The health crisis we’re experiencing is new and acute, but the crises of racial and economic justice that the virus has laid bare have long been brewing. The pandemic has exposed how the forces of structural racism and extreme economic inequality have shaped our country today, and illuminates the hard work that is needed to rebuild in ways that change that status quo.

In less than two months, COVID19 has forced America to look at an honest picture of itself that it has been avoiding for a long time. It isn’t pretty. We are witnessing the costs of building a society where a large part of the population experiences extreme financial instability, housing insecurity, student debt burdens, lack of basic health care, and can’t even provide broadband at home so their kids can go to school.

None of this information is new, but it took a crisis like this to make it impossible to keep such shameful statistics at arms’ length, when so many of our family, friends and neighbors are suffering.

The pandemic has also made it impossible to ignore how much more devastating these societal choices have been on the lives of people of color. The rising number of deaths of Black and brown people—far outpacing that of white people—tells you pretty much all that you need to know. 80% of Georgia’s COVID-19 patients, for example, are Black despite comprising only 30% of the population. In Louisiana, 70% of people who died are Black, though they too only make up a third of the population. I am sickened by the harsh reality that the compounding effects of generations of racism and discrimination have made it so that today, the color of one’s skin is essentially an ‘underlying condition’ that could mean greater vulnerability to the disease.

We came to understand that America’s inequities were due to powerful headwinds caused by structural racism and an economy that generated extreme financial insecurity for many and great wealth for few.

This true picture of America came as no surprise to us at Living Cities. For 30 years, Living Cities, a collaborative of the world’s leading foundations and financial institutions, has partnered with local leaders across the country to address economic inequality. Together, we have invested more than $20 billion in dozens of cities and touched millions of lives. Seven years ago, we began a process of reckoning with the fact that, despite successes along the way, we had not achieved widespread progress; in fact, income inequality and racial disparities had become more pronounced than ever.

We came to understand that America’s inequities were due to the powerful headwinds caused by structural racism and an economy that generated extreme financial insecurity for many and great wealth for few. These headwinds were disproportionately denying opportunity to people of color, especially Black people, while consistently serving as a tailwind to white households. Today we are committed collectively to helping communities address structural barriers to closing the racial gaps in income and wealth and, in doing so, are working towards a society that better meets the needs of all.

We’ve made ourselves numb to economic deprivation and blind to structural disadvantage.

COVID-19 has helped the entire country see what it took us at Living Cities so long to recognize but finally grasped. These structural barriers—the series of economic and political choices that we have made since our founding to advantage and separate whites from Blacks— have not only continued the historical pattern of disproportionately devastating communities of color but hurt us all. The through line is not hard to see. Slavery and Jim Crow policies gave way to modern day practices—such as redlining, mass incarceration, voter suppression and a refusal to build a meaningful social safety net—which have together created and sustained a culture of severity, punishment and inhumanity. Tropes developed around “personal responsibility” and “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” have served to reinforce those choices and to justify not taking reasonable steps to promote each other’s wellbeing. We’ve made ourselves numb to economic deprivation and blind to structural disadvantage. That contagion will only continue to spread until we undo what’s been done.

A Different Set of Choices

We have no control over the biological forces that cause a catastrophe like a pandemic. On the contrary, it’s entirely up to us whether quality healthcare is a given for every American; whether or not people living paycheck to paycheck are forced to choose between life-threatening health risks or devastating financial insecurity when they decide whether to stay home sick.

If it was unclear before that the status quo is the product of choice, the fact has been illustrated by how quickly lawmakers and leaders have rallied to make different choices—taking actions that were previously unthinkable. In a matter of days, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed the House and Senate and was signed by the President, giving substantially all Americans paid sick leave. The following week, a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package was signed into law. Police are not only curtailing arrests for low-level crimes in some places, but are actually releasing people with low-level offenses from jail from jail in a number of cities and counties across the country.

These are remarkable departures from past trends. They show that the missing ingredient for change is not an inability to compromise or take dramatic action. Nor is it an issue of money. And as the reversal in policing trends shows, nor is it an issue of knowing, deep down, what is reasonable and just.

Rather, we’ve been trapped by a failure of imagination, coupled with unwillingness—whether driven by malice or by ignorance—to change the status quo in ways that will distribute our abundant wealth, and create a society that values the agency, dignity, and well-being of each of us. If we can hold onto this lesson as the health crisis subsides, we have a once-in-a-generation chance to address the reality that we have always been in crisis.

The Path Forward

Our work over the past decade and the lessons learned so far from this pandemic tells us that the road to building a different America will require us to do the following:

Reckon with the long-term effects of racism on our nation.

As we work to close the income and wealth gaps, we must honestly reckon with our history and its implications on the current context. Like fish that don’t realize they’re swimming in water, so many Americans like myself have gone through our lives and careers with only the shallowest understanding of racism in America. We’ve been blind to our own white culture and its harms. In contrast, of course, people of color have long understood racism’s costs and impact—at work, at home or in daily life—as a matter of survival. We must support citizens and leaders who are willing to put their social capital on the line to learn together about racial equity, the history of race in their own cities and to hold themselves and their organizations accountable to change. Places like Buffalo, Cleveland, and New Orleans have already trained thousands of citizens and government employees and are leading the way. We will be doubling down on supporting our staff, partners and cities on this type of practice moving forward.

A group of people sits in a circle, facing each other. A poster timeline depicting the racial wealth gap, with colorful post-its attached.

Partners engage in an Undoing Racism training, and exercises to reckon with history.

Invest in high-functioning government, especially at the local level.

We’ve been partnering with local governments—elected, appointed and career civic servants—for more than a decade because they are the nation’s problem-solvers, and have disproportionately contributed to our racial inequities over the years. This crisis has affirmed the importance of strong, nimble and competent local government, especially at the city level. Mayors and other local officials have been on the frontlines, shutting down their cities, coordinating medical supplies, and advocating for their constituents’ needs, in the absence of federal leadership. Many of our partner cities are thinking hard about how to use COVID-19 to accelerate a different, more stable and just future for all of their residents—with equity as a guiding value. We are in conversations to determine how we can help them to take action across multiple time horizons: ‘respond’ to immediate needs; take steps to help people, sectors and the local economy to ‘recover’ and then ‘reimagine’ the policies, practices and approaches that need to change for the long term. This needs to be a priority for all of us.

Rebuild our economy with grace, and for our new majority.

This is an opportunity to reset our nation’s relationship with our economy. We have to make sure that the results reflect who we want to be as a nation and the dignity and security that we believe every person should have. That will mean coming to terms with the extremes that we have allowed to become the ‘norm’ over time, around financial insecurity, housing instability, lack of basic health care, incarceration, even access to broadband—and the racial disparities that cut across each of these systems.

But it also means that we have to change the way capital itself flows. COVID-19 has cost us 22 million jobs, with businesses owned by people of color suffering a disproportionate share of the losses—a result of the racial wealth gap, the legacy of racism in banking, and myriad inequities in entrepreneurial ecosystems. These barriers were in place long before COVID-19, and it remains critical that we undo them. A lack of wealth, personal networks, and a history of being denied capital from traditional institutions has barred people of color from contributing an estimated 9 million jobs a year that might have otherwise been possible without these structural impediments. We will need those jobs more than ever. We are going to accelerate the work that we began 18 months ago when we repurposed our impact investing vehicle, the Blended Catalyst Fund (BCF), to focus exclusively on closing racial income and wealth gaps. We have been building a portfolio that has our capital land in places, puts people of color in decision-making positions, begins to challenge definitions of creditworthiness and other norms, and the idea that the system as it exists now is how it has to be. This type of investing has to be front and center to rebuild our future economy.

Address long-standing power imbalances.

School districts, local health authorities, and mayors have harnessed power they may not have even known they had, to take decisive action in this moment. Likewise, we’re seeing the impact of our own individual and collective power. The commitment to social distancing by each individual has shown how it adds up to thousands of lives saved. Millions of people not spending money, or finding themselves unable to pay rent or bills can have massive political and social reverberations – bringing entire industries to their knees, and prompting unprecedented federal action.

We now must test the boundaries of this ‘power shifting’. What would it take to get those most impacted by inequities to drive decision making locally? We need to invest in and innovate in power shifting just as we have in other areas over the years. This is not something that mainstream actors, including Living Cities, have supported regularly and consistently. We also have to push ourselves to deploy our enormous, unused personal agency as never before. We need to disrupt the behaviors and beliefs of those within our spheres who are perpetuating these gaps, continuing to fail to address history, and maintaining our inhumanity to each other. We promote the Person-Role-System framework as a way to interrogate one’s power and put it to use for real change.

The health crisis we’re experiencing is new and acute. The crises of racial and economic justice that the virus has laid bare have long been brewing. The pandemic simply has showed us how sick the nation was before it caught COVID-19. We have to take the tough steps, starting today, to change our country’s trajectory. Otherwise, we will be returning communities of color and all struggling people to the state of crisis that has been a constant of life in America. I welcome you to join us in this effort.