How to Actually Help Black Communities | Opinion

Black Americans have had passionate responses to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, but perhaps none were as memorable as that of Colinford Mattis. On the early morning of May 30 in the Fort Greene Neighborhood of Brooklyn, Mattis, a young corporate lawyer, was driving with his friend, human rights lawyer Urooj Rahman. After engaging in protests on the street, Mattis is alleged to have thrown a Molotov cocktail through the window of an empty police car. He has been charged on seven counts, including arson, use of explosives and civil disorder.

I know Mattis. We graduated the same year from NYU School of Law. But while he went off to pursue a promising legal career in New York City, I moved back to Chicago to start two businesses. One is a consulting firm that works with urban, small and medium-sized businesses to help them become more profitable; the other is an opportunity zone investment firm that builds affordable housing and starts businesses in underserved neighborhoods.

Perhaps it sounds strange to say, but I felt little when George Floyd was murdered. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where hundreds of Black men are murdered in my hood every year.

My homecoming was shot up. Parties I attended were shot up. Basketball teammates were killed in cold blood. I'll never forget the recent time that I went to an upscale restaurant downtown for a client meeting, and my classmate was the bathroom attendant.

Even before that moment, I felt privileged. I had food at home. I had classmates who relied on school to feed them. I was lucky.

On Sunday, May 31, the day after Mattis and Rahman threw that Molotov cocktail, 18 people were killed in my hometown. It was the single most lethal day in six decades, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Where I grew up, violence is normalized. Murder is casual. Death is expected. We figure a few of us will get shot every summer and not make it back to school in the fall. However, being killed by the police is not expected. Police brutality and harassment? Those are expected, but not murder. Yet murder by a fellow Black person does not cause passionate protests. Why? Because it is normalized. Read that sentence again. That is the problem.

So perhaps you can understand why, a few years ago, my mother was standing in a courtroom crying while I stood before a judge. I was fighting tears of confusion, wondering why I was being sworn in as an attorney and not dead or in jail like so many Black men my age from Chicago. That's a sad question that doesn't have to have a destructive answer. If I can transmute that anger into a constructive means to relieve plight in my community, perhaps white Americans can resist the temptation to throw a brick, kneel in kente cloth or post performatively guilty things on Facebook.

The newfound anger and guilt white America has unleashed these past weeks has been something to behold. White Americans' over-the-top urge to self-abnegate (I can wash my own feet, thank you very much!) is unhealthy at best, and opportunistic at worst. Solidarity is trendy and good politics right now—throw some money and diversity positions at the problem—but by July, people will be back to boozy brunching.

Where will that leave communities like the one where I grew up? In exactly the same place we were before George Floyd was murdered.

Washington Square Park, New York City
Washington Square Park, New York City Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

What if Frederick Douglass was right in saying, "Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us."

Because what has "doing with us" gotten us? The normalization of murder, violence and oppressive police behavior are a direct consequence of slavery, Jim Crow, the crack epidemic, the War on Drugs, poor education, redlining, over-policing and economic discrimination. Today's lawless "thugs" in the Black community are the children and grandchildren of the crack babies. Crack babies are kids born in the 80s and 90s from a mother and/or father who was addicted to crack cocaine. Oftentimes, the mother was too high on drugs to raise her kids properly, and the father was either dead from drug overdose or street violence, in jail because of mandatory first possession minimums that only applied to crack or simply missing in action.

What do you get when children who grew up without parents themselves have children? No guidance. No resources. And their children inherit the same. No guidance. No resources. This results in the normalization of violence and murder, because these kids are fighting over crumbs and have no one who loves them other than the gangs they're loyal to. They are surrounded by death. They feel forgotten because they are.

Before you jump in with more paternalistic policies and government assistance programs, let me clarify the help we actually need: Get out of our way. Remove growth-inhibiting policies and invest privately in Black entrepreneurs and community leaders. Opportunity zones, for instance, a creation of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, creates huge tax incentives for investing in distressed areas. Let's not forget that many of these cities are single-party strongholds with little incentive to innovate. Instead of ideological differences, these cities have personality differences that are typified by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Alderman Raymond Lopez's expletive-laced argument earlier this month.

Instead of posting a black square on social media or randomly texting me, "there's a lot going on and I'm here for you in this time of need," vote with your dollars and invest in Black entrepreneurs, community leaders and businesses. Investing in Black communities creates the fertile soil necessary for Black families to bloom.

D.K. Smith (@mr_dksmith) is a graduate of New York University School of Law and president of D.K. Smith & Co.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.