Racial discrimination has cost American economy trillions. Tulsa, massacres just a start.

·4 min read
Houses on fire after the Tulsa massacre
Houses on fire after the Tulsa massacre

Racism is costly.

In fact, a recent Citigroup report estimated that racial discrimination has cost the American economy $16 trillion. Most notably, the report identifies a substantial $13 trillion loss in potential business revenue because of racial discrimination in lending to Black entrepreneurs and Black businesses. Although these figures are estimates for the last two decades, they point to a repeated pattern of costly preventable violence – financial and physical – against non-white people in America.

When a Black community in America is destroyed, America's progress is destroyed.

More in Reparations: Nearly two dozen Black massacres in American history. Reparations? Rarely.

For Black America, the economic losses are very direct. The wage gap, for example, puts the highest average earnings for Black men at more than $20,000 less than it is for white men.

But economic struggles in the Black community trickle down in ways that are less obvious, but certainly not less meaningful, to non-Black members of society. A close in the wealth gap over the past 20 years would have meant $2.7 trillion more spent on cars, clothes and other goods, services and investments that would have supported jobs for everyone.

Indeed, 100 years later, the story of the Tulsa massacre remains relevant for identifying racism’s true and lasting costs. The lessons and events of this horrific episode provide powerful insights into how acknowledging the effects, costs and destruction of systemic racism is key to healing and repairing the nation today.

Born of the ingenuity of Black migrants, Tulsa's Greenwood community was a bustling and dynamic Black financial district in the heartland of the American Southwest. Before the massacre, that approximately 35-block Black Wall Street community was worth $1 million (the equivalent of $15 million today).

Rather than bask in the glory of the success of Black Wall Street, white leaders, businessmen and residents guided by fear, hatred and a readily believed racist trope that turned out to be, by most accounts, untrue – that a Black male, in this case a 19-year-old, had attacked a white 17-year-old female – saw to it that a mosaic of terror befell the neighborhood by spring 1921.

White mobs looted hundreds of homes and burned down others. Some Black families escaped, but an estimated 300 members of the community were killed. Fires burned from the night of May 31 well into the next day. Little to no property, bank accounts, keepsakes or family heirlooms survived, generating a pattern of loss, death and trauma that endures today.

An African American photographer  looking at the ruins of the Midway Hotel in Tulsa.
An African American photographer looking at the ruins of the Midway Hotel in Tulsa.

So how do we get beyond these traumatic losses?

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., are among those calling for a national Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Commission that will, at the least, force things that have been previously hidden into the light. The Tulsa massacre was ignored by the local government for decades. In a perfect world, the commission will set the nation on the road to racial and financial recovery. We must seize this historic opportunity to achieve a future in which the false notion of a racial hierarchy is finally obliterated.

The commission seeks to properly memorialize, archive, mitigate and prevent harms and violence like the massacres in America that didn't begin or end with Tulsa. That's complementary to existing calls for reparations for African Americans long heralded by late Rep. John Conyers and now advanced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, in H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study the history of discrimination and avenues for repair.

Perhaps we can look to South Africa for an example (even if an imperfect one) of how commissions can acknowledge hurt, make victims financially whole and help a nation collectively move forward.

The process included gruesome testimony that took seven years and included stories of violence, rape and murder from 2,000 people of the apartheid era – some of whom committed acts of violence, others who were victims. The commission surely helped the nation avoid genocide and massive brutality in apartheid's aftermath. The solution included payments to each victim's family that totaled $85 million. Not everyone was happy with the final outcome, but it was a step in the right direction, and it started with the acknowledgment that horrible human atrocities happened.

Testimony from the victims and descendants of the Tulsa massacre, and every other recorded massacre in our nation's history, is vital. It has the potential to not only right the ship but also move the nation forward with a newfound awareness of how and why racism's influence hinders our collective prosperity and solidarity.

Black activists and leaders on the ground have worked tirelessly to restore, repair and replenish the Greenwood district. This work has not been easy, but it's necessary.

The loss of a financial district anywhere in America is a financial threat and loss for all Americans.

Understanding that is the key to racial healing, racial equity and a more prosperous inclusive future. All of our lives – regardless of ethnic background – and economy depend on it.

Marcus Anthony Hunter, a sociology and African American studies professor at UCLA, is the author of several books, including "Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Racial discrimination has cost USA trillions. Tulsa is just a start.

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