Protest and Power: Why Real Estate Must Stand With Communities of Color
On Monday night at 5 PM, I left our office at 654 Madison Avenue (my first visit there in over two months because of the pandemic) and began walking uptown. Both sides of the street were filled with workmen hastily nailing boards over the plate glass windows of the empty stores. They acted not an hour too soon. By 6:30 or 7 both Madison and Fifth Avenues in the 50s and low 60s were filled with looters breaking the windows and making off with merchandise from high-end stores that have been closed for months. What does it mean for us both as citizens and real estate agents to see this crisis engulfing the city we love and sell?
We are at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. We inhabit a city that has been locked down a very long time, overseen by a governor who has built a tough strategy to make sure we are safe to re-open. It’s a good strategy, but a hard one to accept for everyone, especially those lower on the economic ladder. The disease disproportionately infects them, both because so many have front line jobs and because their living situations rarely lend themselves to distancing of any sort. A great many have lost their jobs. Every sort of insecurity now pounds on their doors, where they are stuck at home: financial, social, and medical. How could that not create a powder keg waiting for a match?
The death of George Floyd provided the match. Callously and gratuitously murdered by members of the Minneapolis police force, Floyd joins a heartbreakingly long list of black men and women (most recently Breonna Taylor) whose fate has more to do with skin color than the severity of whatever infraction they have ostensibly committed. Huge peaceful protests over this past week in urban areas across the country somehow segued into outbreaks of violence neither planned nor condoned by the vast majority of protesters. Looting and burning cheapen the impetus to right a wrong which so powerfully motivates the protesters, making it both easier to dismiss the purpose of the protests and to meet fire with fire. One sets a police car on fire, the other drives a police car into the midst of the protesters. So it begins.
We cannot feel at peace living together in a city that does not treat us as equal before the law. No society has ever succeeded in banishing inequities in the distribution of wealth and power, and ours clearly won’t be the first. But can we, as real estate agents, sell the beautiful mosaic which is New York when we know that some colors in the pattern have so much less access to that beauty? If our city denies access to health care, decent education, and basic safety to a significant part of our population, how good can we feel about endorsing New York in our work as agents?
My daughter Clelia brilliantly analogized Monday night’s protests to me that evening. She pointed out that almost 250 years ago, enraged colonials broke into warehouses and ships at Boston Harbor and threw barrel after barrel of tea into the briny water. They had lost patience with the deaf ear England turned to their grievances, and they turned to vandalism out of frustration. It was wrong, but today these men are American heroes and the Boston Tea Party is celebrated as another nail in the coffin of British rule in America. We cannot condone looting or violence; they are the antithesis of the social contract which enables a civil society. But we can acknowledge the desperation and fear which underlie the rage. Something fundamental must change. The real estate industry wields the power to be a force in continuing to bring opportunity and equality under the law to communities of color throughout the five boroughs. We just all have to commit.
If you’re looking for ways to take action from home, here are a few concrete suggestions:
- Join the work of vital civil rights institutions like Color of Change and Fair Fight, a group led by Stacey Abrams to battle voter suppression and expand voting access. Another great one is Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
- Act locally and insist that New York officials hold police accountable by repealing 50a. Learn more about it here.
- Address the problem at its root, support the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform.
- Be a voter by registering, committing to vote yourself, and encouraging friends to vote. Voting isn’t the end-all of how we create an America for all, but it is an important part of a larger strategy to make our vision of the future a reality. You can check your voter registration status and register to vote here.