is] the battle for economic justice.” That battle has never been more important.
Corporate America is beginning to get it. More companies have come to see communities of color as markets to be cultivated, recognizing that embracing diversity — from their executive suites to the contractors from whom they buy goods and services — can help connect them to those markets. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s a start.
On the governmental level, it often seems like we’re going backward, from a woefully unfair tax system to budget cuts that soak the poor while careful exceptions are made to avoid inconveniencing business travelers. For our economy to grow, we need a positive agenda that helps all of America’s communities prosper.
What might such an agenda look like?
It could start with a fairer tax system that discourages big corporations from hiding profits in overseas tax shelters and doesn’t let hedge fund managers pay a lower tax rate than plumbers and teachers.
It would fund higher education adequately, so students don’t graduate from college buried in debt that won’t be paid off until their kids are in college.
It would channel investments in critical programs to create jobs, starting with a comprehensive approach to supporting and growing “minority”-owned businesses. For too long, government and corporations, including the tech companies swarming through San Francisco, have ignored the potential growth of the minority business sector.
And it absolutely must include a proactive policy supporting homeownership, which remains a critical path to financial stability and asset building. Today — especially here in the Bay Area — the doors to homeownership are closing for all but the wealthy. We must support housing counseling, create public-private down-payment assistance pools, establish credit policies that prevent the recklessness of the bubble without needlessly shutting out responsible borrowers, and channel foreclosed properties to families and community groups rather than investors and quick-buck artists.
All of this requires positive government action on the local, state and federal levels. We don’t have time to waste.
Orson Aguilar is executive director of The Greenlining Institute, which is holding its 20th anniversary Economic Summit on May 17 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. For details, see http://greenlining.org/economic-summit/summit-2013.