A Black History Month Like No Other
Gordon McHenry, Jr. is the President and CEO of United Way of King County
February 2021—This Black History Month has been unlike any other since we started observing this yearly celebration of achievements of Black Americans.
Nearly five decades after Rep. John Lewis and many other civil rights leaders were brutally beaten and abused in the South, we witnessed the murders of Black people, such as George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor.
These violent acts against Black people remind us too much of the painful history of oppression that Black communities have suffered under white supremacy in these United States.
Arbery’s murder could only be described as a modern-day lynching. Arbery—a Black man in Georgia, running on the street, shot and killed by his white stalkers, just for being Black. Another murder caught on camera.
But this past year will be recorded in the history books as one that saw encouraging signs of racial reawakening, reckoning and solidarity from people of all walks of life. Millions marched on the streets demanding justice for the violent abuses of Black people at the hands of the police.
Thousands demonstrated here, in King County, protesting those racists acts—and, make no mistake, the violence is not confined to the South or other cities in the U.S., as the murder of Manuel Ellis showed.
The struggle of Black communities to be seen, heard—and loved—as human beings and citizens of this country continues.
Racism, abuse, oppression, diminishment perpetrated by individuals, businesses, and governments – it is all a continuation of a sordid, multi-century effort to create a white dominant culture that imposes white supremacy on us. We must fight this oppression at every level.
At United Way, we believe that Black lives have always mattered and that there is an urgent need to humanize our social, political and economic systems so that Black lives do matter.
History teaches us that we need equity, not equality—that we do need redemption and reparations. The widening racial wealth gap in King County demonstrates the urgent need to drastically change systems and policies to put us on a path toward equity: the median income for a Black household is nearly half of that of a white one. Only New York City (New York County) and Chicago (Cook County) have a wider gap.
This income disparity shows how policies of the past continue to benefit white people over Black communities, an immoral and unsustainable situation that calls for a significant change of course.
That change must begin with fixing an education system that was designed to benefit white people. The racial disparities in education are reflected in the lower educational achievements for Black communities, which has led directly to higher rates of poverty.
The Biden administration has placed racial equity at the top of its priorities administration, and we applaud the recognition that we have fought too hard for too long to turn back the clock.
The Pandemic and Race
A full year into the deadly coronavirus pandemic, we realize the deep racial disparities that still exist in our unjust society, even with the glimmer of hope that a vaccine brings.
Black people are getting sick and dying at higher rates than white people in King County, particularly in the southern end of the county, an unacceptable result of the unjust policies that continue to oppress Black communities.
And the economic effects of the pandemic show the devastating impact it has had on Black communities, as a disproportionate number of Black workers have had to file for unemployment.
Rep. John Lewis’ Legacy
Last year, we lost Rep. Lewis, and this February would have been his 81st birthday. His leadership and courage in the face of white supremacist forces were a beacon for all of us who fight for justice and equity. We are energized by his life-long legacy of civil rights activism and advocacy in community and government.
United Way and I will follow with passion and courage Rep. Lewis’ challenge, just as he said, “Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble and redeem the soul of America.”