African-Americans being discriminated against, impoverished, and killed disproportionately is deeply interconnected with the issue of economic development.  It is the reason the August 28, 1963 event that included Martin Luther King Jr's famous "I have a dream" speech was called the 'March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom'. You'll notice that the word “jobs” comes before “freedom”. That was no accident. 

The data analysis about the economic marginalisation of people of colour is unambiguous. In the measurements of income, wealth, education, health, entrepreneurship, home ownership, and freedom, African Americans significantly lag whites by every indicator. Centuries of unequal public policy, including economic development programs, have created structural barriers to African-Americans’ ability to achieve parity.     

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Because economic development is one of the central elements related to racial inequality in America, the profession of economic development must put itself within the centre of creating solutions. 

Social and economic empowerment of African-Americans is both practical and strategic to achieve the professional objectives of economic development. Removing economic inequality is also in the self-interest of investment promotion agencies and economic development organisations for the following main reasons. 

Economic development organisations typically use an “increase in average income” for the community as a measurement of success – the mathematically most impactful way to move an average upward is by increasing the lowest numbers, which, in this case, are the lowest income people. Removing artificial barriers which limit economic capability, such as racial discrimination, can liberate unrealised economic development potential from African-Americans. Continued and repeated social unrest is disruptive to a local economy. Police killings of African-Americans and racism are bad for a community’s image and can harm the community’s brand for a long time. 

In addition to the practical reasons for economic developers to work to remove racial discrimination, there is an ethical imperative. As Martin Luther King Jr wrote in 1960: “Whenever racial discrimination exists it is a tragic expression of man’s spiritual degeneracy and moral bankruptcy. Therefore, it must be removed not merely because it is diplomatically expedient, but because it is morally compelling.” 

Be part of the solution

Here are just a few things economic developers can do to be part of the solution. 

Speak up as leaders in our communities to bring attention to the economic racial inequality that exists. We can educate and use data to show the problems, so the discussion is framed around facts that lead to actionable policy. 

Create programs to help racial minorities that are economically disadvantaged. It is not enough to raise the 'average' income of your community. A rising tide may lift all boats, but not everyone is able to own a boat. Many people in our communities are drowning economically

Bring more racial minorities into organisations. The 2019 International Economic Development Council 'State of the Industry' survey reveals that staff diversity is not a priority for the majority of economic developers who participated in the survey. It even declined as a priority from 2018 to 2019. However, it needs to be a priority because racial minority team members may have insights and experiences that can supplement the blind spots that white economic developers have around the issues of race and economic development.  As Rod Miller, CEO of Invest Puerto Rico, explains about the lack of diversity in the profession, “Nobody understands black communities like black people. So, if we are expecting a profession that is overwhelmingly white to lead in restoring black communities it will never happen. That’s not because people are bad but because they don’t understand these communities.” 

How economic development is implemented is both a root problem and solution to racial inequality. Because this is the case, it is in a position of opportunity for the profession to be in because, as economic developers, we can make a societal change. 

Anatalio Ubalde is the managing director and co-founder of GIS Planning

His full analysis can be found here