As this column goes out, our nation will be recognizing Juneteenth, the day marking the end of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865.
President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, freeing four million men, women and children held in slavery effective Jan. 1, 1863. But it took more than two years for word about that declaration to reach Galveston, Texas, where the last slaves were finally freed on June 19, 1865, ending an ugly chapter of American history.
Over the last few weeks, we have heard more about Juneteenth, and this year, perhaps more than any other, I hope we will all take a moment not just to mark this historic milestone, but also to reflect on the tremendous challenges still facing our nation in dealing with racial and economic inequities.
The last few months have been an extraordinary time in Oregon and across the country. We’ve confronted the COVID-19 crisis and its serious threat to human health. Now we are dealing with the economic fallout from the steps we took to curb the spread of the virus. Across the country, more than 40 million Americans have lost their jobs. Here in Oregon, the number is 480,000, and the communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by both the virus and the economic fallout.
Economists have said this is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Even with the federal stimulus dollars, we know the climb out will be long and difficult. I hope, as we think about economic recovery, we focus not just on how we regain the jobs we have lost, but also how we can do it in a way that provides more opportunities for all Oregonians, especially our communities of color, so that we can effectively address the economic achievement gaps we know are real, and start erasing the disparities that are too much a part of our American economic framework.
Like many of you, I was horrified by the video of George Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. I wondered how that could happen in America, and then I had to admit to myself that for many Americans of color, and especially Black men, racial injustice and systemic racism can be a daily occurrence.
Mr. Floyd’s death sparked demonstrations across our nation, including in every corner of our state. Portland. Salem. Eugene. Hermiston. Grants Pass. Oregonians joined Americans in every state, recognizing that everyone has to be part of the solution to systemic racism. This may be one of the most important conversations of my lifetime, and I sincerely hope we have reached a turning point where we will come together to finally end the racial injustices that have too long been part of life in America.
At OBI, we echo the calls of the peaceful protestors who are demanding our institutions do better to serve all Americans, regardless of race. As leaders of Oregon’s business community, this includes us. We have to get serious about diversity and inclusion initiatives – not just talk about them – and build a recovery effort that ensures greater economic opportunity and parity for all Americans.
We strongly believe that access to a steady, family-wage job is one of the most important tools that can help end racial and economic inequality. We are committed to addressing barriers that have gotten in the way of ensuring that all Oregonians, including our communities of color, have access to great jobs and strong family incomes. And we know we have to step up to support minority-owned businesses, which can and should play a greater role in our state’s economy.
I am proud that Bank of America, my employer, has committed an additional $1 billion investment in minority communities across the country that have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic.
While we are very proud of our many existing programs that aim to increase economic mobility throughout the country, this Bank of America investment will focus explicitly on four areas: 1) health initiatives to prevent COVID-19 spread in communities of color; 2) partnering with historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions for hiring and research programs, and recruitment of Bank of American teammates in low- to moderate-income communities; 3) financial support for minority-owned small businesses; and 4) provide operating support and investment for affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization, leveraging nearly $5 billion in Community Development Banking.
Bank of America is just one of the many OBI members stepping up at this moment to not only join the growing call for a truly equal society, but also in choosing to invest our resources where our communities need them most. We have charted a path forward to addressing racial inequities in Oregon and across our nation. It is way past time we did this, and this is just the start.
Oregon’s business community recognizes that we have a grave responsibility to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion are not just buzzwords. We will lead with actions and commitment to end systemic racism, starting in our own communities across our state. We’re experiencing a moment of historical change. So as we observe Juneteenth, marking a moment in our history 155 years ago, let’s make a commitment that we will stand up to end racial inequities in our nation, so a century from now Americans will celebrate 2020 as the year when real change finally started to occur.