This summer the nation is reckoning with its racial history. The Black Lives Matter movement and the killing of George Floyd — and far too many others — have drawn national attention to racial inequities in a fashion not seen in years. It is not only protest and advocacy that has brought us to this reckoning; it is also a growing awareness of data and analysis that shed light on inequities that belie the American ideal of equality of opportunity.
Surely our predecessors during the civil rights movement hoped that the landmark legislation of the 1950s and 1960s would go a great distance toward leveling the playing field. But the earnings gap between white men and black men is no smaller now than it was in the 1950s — having risen until the 1970s and then fallen back — and the average net worth of black families is roughly 1/10th of that of white families. We must ask ourselves why, and what can be done.
A recent program on racism from the Racial Equity Institute, sponsored by the KABA Foundation and held at Carthage College, helped many local leaders including myself take the first steps. A similar initiative was held in Racine at Wingspread. We know that after these first steps we should take more. But how?
Organizations respond most powerfully to a need for change by asking how their core business intersects that need, and then by changing how they accomplish that core business. That’s because the most powerful work organizations do is their main business. While other activities may be helpful, organizations will likely be less effective, and almost certainly less efficient, if they attempt other work on short notice. And so each organization must ask how it can accomplish what it does best in a way that addresses racial inequities and injustice.
What Carthage College does best is provide a first-rate education to our students, supporting them all the way to graduation. I have therefore announced a plan of action to address inequities and injustice through education. Educator, journalist, and leader Ida B. Wells said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them,” and that’s exactly what we intend to do. Carthage’s plan action calls on our faculty to teach all of our students U.S. racial history, on our faculty and staff to ensure that black and other students of color graduate at the same rate as our white students, and on the entire Carthage community to work toward depolarization, so that we can have the honest discussions that we must stop avoiding. These initiatives will be significant undertakings, and will require significant resources, which I have committed myself to securing. But I know that Carthage can and will respond in the deepest way possible, consistent with our purpose to educate our students fully and successfully.
Now let us turn to KABA. The main purpose of the Kenosha Area Business Alliance is economic development, and we know that KABA has a truly enviable record of bringing companies and jobs to Kenosha County. We should now ask: how can KABA do economic development in a way that directly improves the lives of our black and brown residents, increasing economic development in every neighborhood? I know that to do so requires different thinking, and avoiding an either/or in favor of a both/and approach. I am confident we can find solutions. We must simply get to work finding them. Economic development that develops all neighborhoods is in the best interests of our city and county. It is therefore the best work of KABA ahead.
Written by Dr. John Swallow, President, Carthage College and Chair of the KABA Board of Directors.