Steven Rogers’ new book, “A Letter to My White Friends and Colleagues: What You Can Do Right Now to Help the Black Community” begins with what he considers the three most descriptive newspaper headlines of 2020: “Breonna Taylor Was Shot and Killed by Police in her Own Home,” “Ahmaud Arbery: Father and Son Charged with Murder of U.S. Black Jogger,” and “George Floyd’s Death Was Murder.”
A plea from his daughter to offer guidance to the Black community after these deaths at the hands of white people and amid the pandemic resulted in what Rogers, a former senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, refers to as a “teachable moment.” Hence, this book to the white community, released on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death.
“During this time, many Black people were so angry, frustrated and exhausted that when their white friends asked, “What can I do to make racial matters better?’ many Black people responded with exasperation: ‘Don’t ask me ... you figure it out!’” He said while he understands those feelings, the Black community needs the help of the white community to remedy the racial wealth gap in America — specifically in the form of wealth sharing by spending money with Black-owned businesses, donating money to historically Black colleges and universities, depositing money in Black-owned banks and supporting reparations.
“My belief is that most of the problems that we see with over policing, aggressive policing, poor health care ... it’s my belief that over 50% of them, the root cause of them is the inequity in wealth, the wealth gap,” said the Englewood native who now lives in Evanston, Illinois. “What we know is 35% of Black people have zero net worth. And that’s not because we’re lazy, or we won’t work hard — it’s simply because of what’s happened to us, and what happened to us was done intentionally by the federal government.”
We spoke with Rogers about his life at the intersection of finance, Black history and entrepreneurship as well as the historical data, case studies and practical ways laid out in the book to improve Black and white racial relations. This includes reparations: $153,000 from the federal government for each of the 20 million Black adults who are descendants of enslaved people.
“There’s so much wealth that we have been denied, that we can’t get out of this cesspool. We can’t out save ourselves out of this hole, we just don’t have the financial means to do it,” he said. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: How did you arrive at the main tenets in the book — support HBCUs, Black banks, businesses and an actual monetary amount for reparations — to close the racial wealth gap?
A: I decided that I needed to identify what I believe are the means to which people can do things financially that would have a positive impact on the Black community. We know that the average white person who does not have a high school degree has a greater net worth than the average Black person with a college degree. The white person with a high school degree has a greater net worth than a Black person with a master’s degree. And the reason is because of this wealth gap and the hundreds of years of slavery. What you had was the transference of wealth in the white community that never happened in the Black community. That’s 12 generations then followed by 100-plus years of legal segregation where whites were attaining wealth while Blacks were being impoverished by the government. This book is a letter to white people, asking them to start sharing some of their wealth — because we’re a people who’ve been cheated. And we should not be in the situation that we’re in, but we are right where the government wanted us to be — by enslaving us, by creating Black Codes and then redlining. These things that were done to Black people were done specifically for the purpose of enriching whites, also, for the purpose of impoverishing Blacks.
Q: What is the objective of the book?
A: I concluded that the root cause analysis of the condition that Black people are in today is the intentional impoverishment of Black people. Everything that we see today are just symptoms of that problem. Until we solve that problem, it’s sort of like having cancer and saying I’m going to put a Band-Aid on cancer. We’ve got to rid ourselves of that cancer by being honest and being frank that those who benefited from things that were done in the past. They need to first all agree that it happened, and secondly, be a part of the solution to the problem. The reality is no matter how hard we work, no matter how much education we get, we’re not going to have equal financial footing with whites until something intentionally is done to bring us to that point — just like it was done to give us this deficit. How long were we enslaved? Almost 12 generations. We cannot ignore the importance of that relative to where we are now financially, and the only way for us to catch up is it has to be something done by the government; and that has to be a check for the difference between the wealth of whites and the wealth of Blacks. Reparations is not unprecedented. America gave $20,000 to 80,000 Japanese Americans who were interned for three years. And when slavery ended, America actually gave almost over 800 former slave owners reparations to the tune of $300 per slave.
Q: What do you think is the linchpin in moving forward with reparations?
A: For some reason, white people have seemingly hated the idea of doing anything for Black people. It’s illogical. When somebody says reparations, there’s this automatic trigger response of, ‘If we do give reparations, let’s not give them any money. Let’s give them a scholarship to go to school.’ Well, the reality is that’s paternalistic thinking: Everybody doesn’t want to go to school, nor should be required to do it. In Evanston, it’s let’s do something to fix up their homes. Well, everybody who was victimized by discrimination, they don’t have a home. They don’t want a home or people are leery. Give us the money — just like cash was given to the Japanese, just like cash was given to the former slave owners, and just like cash was given by Germany to the Jews. Give us the cash so that we can get beyond this. Nothing will turn the tide like reparations.
My letter is to white people. But the reality is, I’m imploring Black people to do the same — support Black-owned businesses, deposit funds into Black-owned banks. We have to do exactly the things that I’m imploring white people to do as well. We don’t have the financial resources they have, but we need to get engaged with using our financial resources, whatever we have, that can help our own people. And those who choose not to do anything for us, we take our money away from them.
Q: Do you consider Evanston’s move for reparations — which provide for $25,000 housing grants to some Black residents — a good thing?
A: It’s somewhat bittersweet. The sweet part is that there’s an effort in the municipality to recognize the wrong that was done to Black people — that was done intentionally with redlining — to recognize that and then to do more than simply apologize for it. One of the things that boiled my blood when I was at Harvard a few years ago was the recognition of the fact that two former Harvard presidents actually had enslaved people working on the campus and the school recognized it. And what they did in response was, they put a plaque on a big boulder on campus, citing the names of those people who had been enslaved. I personally thought that was insulting. The recognition is important, but my belief is until there’s financial compensation of some kind that goes to somebody, the recognition is just shouting in the wind. I give Evanston credit for recognizing and then finding a way to give financial compensation. So that’s the sweet part about it. The bitter part is, I don’t believe that it should have been allocated to housing, I believe it should have just been cash. And that’s the negative part about it in terms of the precedent it sets for others. There’s this illogical disdain that white people seem to have toward Black people about giving them money. And this fits into that narrative. I would hate to see this narrative be duplicated going forward with other municipalities.
I remember talking to a classmate ... a white guy. He said ‘Steve, the challenge that white people have with reparations is, is that they have the mindset that they’re going to lose something, that it’s going to cost them something.’ My position: If we gave $153,000, which is the difference between Black and white wealth, to 20 million Black people who are 18 years and older (descendants of enslaved people), then that would cost the country $3 trillion. $3 trillion is about 15% of the country’s annual economy which is about $21 trillion. $3 trillion is $1 trillion less than what the country paid and gave to bail out the banks. The $3 trillion is something that we can afford, and it would come from the federal government just like the money that came from the fed to give people PPP funding, give people the $1,200 grant checks. That same kind of money can be given to Black people.Typically, being wronged gets healed partially by some kind of financial compensation. Nothing has ever happened for us on that level.
Q: Would this book still had been written, if it not for George Floyd’s murder?
A: No. This is all the result of him dying. He didn’t die in vain, because look at what is happening. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a huge transformation of our country where we’re getting to the point where we can see the best version of ourselves.