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Mark McCormick: This Juneteenth, let’s redefine freedom as parity (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state.

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum and a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission.

As we approach our second Juneteenth national holiday, the nation should ponder its definition of freedom. The holiday marks the moment in time when enslaved people in Texas learned they’d been freed from one type of bondage.

But by virtually every social and economic measurement, African Americans have in succession traded one form of bondage for another, from chattel slavery to convict leasing, to sharecropping, to Jim Crow, to today’s mass incarceration.

This Juneteenth, African Americans should consider a new standard for freedom — economic parity. A dear friend, Dr. Pamela Jolly, the CEO of Torch Enterprises, has supported this kind of metric for years. Real parity, she said, begins with understanding our individual and collective contributions to building economic power.

Juneteenth marks the end of American chattel slavery. The name originates from June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger in Texas announced that “all slaves are free.” Months later, the 13th Amendment abolished bondage slavery, though slavery for the incarcerated continues today.

But releasing people from bondage and later declaring an end to government-sanctioned discrimination did not address the 12 generations of legal and social constructs that destroyed most existing or fledgling African American wealth.

Wealth building in the Black community is Jolly’s expertise and the subject of her dissertation. Leveraging her findings, she created the Narrow Road, and has written five books on the subject.

Jolly, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business and Boston University’s School of Theology, has worked as a credit analyst, a vice president of treasury management, and helped launch financial initiatives designed to educate and inform about the critical role of legacy wealth in the Black community and ways to pursue it. She has hosted legacy wealth cohorts in cities nationwide. She has lectured in Korea, Egypt, Nigeria, Jamaica, China and England.

Her firm’s name, Torch Enterprises, references passing the torch of wealth from one generation to another. Since emancipation, the African American journey toward cross-generational wealth has met with systemic roadblocks. Gaps formed and grew, and not just financial ones.

If Black voters and white voters don’t have comparable wait times at the polls on Election Day, that’s not parity. If the groups aren’t harassed, and jailed at comparable rates, that’s not parity. If our schools don’t produce comparable outcomes, that’s not parity.

The financial parity challenge involves advancing strategies that narrow the racial wealth gap and measure our progress. According to the Brookings Institution, the typical white family had nearly 10 times the wealth of a Black family in 2016.

Thomas Shapiro and others have identified specific actions to accelerate the narrowing of the gap, opening the doors of opportunity for individual wealth journeys.

Parity offers a path forward because racial wealth inequality is 90% structural, Jolly said.

“I really want us to recognize that we have inherited this unique time in history to work on our individual and collective progress to make this happen,” she said. “Every fourth generation repeats itself. We have inherited the spirit and intention of the generations who rebuilt Tulsa and other cities across this country. This is our time.”

After concerted generational efforts, in the late 1980s, Asian Americans, Jolly said, reached entrepreneurial parity with white Americans. Their median income and net worth surpassed that of white Americans.

“Parity enables us to set a definitive marker,” she said. “Then, we can turn that definitive marker into a series of cross-generational steps to get further down the road to wealth.”

Individual economic parity yields sustainable community outcomes. But this requires us to increase our awareness of where we are on the road to generational wealth.

“Wealth is a group process,” Jolly said. “Working together toward wealth outcomes you believe you can have a bloc, a tax base, contributing to the broader society while it is also building wealth for you. I call that a win-win.”

She has found that it takes three generations to build legacy wealth. When four generations stay financially connected, the wealth wheel begins to turn, setting a standard for future generations. Unifying behind an inclusive plan is how we can remember Juneteenth as a time in our shared history when the delayed notice of freedom had to end.

“It just takes one generation going it alone to lose the opportunity to build legacy wealth,” she warned.

Jolly ultimately hopes to establish 40 “Torch” cities nationally.

She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Biblical exodus from the financial wilderness to the inherited Promised Land. It noted how the Levites were the only tribe to not receive a Promised Land inheritance. The Levites did, however, receive 10% from each tribe they used to create cities of refuge.

“I desire to create 40 cities of financial refuge,” she said. “Centered in Black communities. I want to co-create closed-loop economic circles whose pursuit of parity builds infrastructure that is culturally relevant to the residents living there. Where, if you can’t navigate your way to wealth in the financial wilderness by yourself, you could find your way to one of these places and find your promise and build wealth your way.”

In an era where debt is a new form of slavery, Jolly seems to have to key to our shackles. Our racial wealth gap threatens our democracy, just as general inequality threatens democracy. Individuals can’t compete with wealthy people colluding with politicians.

Parity offers the truer path to freedom for African Americans and to a healthier democracy.

Juneteenth’s emancipation remembrance merely marks the first step.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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