By Jordan Harris
There’s an old saying — when white folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia. COVID-19 has taken nearly 5,000 of our citizens in Pennsylvania. It’s both sad and unsurprising that the African-American community makes up a disproportionate number of coronavirus cases.
The loss of so much life, particularly in the Black and Brown community, was tragic and avoidable — but much of the hemorrhaging has begun to subside due to the massive mitigation efforts undertaken by Pennsylvanians. And while we may be able to find ways to resume our altered lives, the Black and Brown business community will suffer its own form of pneumonia through disproportionate fallout from the economic catastrophe brought on by the first wave of the pandemic.
The Trump administration has touted the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) as the potential cure-all for the pending devastation of the small business community.
This program, however, refuses to acknowledge the many historic inequalities and obstacles faced by the Black and Brown business community, and the implementation of this program by the Trump administration has been a complete failure. These businesses exist in communities that are traditionally underserved by our nation’s financial institutions.
Relationships between these entrepreneurs and those institutions are virtually nonexistent. So we have seen a program that was meant to save small businesses abandoned main street — also known as MLK Blvd. — for Wall Street.
As usual, the Trump administration was more concerned with helping rich corporations than working people. And true to the axiom of Black folks’ pneumonia, 90% of businesses owned by people of color have been and will be shut out of PPP loans.
There are notable oversights in the PPP program. For example, in our community, entrepreneurs have had to create work for themselves because they were unemployable or underemployed due to convictions from the failed war on drugs.
Under the PPP, a business owner with a criminal record will not qualify for these business-saving loans. These businesses are well-respected and established pillars of our communities. They range from barber shops to construction trades, and many of these owners learned their skills in our penal institutions.
They are true success stories, and it is cruel to deny them access to these lifelines during this time of suffering. Yet this is the reality of the business pneumonia suffered by the Black and Brown business community.
Let me be clear. Minority-owned small businesses are not just pillars of the Black and Brown community. They are the fibers of the fabric of the American economy — the deeply woven strands that hold our economic system together.
These businesses give jobs and livelihoods to people of color who pay taxes and raise children who become productive tax-paying citizens.
They are neighborhood gathering spots and community hubs. These barbershops, nail salons, hair salons, restaurants, bars, doctor’s offices, and lawyer’s offices are sources of pride not only to Black and Brown people but the people of America. Any product meant to save American business should take them and their struggles into consideration.
Sadly, help doesn’t seem to be coming. Despite their importance, recent surveys have found that only 12% of minority business owners who applied for help from the Small Business Administration received what they requested. Nearly half of all minority business owners are expected to close in the next few months. These are generational businesses and their closures would be catastrophic to our communities.
We cannot have a successful recovery from COVID-19 that leaves minority communities and specifically businesses behind. And it’s abundantly clear that help from the Trump administration, which is more concerned with cheap photo-ops than helping small businesses, is not on the horizon. We are in this situation due to fundamental, decades-old inequities that prevent the Black and Brown community from achieving the same American dream that so many others have seen. America cannot have a prosperous future that leaves behind such a large segment of its economy.
We cannot reopen without an accompanying recovery, and that recovery must include relief for minority-owned businesses.
State Rep. Jordan Harris, a Democrat, represents the Philadelphia-based 186th House District. He serves as the House Democratic Whip. He writes from Harrisburg.