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Thirty-five Words Now Replaced by Three.

By Cheryl I. Smith, Ph.D., CFA

On July Fourth, we remember these words:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Thirty-five words memorized and recited by American schoolchildren; thirty-five words that birthed the U.S., and which inspired the French Revolution. At the time these words were written, slaves (and women) knew they were not included. In his 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass forcefully noted: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us….  The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”  

History class, though, continued to promote the fiction that slaves and the descendants of slaves, and women, were included, hurtling past the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth amendments to the Constitution necessary to create that suffrage, and completely eliding the post-Reconstruction reign of terror, imposition of Jim Crow, and ever more elaborate edifices of poll taxes and other methods of voter suppression.

Thirty-five words now replaced by three.  

I can’t breathe.  Three simple words that capture so much.  Three simple words that speak to the reality of racism in America.  Three simple words that signify how white America determines whether someone matters, whether someone has the right to walk down the street, to picnic, to sleep in their own bed, to enter their own house, to drive in their own car without fear, without their simplest and most basic actions being treated as a crime.  Three simple words. 

We are in the midst of a pandemic that threatens everyone, but at the same time demonstrates that racism and poverty kill; that death rates for Black and Latinx and Native American populations are out of all proportion to those for white Americans.  This is yet another aspect of persistent injustice in America. 

I was twelve, in sixth grade, during the appalling Spring and Summer of 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and when Chicago police beat demonstrators outside of the Democratic Convention.  In 1968, the cities boiled over in rage and anger and pain after King’s assassination, and the police response was brutal.  As a child, I saw this at a distance, but I believed that we would progress as a country, that we would come to fulfill King’s dream.  But over time, King’s calls for economic justice, for peace, for commonality between the poor of America and the poor of Viet Nam were gradually erased, leaving a softer-edged holiday celebrating the end to discrimination heralded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.   As if.

During my teens and early twenties, from 1965 to 1980, America seemed to make progress on racial justice and economic inequality.  Since then, year after year, decade after decade, from Nixon to Reagan to Trump, systematic appeals to racism and dog whistles to further political power have dragged us backwards.  A gruesome rope connects the Tulsa Race Massacre, 99 years ago, to: the lynching of Emmett Louis Till in 1955; the assassination of Medgar Evers in June 1963; the beating of Fannie Lou Hamer in Winona, MI, in 1963; the assassination of Minister Malcolm X in February 1965; the Watts Rebellion in August 1965; the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968; and the beating of Rodney King in 1991. That same gruesome rope connects more recent atrocities: Trayvon Martin, Sanford, Florida, 2012; Eric Garner, Staten Island, New York, 2014; Michael Brown, Ferguson Missouri, 2014; Laquan McDonald, Chicago, Illinois, 2014; Tamir Rice, Cleveland, Ohio, 2014; Walter Scott, North Charleston, South Carolina, 2015; Jamar Clark, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2015; Sandra Bland, Waller County, Texas, 2015; Freddie Gray, Baltimore, Maryland, 2015;Alton Sterling, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2016; Philando Castile, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2016; Stephon Clark, Sacramento, California, 2018; Botham Jean, Dallas, Texas, 2018; Elijah McClain, Aurora, Colorado, 2019; Ahmaud Arbery, Glynn County, Georgia, 2020; Breonna Taylor, Louisville, Kentucky, 2020; George Floyd, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2020, and Rayshard Brooks, Atlanta, Georgia 2020.  

These deaths are not anomalies. They reflect daily assaults to the dignity of Black Americans, and the dangers inherent in walking while Black, driving while Black, riding a subway while Black, barbequing while Black, picnicking while Black, sleeping while Black, and even bird-watching while Black.  The same rope that connects these deaths connects the vastly disparate experiences for People of Color compared to white people in any natural disaster, any period of rising unemployment, any spate of evictions, any financial crisis. Decades-long policies have systematically thwarted the accumulation of wealth by People of Color:  redlining, predatory lending, employment discrimination, highly differential enforcement of drug laws, mandatory sentencing, the building of the carceral state. In parallel, ongoing political reaction, fanned by dog whistles to racism and by pandering to many whites’ sense of aggrieved entitlement, dismantled the social safety net constructed by Franklin Roosevelt and enhanced by Lyndon Johnson.  Over decades, the leaders of political reaction have deconstructed and limited housing assistance, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and access to unemployment insurance.  They have strangled attempts to keep the minimum wage tied to inflation, resisted attempts to integrate schools as ordered by Brown vs. the Board of Education(1956) and repeatedly attempted to funnel funding from public schools to support private, i.e., racially segregated, education. In recent years, voter suppression efforts have become ever more blatant.      

Why speak now?  For thirty-three years I have worked to build the field of sustainable investing, supporting Boards and institutions that work to create a better world for all.  I have served on the Board of US SIF, working to create a sound foundation and to support US SIF’s incredibly important policy work.  I have served on the Boards of Oikocredit USA, supporting micro finance investment programs worldwide to alleviate poverty and promote community economic development; Episcopal Divinity School, supporting theological education based on faith, social justice, inclusiveness, respect, and integrity; and Resist!, supporting people’s movements for justice and liberation.  

And yet, for thirty-three years, while I have labored to build a field and to support community economic development, diverse workforces, management, and boards, environmental justice, and support for human rights, I have not spoken publicly on racism.  Racism has been at once both too personal and challenging, its ravages something I have been both connected to and yet not subject to. I have questioned whether I have the standing to speak out.      

In 1977, a time of greater hope, I met my husband, a Black man who grew up in Philadelphia, when he and I were both graduate students of Economics at Yale. Neither of us were particularly welcome in an economics department that was still convulsed by successive tidal waves that hit New Haven, the 1969 admission of women to Yale and the 1970 trial of Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins.  In 1981, a time of greater hope, we married, started our careers, moved to Denver, and had a son.  We moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts, in the Boston metro area in 1986, when our son was three months old. I ultimately found work at Trillium in early 1987.

Moving to Massachusetts was a visceral blow.  I had never encountered such hostile looks, such uniformly unpleasant people.  My husband, a professor at Wellesley College, was profiled every time he entered a store, unable to cash a check at his own bank without three forms of picture ID, harassed and moved along on the street. In the days before cell phones, I waited in agony at home every time my husband was late; would he make it home?  I moved out of Wellesley after my son was greeted on the steps of his daycare center by a five year old who proclaimed “Black people steal;” I started looking for a new apartment in a new town the day after my three-year-old son noticed racist graffiti scrawled across numerous downtown Wellesley buildings.    

I have no words to address this, except to know that the pain and the fear that I feel for my son, my son-in-law, and my first husband every time that they walk down the street, every time that they are out after dark, every time that they are running late.  This reality suffuses every day of their existence. I feel this fear for them, because I know that simply venturing out of the house, out of the apartment, into the subway, out on the street, all these are acts of bravery and resistance from which they might not return. Being with me and walking with me, might protect them. It might not.    

I have no words to say to employees at Trillium to express my concern about their anxiety in these times.  I have not found a forum that encourages our employees to discuss this hideous aspect of our world.  I have not found away to encourage us, as employees, to evaluate and move forward from all the ways in which we relate to each other as symbols instead of as individuals and persons.

As a firm, and as an industry, we strategize on how to hold companies accountable for their behavior, and I truly believe that our actions have pushed along some progress.  Now, however, we need to think about and discuss and be honest about all of the ways in which we, ourselves, perpetuate these biases and are afraid to speak because we fear that we, by our own inaction and privilege, are complicit in the continuation of this abomination. 

Trillium’s CEO, Matt Patsky, has been bluntly honest about his own assessment of whether or not we, either as a firm or as a community, have done enough.  What we have done will never be enough until justice is achieved.  We will keep working on this, as we have been working on these issues.  To admit that we have not yet succeeded in changing deeply embedded, systemic issues is to recognize the immensity of the problem, and to admit, in humility, that we do not have all of the answers and that we have not achieved perfection, or even achieved sufficiency.  We refuse to give into despair.  Because the job is not yet finished does not mean that we have not been working on it. Because we recognize that we are not perfect does not mean that we make no efforts.  At least we try.  

We know we must do better.  I hope that we have the courage, each of us, to examine our own behavior, our own assumptions, every action of our daily lives, and to reach out to our co-workers in empathy.