Christopher Gray

Christopher Gray did some work in his front yard in the 3900 block of Natural Bridge Avenue across from Fairgrounds Park on March 27. Gray has lived in this house in the 63107 ZIP code for almost 20 years. As of May 28, the 63107 ZIP code in North St. Louis had 72 COVID-19 cases. The 63109 ZIP code in South St. Louis had the same number of COVID-19 cases but has more than 17,000 more residents, so the COVID-19 case count in Gray’s neighborhood was nearly three times the COVID-19 case count in South City neighborhoods less than 10 miles away.

I am always shocked when I hear leaders suggest that the COVID-19 crises somehow brought to the forefront disparities in our region and beyond. Each time there is a crisis, we have conditioned ourselves to use this same language. Let’s be clear: while disparity operates in full sunlight right now, it has always been there for those who have chosen to see it. 

The truth is some of us have the ability to insulate ourselves from the economic and social realities that many face on a regular basis. My greatest fear is that in our eagerness to get back to normal, in our rush to return to business as usual, disparity will fade back into the shadows. We cannot let that happen. 

Orvin T. Kimbrough

We must use this time to create a new normal. We must look at the systems, policies and attitudes that existed long before COVID-19. We must tackle the real plague that has eroded our communities for generations and has created stark inequality in healthcare, education and opportunity. I don’t know if the people who sit atop our region’s agenda for progress are listening – but the only way our region will grow is through a legitimate commitment to shared prosperity.  

Recently, I have been invited to engage in dialogue locally and nationally around the impact of COVID-19 on diverse communities with specific emphasis on why minority businesses often suffer more in crises, why it’s difficult for these businesses to secure loans, and why it’s important to invest in black and brown businesses. 

Backing up a little bit, you have to see the bigger picture and look at some of the reasons why. There are reasons why black and brown people are suffering disproportionally from the disease. There are reasons why access to capital is denied disproportionally in black and brown communities. There are reasons why, and they have nothing to do with the current pandemic. 

Majority-black ZIP codes in the St. Louis region have three times the rate of infections and nearly six times the rate of deaths as majority-white ZIP codes. Some cite underlying health conditions and use terms like “co-morbidity,” which is just a fancy way of saying that black and brown patients have more than one underlying health problem – maybe diabetes, maybe high blood pressure, maybe a respiratory ailment. 

These are not personal failures. Health care experts will tell you that these medical issues are due to systemic issues with economic insecurity, lack of access to preventative and mental health care, lack of access to good nutrition, lack of access to safe housing. Whether it is in multigenerational households or in our urban core, people are living in cramped quarters.  

So, when I am asked, “Why is it difficult for black and brown businesses during a crisis?” my answer is not intended to be dismissive, but to reflect reality. It is difficult for minority businesses when things are normal! The playing field is still not equal, and we the people still have not grasped the concept of leverage. Business and economic development in marginalized communities don’t have the same access to deal flow and focus on uplift of local or indigenous institutions. We generally import people who don’t live in those neighborhoods to take advantage of these newfound opportunities.  

And, while I am on this point, because we have historically underinvested in these communities, these business owners who reside there don’t have the capacity to keep up even if they get that access. Access to reasonable debt—not predatory loans—is directly tied to one’s ability to earn and pay off the debt. Balance-sheet strength is ultimately about one’s net worth and ability to withstand really tough economic times.

But there is another reason why. People often have potential leverage that they don’t exercise because they are focused on what’s in their best interest in the moment. They rarely focus on how their decisions impact others or the community. For the St. Louis region to grow, as we did a generation ago, we have to embrace an inclusive vision on the other side of COVID-19. 

Left to momentum, left to business as usual, the folks who have been historically marginalized will only fall further behind. This this does not bode well for any one of us or for our broader economic outlook. When you compare the economic outlook of the St. Louis region to more progressive parts of our country that have embraced a shared vision, a vision that includes economic progress for more of its citizens, we are projected to fall further and further behind in creating new, good-paying jobs and economic prosperity. 

I am an optimist. My deepest hope is that we wage an all-out battle for a healthy Main Street: that we invest locally, that we bank locally, that we shop and dine and recreate locally. Let’s use this current COVID 19 crisis as a clarion call to double down on investments for businesses that continue to draw the short end of the stick.

During this incredibly difficult time for so many, Midwest BankCentre has stood with black and brown and other marginalized communities. In recent weeks, our team has processed nearly $200 million in government-backed small-business loans to businesses that serve our region. These loans are tied to nearly 20,000 workers. We are really proud of the fact that 85% of those loans have gone to companies with 25 or fewer employees, which directly correlates with the size of most black businesses and underscores our commitment to serve our neighbors.

Let’s all invest in our communities. It is our best chance to tackle the real plagues that have been impacting our marginalized communities. Beyond that, it is our best hope to thrive economically and culturally as a region and have our kids want to live in this place that we love.  

Orvin T. Kimbrough is chairman and CEO of Midwest BankCentre.

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