With the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and other efforts to challenge racism in our society, there has been a push to support Black businesses. Families all over Chicago have poured in their money and support to local owners as a part of the national allyship for the Black Lives Matter movement. This support is not only coming from individuals, it’s also coming from multi-billion dollar companies like Netflix and Grubhub.
It is much needed for Black businesses because of the economic downturn that is having devastating effects on almost every sector of our society. But I must say, most of the support feels somewhat disingenuous because it’s not addressing the need for deeper, long-lasting change. Since the Great Migration, Black families who came to Chicago from the Jim Crow South hoped to reach a financial status that would award them a life free from oppression. Unfortunately, most of these Southern transplants fell victim to systemic racism, domestic terrorism and predatory lenders. Today, as we know, mirrors the past.
I imagine that some kids today have overheard an adult comment on racism in the U.S. as an issue related to the bootstrap theory. It is when one claims that the descendants of enslaved Black people are not working hard enough today. They say that the work ethic of most Black people does not match that of impoverished arrivals from other countries, which explains the racial inequality in the US. But what these adults never take into account is that generational wealth has often been stolen from Black people time and time again, without consequence, after the end of slavery.
As a child, I had the fortune of growing up on both the South and North sides of Chicago. It was (and still is) normal for me to see Black entrepreneurs. It is also normal for me to see Black businesses close down. Sadly, there were far more storefronts, salons and restaurants owned by Black people (from all over the African diaspora) in the 80s to the early 2000s than there is now.
Of course, it’s not just Black people who are suffering during this crisis, but they are being disproportionately affected by multiple crises at the same time. Long before our parents existed, there were plenty of independent Black communities that fulfilled the bootstrap theory and created prosperity for themselves. The residents in these communities were dentists, bankers, artists, tailors, carpenters, and so on, all living out their American dream, until, for too many of them, it became a nightmare.
Entire towns or neighborhoods were destroyed due to white rage at Black success. In predominantly Black communities like Tulsa, OK, Wilmington, NC, Atlanta, GA, Elaine, AK, Colfax, Rosewood, FL, residents of African descent had their dreams stolen by angry white mobs who felt threatened by Black prosperity. In our own state capital, Springfield, there is a legacy of white violence targeting Black wealth.
The erasure of these traumatic events from school history classes has been a deep betrayal of an honest history of this country. What would be your answer if your child were to ask you “How can one pull themselves up with their straps on their boots if the boot itself has been stolen?” What can we as a city do to reverse these crimes against some of our Black residents, who are the descendants of people that were brought here to build this nation to its financial greatness?
If we are serious Chicagoans as we are as Americans about dismantling systemic racism, we as parents need to actively model for our children the meaning of Black Lives Matter. Perhaps we can start by supporting activists and taking our children to witness us invest in a Black bank who is countering policies that hinder prosperity within historically Black communities. Supporting the Black Lives Matter must become a verb and not just a hashtag.
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Keisha Mathew is currently providing counseling to youth and their families; a role she has had for over 17 years. She holds a master's in social work, with a concentration in community schools from the University of Chicago. When she and her partner are not fulfilling their multiple roles for their children during the pandemic, they are advocating for the children & families of Chicago. Follow her on Instagram at @wanderlust.writer.creator.