I’ll admit it was uncomfortable to see the link to this article float down my Facebook feed citing Grand Rapids MI as a city where minorities are not prospering. Over the past couple of years, Grand Rapids, MI has topped many complimentary lists with regards to housing price increases, job growth, community life etc. So, when Forbes indicated that a recent study ranked the city as one of the worst places for economic advancement for minorities, (Rank #51 amongst 52 metropolitan areas across the nation) it was an unsettling notation to what has seemed to be an unrelenting flow of positive indicators about the area.
Yesterday, the keynote speaker for the Economic Club of Grand Rapids, Dr. John Powell took the issue head on as he challenged the assembled business leaders about the implications of having a community which to some degree regards the ‘other’ as instinctively dangerous, less worthy or even inhuman at a deeply sub-conscious level. The UC Berkley Law Professor told the audience that racial prejudices guide our subconscious responses and are far more powerful than any conscious programs we might put into place to remedy them.
These prejudices also impact the structures and institutions of our community in ways that are deep below the surface and rooted within the intrinsic foundations of society. Thus creating environments which make it difficult for individuals who fit into the category of ‘other’ to thrive and prosper. In real economic terms, minority populations such as African-Americans earn $10,000 – $15,000 less on average in West Michigan than their counterparts in the south. They are also less likely to be successful entrepreneurs and more likely to struggle academically.
Is this because minority populations are inherently ‘damaged goods’? Dr. Powell answered the question with a resounding ‘NO’, giving examples of communities which had recognized a pattern of low achievement amongst minority populations and had seen dramatic results in changing the status quo through gaining more understanding of the underlying causes. One notable example being the city of Atlanta, located in the heart of the South which was a segregationist stronghold.
So, the question remains why is it hard to prosper if you’re a minority living and working in the Grand Rapids area? I have worked in the real estate community for almost twenty years. The sad truth is that there are significantly fewer experienced minority agents today on the local real estate board than when I started in 1995. When I attend real estate functions at the local, regional or state level, I am often the only minority in the room or one of less than a handful. At a time when the minority population is on the rise, why is my profession heading in the opposite direction?
In taking a deeper look at this issue, I think that some lessons can be gleaned from a famous parable about a farmer who was sowing seed in different types of soil. Theoretically all the seed had the same potential as it had come from the same bag. However, subsequent patterns of growth revealed an important truth – depending on where the seed fell, it either prospered or in some cases withered and died. In the real estate world, we know that LOCATION matters. Where your property is located can make the difference between significant margins of profit or loss. The same truism has relevance for where human beings live in community with one another.
These are the actual words of the parable as told by Jesus in the gospel of Mathew 13: 1-9:
“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Seed on the Path: Seed that fell on the path was very vulnerable to being trampled. Even though the path was likely a dirt path at the time, it had been walked on and become hard and unviable. Thus making it difficult for even good seed to take root. There is something to be said about the need to provide a level of acceptance for minority/marginalized populations. Think about how you behave when you’re out of your normal element. All of us can recall going to an unfamiliar space and scanning the room to see if there is someone present we can relate to. A minority person has this type of antenna up all the time. It can be emotionally and spiritually exhausting. Creating spaces and opportunities for people to enjoy the simple things of life and get to know each other as human beings can be very instrumental in softening the process of integration from the hard grind of daily life. Cities, communities and individuals can all do this. It takes some intentionality, but it’s definitely doable.
Seed on the Rocks: Seed that fell on the rocks was in for a really hard time. Rocks are totally impermeable and hostile to growth of anything apart from maybe algae. But, where there was a little soil, this hardy seed did all it could to cling to life and it sank its roots into the ground. But, alas the shallow soil could not support the seed and it withered. That’s what sometimes happens to minorities who find themselves labelled as the ‘one black friend’. Eager to be accepted and reclaim the humanity of friendship wherever it can be found, we find ourselves absorbed into circles which lack depth and real community. These are the types of relationships which seem to thrive at work and church, but just about every minority has had the unsettling experience of having your newly found ‘friends’ fail to recognize your smile or eye contact when you meet at the grocery store. Slowly the minority individual recognizes that the relationship does not have the nourishment to truly support what it means to be a friend. It becomes a rocky, rough and desert like experience to live in this sort of ‘quasi’ community.
Seed on Shallow Soil: This type of soil is especially dangerous for good seed. Unlike the rocky soil, it is not initially obvious that this an unfortunate landing pad. Seed falling on this soil has all the nutrients available in a richly fertile plot of land – up to a point. It is only when the roots begin to extend for depth and stability that the lie is discovered. This is not a safe place; there are no deep nutrients to sustain life and this seed becomes very susceptible to the scorching of the sun, often withering up where it is planted and eventually dies. The unfortunate truth is that many minorities who are actively recruited to Grand Rapids often leave within less than 5 years. I’ve seen it happen to countless numbers of friends. Many of whom are highly gifted and educated professionals. I’ve talked to college professors who share stories of discrimination which are bone chilling. West Michigan cannot afford to continue recruiting brilliant people of any color only to have them fail to take root and leave. It’s highly inefficient and incredibly expensive.
Seed on Thorny Soil: Seed on thorny soil initially grows up strong. But, this seed has company. Right there in the same field, the seed is accosted by vicious thorns, weeds that by design will steal the nutrients which the good seed needs and render the good seed useless. This issue is difficult to remedy, because unless it is recognized early enough, pulling out the thorns will usually result in pulling out the good seed, thus losing a valuable harvest. However, if the thorns are allowed to grow, the loss of the harvest is guaranteed. This is what happens when majority communities turn a blind eye to obvious disparities and discrepancies. Ignoring or explaining in dismissive ways why diversity is absent in a community is nurturing thorns. Failing to speak up when prejudicial comments and jokes are made in your presence is nurturing thorns. The refusal to acknowledge the gifts and talents of an ‘other’ simply because they are not like you is nurturing thorns. The only way to deal with thorny soil is by aggressive weeding thereby dislodging anything that stands in the way of my becoming my ‘brother’s keeper’.
Seed on Good Soil: Good soil is not perfect soil. Good soil is simply soil which has the capacity to support growth and nurture life. Good soil represents spaces in which life thrives. It is soil which allows the full potential of the seed to be revealed and provide rich benefit. Communities which are good soil for ALL their citizens will reap a windfall of reward. Our country is diverse and will continue to become increasingly diverse. As a result of inter-marriage, almost 60% of Americans are likely to have a member of their family from a different race in the next decade. We cannot afford to marginalize any citizen and especially when we are competing in a global economy; one in which the top 1% of Chinese students are more than all the students in United States. Good soil is the rich heritage of a country which was built on the foundation of immigrants who risked everything to come here to make a better life for themselves. And were allowed to do so. We must call forth that which is deeply embedded in the psyche of the American Spirit and do what is necessary to provide an environment that supports the welfare, well-being and prosperity for all the good people of West Michigan, including those with whom we do not share a native experience. I may be a mis-guided optimist, but I believe that Grand Rapids MI is a place where many people care about doing what’s right.