(Opinion) How racism hurts us all, including racists

Disparities are not accidental, but are born of centuries of enslavement and overt discrimination

An accomplished chef settles in New Hampshire. He breathes new life into an old diner in a struggling downtown district. Mindful of his context, he maintains the former menus and decor.

The chef is “Black” but the food and vibe he is serving are “white.” Things are going fine.

Five months later, in April of last year, Chef Gerald Oriol makes a change to the downtown Nashua diner he owns. After serving other people’s cuisine under other people’s banner for decades, the Haitian native gives Norton’s Classic Cafe a new name, Caribbean Breeze, to go with the dinner menu he has added and fulfill a longtime passion. Breakfast and lunch are still the same. So are the black-white tiles and 1950s-themed sock hop booths in teal green and pink.

A few days after a new awning is unfurled, someone vandalizes his property by writing the N-word in white marker on the front window.

Oriol has sensed resentment among some customers but chooses not to take the incident personally. He keeps quiet, trusting the police will complete a thorough investigation. The “investigation” consists of reviewing the restaurant’s security camera, which does not capture the right angle. None of the other establishments on the busy downtown corner are contacted. No footage from their street-facing cameras is reviewed. No local inhabitants and potential eyewitnesses are interviewed. No one is apprehended. The case is catalogued as “criminal mischief,” rather than a hate crime, and closed.

Then in October, after a man plasters all of Oriol’s windows with a sticky white substance and police fail to update him on the outcome of either investigation, Oriol decides to go public.

These facts were recently reported by NH Business Review and the Granite State News Collaborative, which obtained a copy of the police report and interviewed Oriol and a neighboring business owner at length. Although the racist acts and problematic police response are specific to the case at hand, they are also familiar to other African Americans in Nashua, including my wife and kids, who have been called the N-word and subjected to other insults.

The events are also symptomatic of the disease of racism and white supremacy that still infects American life. Rather than the proverbial “bad apple” or a single polluted pond, the data clearly shows that racism has tainted the very groundwater that feeds us all, regardless of whether we harbor racial biases of our own. The price we pay collectively, in social and economic terms, is staggering.

According to a landmark 2020 report from Citi Bank, racial inequality cost the entire U.S. economy $16 trillion in lost GDP over the last 20 years. It also adds up to more than 6 million fewer jobs per year and trillions less in tax revenue that could be invested in better roads and schools and healthcare for everyone.

The report examined racial differences in business lending, wages, education and housing, and found the bulk of the economic losses to American society came from lack of capital and discriminatory lending practices driving down small business activity among African Americans.

For example, Black-owned firms have a harder time raising capital than whiteowned firms with the same credit profile and performance, according to the Federal Reserve, and those that do get financing typically receive less than half of what they requested. In the relationship-based business of venture capital investing, a Stanford University study found that when “venture capital funds are managed by a person of color with strong credentials, professional investors judge them more harshly than their white counterparts with identical credentials.”

A recent Federal Reserve study found that Americans of European descent have roughly six times as much wealth, per capita, as African Americans, and “no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between Black and white households over the past 70 years.”

These disparities are not accidental. They are born of centuries of enslavement and overt discrimination, which prevented most African Americans from owning homes and businesses and even themselves from 1619 to 1865. They were maintained in the 20th century by elaborate systems of legalized discrimination on the part of government and private entities spanning housing, education, hiring, policing, healthcare and more. And they continue to this day in persistent racial inequities documented in the Citi Bank report.

Ironically, the people who vandalized Chef Oriol’s restaurant are harming themselves in the process. As Heather McGhee, author of “The Sum of Us,” has shown, racism doesn’t merely damage its intended targets. “White” perpetrators of racist ideas lose out too by shrinking the pie of economic and social well-being. In the process, they inadvertently prevent public investments that would benefit us all.

Dan Weeks lives in Nashua with his wife and kids.

Categories: Opinion