For some, the decision to sidestep coverage of former police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial is a matter of self-preservation. Having to choose between bearing witness to George Floyd’s death and shielding oneself against secondary trauma spotlights the steep costs of systemic racism for African Americans, and the country as a whole.
In her book “Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body and Spirit” Mary-Frances Winters, founder of the diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy The Winters Group, outlines a stark array of facts and figures that illuminate the dire consequences of “living while Black” in the United States.
By tallying measures of economics, criminal justice, education, and physical and mental health, Winters revealed how far we have not come toward realizing true equity. In her chapter “Then Is Now” Winters wrote, “Black households have the lowest median household income and net worth of any demographic group, and those measures of progress have not improved.”
Intergenerational wealth transfer plays a large part in this disparity. When it comes to legacy, White families bequeath significantly more wealth, Winters explained. Meanwhile, Black families are more likely to hand down, involuntarily, intergenerational trauma due to social toxins embedded at the cellular level that are passed on through DNA.
Winters’ work lays out how White supremacist systems boost White people up on a sort of societal step ladder, while the deep-rooted ravages of racism make it difficult for Black Americans to even reach ground level.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: You’ve written that when you first conceived the idea for “Black Fatigue,” you couldn’t have predicted the outcry against racism that occurred in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, among many others. Are you seeing signs of sustained societal transformation?
Mary-Frances Winters: So many organizations seemed to wake up overnight, issuing statements of solidarity and pledging to develop new strategies, initiatives and funding for eradicating racism. One of the things that’s so fatiguing and frustrating is, “Where the hell have you been all these years? Why did it take George Floyd for this awakening to the fact that things are not OK?”
Like so many others — largely people of color — I have been doing this work for decades. But “then” is still “now.” If you look at indicators such as unemployment rates, median household income and health outcomes, not much has really changed.
CNN: People often point to education as the great equalizer. If we just do a better job with education, the thinking goes, that will lead to better employment and better economic and health outcomes. Do the facts bear that out?
Winters: They don’t. The net worth of college-educated White heads of household is 11 times that of Black degree holders. Meanwhile, Black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed. Overall unemployment rates among Blacks have been double those of Whites since the 1960s.
An educated Black man is just as likely to be stopped while walking down the street, or driving while Black, or living while Black, or barbecuing while Black. No amount of education is going to fix that. Even if you wore “Ph.D.” emblazoned across your chest, it wouldn’t matter.
The health statistics are also shocking. We know that college-educated Black women are two to three times more likely to have low-birth-weight babies and to die in childbirth. When we say, “Race is a determinant of health,” we really should say be saying, “Racism is a determinant of health outcomes.”
In fact, Black people’s health status actually worsened as they climbed the socioeconomic ladder as opposed to Whites, likely because, as research has suggested, encountering racism leads to higher levels of stress, causing cells to age more rapidly.
CNN: Because of their position in the hierarchy, White people don’t need to understand racism. It’s also the case that many White people don’t know what they don’t know. Given those realities and how history is taught in the United States, how do people overcome widespread ignorance and misinformation about racism’s effects?
Winters: When it comes to history, one thing to consider is that the US has never apologized for slavery. Doing so is more than symbolic — it’s the acknowledgment that harm was done. Once you acknowledge that, what are you going to do to repair that harm? Instead, what we’ve done is lied about the truth, in schoolbooks and beyond.
The mother of a 6-year-old who’s like a granddaughter to me recently messaged me about a lesson from her public school in Decatur, Georgia. Her teacher chose Thomas Jefferson to exemplify “people of good character.” This, in 2021 — during Black History Month! Jefferson was credited with wanting “all people to have equal rights,” yet he owned hundreds of enslaved people, including Sally Hemings who gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children, the first when she was a teenager. I’m sure he did some good things, but let’s not hold him up as the epitome of good character.
Lies continue to plague this new generation as well.
CNN: What might make lasting, sustainable, systemic transformation possible?
Winters: We need committed allies, but allies aren’t always in positions of power. We also need enough of what I call “power brokers” to deliberately affect the distribution of political or economic power through exerting influence. We need people in power with the courage to say, “This is enough. We’re going to make real change.” The subordinated groups do not have that power. It’s the dominant groups that have the power to change policies, practices, legislation — now.
CNN: Could you speak to the particular pain and fatigue of the ongoing injustice despite the country’s espoused values and the US laws designed to protect equal treatment?
Winters: Hypocrisy creates fatigue because of all the pushback. We’re so steeped in American exceptionalism and the myth that our democracy is working. If you speak out against it, you are thought of as a heretic. James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Protesting inequities and unfairness is what we’ve been about since the country’s founding.
CNN: You write that racism is “tearing the whole nation apart.” What does it cost us as a society?
Winters: Citibank recently released a study showing that the US economy lost $16 trillion because of discrimination. Since 2020, US gross domestic product lost that much as a result of discriminatory practices in education, business loans and other areas.
I’ve been a business owner for 37 continuous years. I do not use banks. I have been discriminated against, even though my credit is impeccable. I went to the bank for a small business loan, and I didn’t get it despite the fact that everything was in order. The interest on lending to Black businesses is part of that lost $16 trillion.
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I always ask the companies I’m working with, “What are your values? And are you living them?” When I have conversations with people who are resistant or question the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion work, I ask: “Do we have liberty and justice for all?”
Liberty and justice for all is what we say our country stands for. Democracy is a work in progress, of course. We will know that we have true equity when we can no longer predict outcomes based on someone’s identity.
Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based journalist, ghostwriter, book coach and the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America.”