As a white person I can never really know what it’s like to be Black in America. After a seemingly endless streak of wrongful deaths from state-sanctioned violence. After listening to all the rhetoric about the American dream only to find closed doors and rigged systems at every turn. And after navigating daily doses of micro-aggressions and the weight that comes with them.
What I can do though, is move myself, my company and the communities I’m a part of down the path to fully recognizing our responsibilities, turning the corner to action and working with Black people in our communities to build a more equitable society, starting now.
Several years ago, thanks to the equity-focused work of some of our clients, I was awakened to my own connections to the racist systems that have left us in the situation we see today. My Dad went through ROTC in college and then served a couple years in the Army during the Korean War. As it worked out, he never ended up setting foot on Korea. Still, it was honorable service, and as a result he was able to attend law school on the GI Bill. Meanwhile, over 600,000 Black people served in the Korean War effort. When they tried to access the GI Bill, the vast majority were denied the benefits. Some were even dishonorably discharged just to keep them from accessing what they had earned.
Skip ahead a few years and my Dad’s a lawyer, my folks are married and they closed on the mortgage for their first house in January of 1966. At that time redlining was still practiced in Portland. Black people, plenty with good credit, were denied opportunities for similar mortgage loans because of what part of town they lived in, and really because of the color of their skin.
Skip ahead again and college was just par for the course. It didn’t feel like privilege at the time, but that’s what it was. Skip ahead yet again and just like interest on money invested, those benefits compound over time. They grow. My kids essentially are still benefiting from that original GI Bill award. Conversely, the negative impact of not having those benefits just as easily compounded over time as well.
Becoming aware of this history has helped me more fully recognize the lack of fairness in our systems. Today I’m one of the owners of this business. When we have success we think to ourselves, “We worked hard.” “We earned it.” But a lot of what we have or don’t have today has its roots in systems like I’ve described and others that are still very present. If you’re white and you look under the hood of your life and career, I think you’ll find these manifestations of racism are closer to home than you think. And therefore, so is the responsibility to do something about it.
So, on to doing something about it. We need to be active in our pursuit of a more just society. Being supportive in intentions only at this point is being an accomplice to racism and its byproducts. From Jim Crow laws to white-only covenants at the founding of my neighborhood (Laurelhurst), and from the way we site our freeways to the way we fund our schools today, white supremacy keeps reinventing itself. It has a gravity of its own and we must actively fight against it, otherwise it just moves from one manifestation to another amongst us – and against Black people.
At Coates Kokes we’ve started down this path, but we need to do more. We’ve sent managers to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) trainings for years, but we’re committing to all-agency trainings and dialogue over the next year to deepen our understanding and our capacity for action.
For the last two years we’ve mandated that a qualified person of color is recruited and interviewed for every position before a hiring decision is made. It’s a work in progress and we need to take this further.
We already buy most of our agency resources from BIPOC-owned, woman-owned or fellow B-Corp enterprises like ourselves, but we’re committing to specifically tracking and elevating the work we share with BIPOC-owned businesses.
We’re focusing our pro-bono work to Black community based organizations in support of their work.
Personally, the money my wife and I donate to my alma mater goes exclusively to the Taking Up Space program in U of O’s J-School designed to help students of color launch successful careers in advertising. My partners and I are committed to having a paid intern from this program at the agency next summer.
I’m in day five of a 21-day racial equity habit building challenge. There are many opportunities to hear from Black voices and to let them shine light on the path forward. Join me.
From our work in behavior change we know that doing something physical – an action – will have a more lasting effect on your commitment to end racism than anything you can read. Please vote, volunteer and invest. We need programs and more importantly policies that support Black communities. Yes, we desperately need police reform, and that is just a start. We also need to work upstream to create the opportunities that lead to rewarding lives, but that have been so often denied to Black people.
If the Jefferson High School renovation and modernization project makes it onto the ballot, please vote for it. In our work with leaders in the Black community through Multnomah County REACH, it’s clear that few things are as symbolic of and to the Black community here in Portland as “Jeff.”
If you’re looking to understand your own personal connections to racism, this book helped me, The Color of Law. It details just how systematic, structural and real racism has been and is in our country. Yes, it’s reading, but it’s a place to start. Journal your own connections to these policies if you want. To borrow from Black leaders I listen to, “We’ve got to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable” to move this forward.
Unwinding even some of the 400 years of racism in our country is going to be a journey. Awareness is just the start.
The agency and I are picking up the pace. Join us.