2021 Highlight: An Interview with Steven S. Rogers on How White People Can Support the Black Community

Ed. Note: As the end of 2021 approaches, we want to reflect on TIE’s most notable pieces from the past year. From now through the end of December we will be reposting some of our most widely read and talked about content. The following was one of our most popular reads.

diverse people holding hands

TIE’s Editor in Chief Alexia Hudson-Ward conducted a compelling interview with retired Harvard Business School Professor Steven S. Rogers to discuss his new book, A Letter to My White Friends and Colleagues (2021). Their timely discussion last week (given President Biden’s June 1st speech announcing his plan to narrow the racial wealth gap) covered peer educational strategies, the systemic roots of the Black-white wealth gap, “Black Wall Street,” and what white people can do now to support the Black community. Rogers will join TIE later this summer for our Summer Session podcast to discuss reparations for Black people in the US. This interview was edited.

TIE: Steven, thank you so much for doing this interview today. It has been delightful to get to know you and to learn about your book. I found the book to be just really interesting and enlightening and engaging. And I’m just really excited to dig into this conversation with you.  

Steven S. Rogers: Well, let me say thank you very much for inviting me to do this interview. And thank you for the kind words, I’m looking forward to it as well.

TIE: It’s my pleasure. As you know, the aim of the blog is “toward inclusive excellence” and in many ways, I believe your book typifies this. Please tell me what motivated you to write this book now?

Steven S. Rogers’s book, A Letter to My White Friends and Colleagues (2021)

Steven S. Rogers: I actually began writing the book a few days after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. A few days later, my youngest daughter sent me a text and said, “Dad, things are not going well. We need you to speak to Black people as if you’re the president [of the US].” And so, with that, I did a podcast and in this podcast I implored Black people to do four things. One is I told them to take care of themselves.

Number two was it’s okay to grieve. Someone has been murdered and it’s a human reaction to grieve and don’t let yourself be cheated out of going through the grieving process. Number three, I told Black people to continue marching. And then, number four, I said help white people help the Black community. Because many white people are asking the question, “What should I do now?” And at that time, I had been hearing about Black people just being absolutely exasperated, annoyed with white people. Some of their answers were to their white friends and others, “I don’t know what you should do. I didn’t start this problem. You created the problem.” So, for me, I thought this was a teachable moment.

[Some white people] heard my podcast, reached out to me and appreciated hearing what they could do to support the Black community. So, I decided to write a book that would target a white audience with this specific objective—identifying what they could do to help the Black community.

In the book, I identify four things that white people can do to help the Black community. It’s not a tough ask. One is that they can donate at least 9.29 percent of their philanthropic dollars every year to a historically Black college and university (HBCU). I use 9.29 percent to represent the nine minutes and 29 seconds that former Officer Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck (paywalled). HBCUs have a fascinating history going back to the 1850s. They also have produced people like Dr. King and Thurgood Marshall. More recently, HBCUs have produced 80 percent of all Black judges, 50 percent of all Black lawyers in the country and 50 percent of all Black doctors.

But HBCUs are financially in trouble. Their average endowments of only $12 million are low (paywalled) in comparison to many predominately white institutions. Seventy-five percent of the people at HBCUs qualify for Pell Grants, which means they come from low-income households. That compares to 30 percent for white schools. So I’m asking white people to follow the lead of MacKenzie Scott, one of the co-founders of Amazon, who donated over $500 million to HBCUs in 2020.

Second thing that I asked them to do is to deposit at least 9.29 percent of your annual savings into a Black-owned bank. Black-owned banks will put money in the Black community. Specifically, we know that approximately 70 percent of mortgages given by Black-owned banks go to Black people. Whereas less than one percent of mortgages by [majority-led banks] go to Black people. So, my position was, if you want to help the Black community, here is one way to do it.

I implore white people to make the major deposits into Black-owned banks and to leave the money there for several years (three to five years) so that Black banks get the benefit of what’s called the money multiplier, where they can use that money to lend out to others in the Black community.

The next thing is that I implore white people to spend at least 9.29 percent of their annual budget with Black-owned businesses. I probably spent 30 to 40 percent of my annual budget with Black-owned businesses. Not businesses that employ Black people—Black-owned businesses.

What we know from research is, Black-owned businesses are the largest private employers of Black people in the country and employ more people than any other businesses. So, I’m imploring readers of the book to support Black-owned businesses. Because, again, it sends money to the Black community and it makes people self-sufficient. And people who are self-sufficient live in healthy communities.

There is a wealth disparity that exists between Black people and white people, to the tune of about $153,000 that comes from basically the federal government giving a head start to and subsidizing white wealth. That was done when the federal and state government sanctioned 246 years of Black enslavement, 60 years of Black codes, and 48 years of real estate redlining. These were all laws designed to intentionally enrich white people. At the same time, almost bankrupting Black people. The average net worth of a white family in America is about $170,000 compared to $17,000 for Black people.

TIE: Thank you for that response. I’m particularly thinking of the section in your book related to financial apartheid and your statement about Black wealth versus White wealth. You shared an anecdote in the book about you and your ex-wife attempting to get a mortgage yet meeting obstacles in spite of having excellent credit.

In the case of discriminatory practices with mortgages and refinancing, that’s now really bubbled to the surface of American consciousness because there’s more news stories about it. There are many other elements in your book that I just think people would just be struck by, such as how low to non-existent Black net worth is versus white net worth. I think opening up this conversation would invite tough questions from our white friends and colleagues. How should we begin these discussions in terms of some of the things that you’ve outlined in the conversation today? The stories are so shocking that they sound unbelievable.

Steven S. Rogers: That’s an outstanding question. It has never been asked to me thus far. I think we should, as Black people, view ourselves as holders of knowledge and information that should be passed along to others. Therefore, if we embrace that whole notion, we should help inform and educate others. It’s for the purpose of helping them understand what has happened to us, so that they can in turn, help us.

Use as many facts as possible, as many dates that are relevant, and as much data that is relevant as well. Try to stay with the facts so that you’re giving ideally objective information.

Be mindful of the fact that when you decide to educate people with the facts, you’re going to get pushback. And some of the pushback is legitimate because people are possibly asking questions.

But I don’t think we should shun away from these opportunities. If white people are willing to be objective, then we can possibly be productive in what we do.

TIE: Thank you for that. This is quite compelling because, indeed, a lot of Black people are communicating racial fatigue. And concurrent to that, there’s a lot of conversation around the systemic nature of racism, right? You raise some really important historical facts about the origins of Black poverty. And I’m curious, what are some strategies that Black people can employ to raise these points for white people to understand the systemic nature of the Black-white wealth gap?

Steven S. Rogers: Regarding Black fatigue, I know that it exists. But I ask Black people, think about our ancestors and think about the fatigue that they experienced on the Middle Passage. Think about the fatigue Black people experienced for 246 years of slavery. Hopefully, that energizes and lets people know that our job is not done. And that in respect to our forefathers and our foremothers, that we still have a job to do. 

I encourage Black people to lead educational sessions on this topic. Literally do podcasts or educational sessions with groups of friends or peers where you lead a session on the topic and use it for book clubs.

Recommend books and articles that people should read. And just make that a part of how you define yourself to some degree. One of the greatest compliments ever paid to me by a peer was, “Steve thinks too much about diversity.” I thought that was the greatest compliment in the world, because they know that when I come into the door, I come into the door as a proud Black man who brings my Black community with me. And so, with that, anything that I do will have that in mind, in addition to my fiduciary responsibilities.

TIE: That reply segues beautifully into my next question because you frame this book as a letter to white colleagues and friends. But the letter really has a wonderful array of notes and citations throughout the entire book. You’ve brought what the young people refer to as “receipts.” And the book really immediately placed me into the teaching, learning, and research orientation. I could literally see transdisciplinary possibilities with it. So, in what ways do you see higher education incorporating information from your book in coursework or symposia with DEIA initiatives?

Steven S. Rogers: It was written by a person who has spent the last quarter of a century in academia. It was written with academia in mind, as well as with the general public in mind. I recommend that every academic library has at least one copy of this book available for their readers. Secondly, I’ve already had discussions with people who are talking about using the book in their existing courses or creating an entirely new course based on the book. And a friend at Emory University is talking about incorporating it in her class about Black institutions

Another a friend is talking about creating a new course at Emerson College using the book as the entire basis for the course and collaborating with me to come up with a syllabus and an agenda and the whole focus of the class.

In terms of DEIA, it is ideal for anybody in the DEIA space in higher education, in my opinion, to get a copy of this book and then to give it to all of the leaders of the schools. The book’s recommendations are very inclusive of recommendations that I gave to Harvard Business School. And it’s things that leaders in higher education can implement immediately and start being able to say to their student bodies.

TIE: Wonderful. Thank you. And so, if you don’t mind, I have one final question with this weekend marking 100 years after the Tulsa race massacre. My question to you is, what are some other creative ways in which we can make sure that the information that you have put together in your amazing book, that information like the Tulsa race massacre, gets to young people under the age of 18?

Steven S. Rogers: I think that we have to make Tulsa and Black Wall Street a common part of our nomenclature in the Black community. I have Black Wall Street T-shirts. I am presently involved with an economic development program in an impoverished Black community in Chicago, and I named the project Tulsa 1920, representing Tulsa in 1920 when it was the epicenter of Black-owned businesses. But I think that we should do everything possible to make Tulsa, Black Wall Street, a part of our culture, bringing it up every time and just informing and educating people.

TIE: Excellent. Thank you so much for this really wonderful interview. I’m looking forward to our Summer Session podcast in the upcoming months. Thanks again.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.