The Jewish imperative to erase the Delmar Divide

Rachel Thimangu is a member of the Policy & Advocacy Subcommittee of the Jewish Coalition on Racial Equity. JCRE advises the JCRC on advocacy and programming to create an inclusive and impactful approach for Jewish communal engagement on issues of racism and racial justice.

Rachel Thimangu and Jack Seigel

You walk into a bar and strike up a conversation with two people of roughly the same age who own nearly identical homes and run very similar small businesses in the neighborhoods where they live. One is white and calls the central corridor home. The other is a Black resident of the north side.

Without any further information, your gut tells you which of them owns the nice car parked outside and which will be riding home on a bus. You can guess whose home would sell more easily, for a much higher price. You may even know which of those two very similar businesses you are most likely to frequent, even if you don’t want to admit it.

Such is the Delmar Divide. It runs counter to our Jewish teachings, ethics and Torah, which tell us to fight for economic and social equity. It also belies the promise of the American Dream. 

As Jews, and as Americans who believe that someone should be able to improve their lot in life by working hard and playing by the rules, it is our duty to understand and challenge the causes of economic inequities in our country. We must seek ways to level the playing field.

St. Louis, like many other American cities, suffers from racial inequity, defined by Forward Through Ferguson as the condition in which outcomes can be predicted by race. 

We have serious levels of income and wealth inequality across society and, when the statistics are parsed by race, it is clear that African Americans are more likely to be born poor and stay poor than their white counterparts.  

As The New York Times reported in an article in June: “When it comes to wealth, Black Americans have less at nearly every juncture of life, from birth to death.” 

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Net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family, the Brookings Institution reported last year.  Black Americans borrow more, earn less, pay higher interest rates and leave less wealth to the next generation. This “extra tax” – the fact that life is economically harder for Black families – is a crucial part of systemic racism.

Consider just a few more damning statistics:

• According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the first quarter last year, 44% of Black families owned their homes, compared with 74% of white families. An Urban Institute report stated that this homeownership gap “is bigger today than it was when it was legal to refuse to sell someone a home because of the color of their skin.” 

Black people make up approximately 14.2% of the U.S. population, but Black businesses account for only 2.2% of the nation’s 5.7 million employer businesses. Systemic racism accounts for much of this disparity. All else being equal, African Americans have less home equity and accumulated wealth to start a business, and minority-owned businesses have more loans denied and pay higher interest rates, when they are approved, than white-owned businesses.

• During the largest recorded drop in U.S. business ownership, last February to April due to the coronavirus pandemic, African American entrepreneurs were disproportionately hit – 41% lost their businesses, compared with the 22% overall national number.

In the St. Louis metro area, we have the highest representation of Black-owned businesses, compared with our Black population, among 112 U.S. metro areas in a recent study. But with a rate of 11% of total businesses in the region owned by African Americans vs. nearly 20% of the region’s population, there is still a significant gap and opportunity to expand.

Among our most foundational Jewish teachings are the principals of equality and equity: B’tselem Elohim, all human beings are created in the image of God, equally. And, as we are told in Leviticus 19:34, “You shall love the stranger as yourself.” As Jews, we should be inspired to demolish racial and economic divides. 

But where to start?

Cross the divide. Patronize Black-owned businesses. And learn more about the problems and possible solutions, from experts and people in the African American community. 

The Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, in partnership with local interfaith organizations, is presenting a free four-part racial equity series entitled “The Great Divide: Race in our Region.” At each session we will convene experts, hear stories of people directly affected and learn two concrete ways we all can take action.

The first program, at noon Feb. 10, will focus on economic inequity with presentations by Ray Boshara, director of the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and by a participant in Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson’s 63106 Project. Later sessions will focus on health care, environmental justice and the court system. 

Please join us by registering at jcrcstl.org/news/greatdivide.html.

Together, we can make a difference.