Starting a conversation: Son of Rev. Jesse Jackson and Aspen businessman talk solutions to black-white economic gap
Discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing. Unfulfilled expectations created by the great judicial and legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans.
These are just a few of the reasons for the urban riots of the summer of 1967 laid out in the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders or Kerner Commission Report of 1968.
Established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to study the series of riots and protests that were led by black communities in more than 20 cities, including Detroit and Newark that summer, the commission was asked to answer three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
“What white Americans have never fully understood — but what (black Americans) can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it,” the commission’s 1968 report says. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
On a recent afternoon in Aspen more than 50 years later, Jonathan Jackson — an American businessman, educator, human rights activist and son of renowned civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson — referenced this report multiple times as he spoke about much of the same racial and social injustice America is still facing today.
But with a focus on addressing economic disparity by looking at ways to create more accessible opportunities for black leaders to climb the ladder of Corporate America, Jackson and Scott Freidheim — an Aspen resident, managing partner of Freidheim Capital investment management and a former Wall Street investment banker — are working to use the energy of the current Black Lives Matter movement to help influence systemic change.
“There are disparities that are measurable, there are gaps between blacks and whites in our society that have been historical and they continue to repeat themselves,” Jackson said Sunday in an interview with The Aspen Times.
“One of my hopes is that the white corporate community, the power structure, will do some reflection, look at themselves and use all of their talent, creativity and ingenuity to pull in African American citizens into the mainstream of economic life in America.”
On Monday evening, Jackson and Freidheim met with a group of business executives in Aspen for a private event to discuss solutions to the economic inequalities between America’s white and black communities.
The longtime friends said the goal of the event was to offer up a handful of actionable solutions corporate leaders can move on in the near term and will hopefully inspire the executives to come up with even more solutions of their own.
According to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., the median net worth for white households has been much greater than that of black households over the past 30 years.
In 2016, the net worth of a typical white family was $171,000, nearly 10 times greater than that of a typical black family at $17,150, Brookings found based on its review of the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances. And at the Wall Street level, Freidheim and Jackson said there are 153 operating committee seats among the top 10 banks; three of them belong to black businessmen.
As Jackson and Freidheim sat outside in wooden lawn chairs Sunday, they discussed some potential solutions to close this economic gap and create more high-level business opportunities for people of color.
These solutions include putting requirements in place to ensure when filling a top position there is a racially and gender diverse candidate pool; creating a robust, targeted talent recruiting process for specific sectors and fields — similar to what is in place for college and professional athletics — that reaches a more diverse range of highly qualified people from all socioeconomic backgrounds; and restructuring hiring interview processes to eliminate unconscious bias.
“Philanthropy is great, corporate communication is great, but what I’m talking about is doing something that makes your company more competitive and that will compel your competitors to copy what you’re doing,” said Freidheim, who also is co-chair of the board of directors for ettain group, a talent and recruitment solutions company.
“I think it would be hard to believe all businesses couldn’t benefit by doing one more thing that advantages their company and at the same time helps make progress on this issue.”
Freidheim and Jackson, who met at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in 1989, said they’ve been talking about these disparities for decades.
But now with the current momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the recent death of George Floyd and many other black men and women at the hands of police, the men feel the time is right for corporate leaders to be motivated to take action.
“We want to share what we know to bring other people into a conversation about really great ideas,” Jackson said. “It just starts with a conversation. You can’t ask much more than that and there’s a willingness now.”
For Jackson, being a businessman and investor has always been his interest and passion, while being a civil rights and social justice activist has been something like second nature and a part of his upbringing.
And while the Black Lives Matter movement and fight for social justice, equality and civil rights aren’t new in America, Jackson feels the energy and momentum with what’s happening in the country and around the world right now may be a catalyst that leads to lasting change.
“We were just coming out of living in this pandemic and all of our tension had been arrested, everybody’s mind was clear, people could finally see something that the African American, black community has been talking about for years,” Jackson said, referring to Floyd’s death and the widespread response to it. “What’s most powerful for me to see right now is young white America denouncing racism, young white America confronting our history and saying they want to see a brighter future. That to me is new. That to me is very heartwarming.”
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