The Weight of History

“There is a line connecting slavery to the racial bias we see today that needs to be understood,” says Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. This year, EJI established the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – America’s first monument to the victims of lynching – where the truth of America’s racial history can be told and confronted. In Stevenson’s words, “We want to get to truth and reconciliation, but we know that truth and reconciliation are sequential – truth has to come first.”

1 in 3 people in the Bay Area cannot afford their basic needs. But when you consider race, the numbers get even more stark. Among Black and Latinx individuals, it’s 1 in 2. As a manager on the Insights + Analytics team at Tipping Point, I aggregate and analyze data from non-profits we fund and from public sources, and use the results to inform strategy and strengthen grantee efforts to fight poverty in the Bay Area.

I have a deep connection to the work of Tipping Point, as my family experienced the journey out of poverty firsthand. We emigrated from El Salvador and made the Bay Area our home. My familiarity with the region and its poverty statistics drove me to want to better understand the influences that have contributed to our current circumstances.

The search for a deeper truth led me to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, built by Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). I wanted to both witness America’s racial history at its epicenter, and examine the racial bias that warps the distribution of prosperity and poverty in the Bay Area today.

Witnessing History

The memorial envelops visitors as they enter. Rusting steel columns bear the names of over 4,000 African American men, women, and children killed by white mobs during the 80 years following the Civil War, tracing the murderous and oppressive legacy of lynching up until the Civil Rights Movement.

To document this period of terror, EJI also constructed the Legacy Museum in downtown Montgomery, which houses photographs of burned or mutilated bodies, surrounded by white crowds often including parents with their children. Most memorable was the heart-breaking story of 21-year-old Mary Turner, lynched while eight months pregnant during a week which saw at least ten other African Americans lynched in one community in rural Georgia. After hearing her story, all I could do was sit in silence and acknowledge the loss of life and pain inflicted by these acts so long ago. I invite you to do the same.

Lynching and Its Evolution to Discrimination, Mass Incarceration, and Redlining

The photos and primary-source testimonials demonstrate that lynching was just one piece of a larger collective effort to preserve the racial order. Bryan Stevenson explains on “60 Minutes,” “Lynching was there to send a message – if you try to vote, to self-advocate, to insist upon fair wages, if you do anything that challenges white supremacy, we will kill you.” A parallel system of hasty trials before all-white juries grew to replace lynchings, and in 1915 Alabama saw state-sanctioned executions of black citizens outpace extrajudicial killings for the first time since Reconstruction. Presumption of guilt and extreme penalties defined these trials and previewed the system of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts communities of color today.

Driven in part by lynching and racial terror, more than six million Black people fled the rural South to cities across America during the period between 1916 and 1970 known as the Great Migration. As an immigrant from a war-torn country in Central America, my family also knows firsthand the uncertainty and fear of fleeing in middle of the night, in search of safety and a chance to live. The stories I heard in Montgomery reminded me of the pain my mother would express when she would explain the terror that drove my family from my country of birth so abruptly when I was a child.

When Black people fleeing the South arrived in cities like San Francisco and Oakland, they were in search of a reprieve from white supremacist terrorism, and also sought better economic opportunities. However, discriminatory housing policies such as “redlining” created pockets with a high density of African American families. Decades of exclusion from employment and educational opportunities led these communities to suffer disproportionately from poverty, and even now many families struggle to remain in the region.

A report by Urban Habitat, an Oakland-based think tank, details how the Bay Area’s rapid economic growth since 2000 has resulted in widespread displacement of communities of color and rising rates of poverty despite increased regional economic output. In San Francisco, the African American population has declined 30% since 2000, largely due to rising rents and shuttering businesses.

Source: Census.gov – median household income in the past 12 months (in 2016 inflation-adjusted dollars)

Carrying the Weight

Outside the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, 805 steel pillars, identical to those hanging inside, lie in rows like coffins. Each pillar corresponds to a different US county where lynchings are known to have taken place. These duplicate pillars are a call to action to each of their respective counties, to bring them home, keep their stories alive, and learn from them. The idea is that only by confronting the truth of our country’s past and the ways it influences our polices today, we can begin the process of reconciliation.

Even though there was no steel pillar for me to carry home to the counties of San Francisco or Alameda, history tells us that the Black population in this area is a direct result of policies and practices triggered by racial terror in the South. The data shows us that communities of color here in the Bay Area are still feeling the long-term effects of those policies. I carry the heavy forms of the steel pillars in my memory, the corrosion dripping onto the concrete beneath them. The stories of torment experienced by the victims of lynching and the terror felt by their communities run through my mind.

These memories remind me to question the structures around me: lynching was a pillar of institutionalized racism in its time, unquestioned and even celebrated by beneficiaries of the social order of the day. Today, we have our own institutional policies to challenge, which have inherited their own corrosion from the past. Consider racial disparities in the distribution of wealth in America today: the median net worth of Black and Latino families stands at just $11,000 and $14,000, respectively—just a fraction of the $134,000 owned by the median white family.

In my role on the Insight + Analytics team, I pledge to question how we measure impact, to continuously attempt to apply an equity lens to our work, and to ask how I can do more. This year, that means:

  • Finding and sharing data disaggregated for race/ethnicity to illuminate racial equity issues in our work and in society at large
  • Supporting our grantees in unlocking sources of disaggregated data to inform their work
  • When designing formal evaluation efforts, questioning the evaluation methods used, inspecting them for racial bias.

I challenge you to carry this weight into your own work, to remember the injustice of our history, and look for ways to be part of building a more equitable future. We all spend our days solving problems of one sort of another—ask yourself “What role does institutional racial bias play in creating or exacerbating this problem?” or “how does this problem impact people with different backgrounds than mine?” By looking at each day as an opportunity to question history and practice the pursuit of equity, we can own this country’s history and break the cycle of institutional racial oppression. 

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