A White Immigrant’s View Of Racism In America

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Were you and I to pass on the street, you’d barely take in the details– an older gentleman on his way to do business like millions of other New Yorkers. And in that cursory glance, you might very well make assumptions about my understanding of the vile racism that rages around us. What could a white businessman of Eastern European descent possibly understand about race?

As it turns out, despite the fact that my skin is white, I do know a great deal about racism.

I first encountered it when I was a fifteen-year-old and took my first steps on American soil, newly arrived from Romania. I knew little about America, but I knew, firsthand, what it felt like to be persecuted, denied opportunity, and even imprisoned for something well beyond your control.

Born in 1939 in Bucharest just as the second World War was to erupt, my early life included a seismic interruption. When I was in elementary school after the war, my parents left for a two-week business trip to New York for my father’s work at Standard Oil. During their visit, the Soviet Union engineered a coup across Eastern Europe ushering in the infamous Iron Curtain. My father had been imprisoned during the war by the Nazi puppet government in Romania. He was working, alongside my mother, with the O.S.S. as a courier to the group of inmates plotting an anti-German campaign alongside the Romanian resistance. His involvement with America and his influential persona made him a target for the communists and placed both my parents in danger – their names on a list of prominent Romanians to be killed. His wartime OSS comrades now starting the C.I.A. told my parents this brutal intelligence.

They decided to remain in America – an agonizing decision to virtually abandon my brother and me, leaving us with our grandparents while they worked, tirelessly, for the next eight years to engineer our release.

Back in Romania, my grandfather was soon arrested and was later killed in captivity while my grandmother, brother and I were arrested and moved close to the Soviet border and placed in a local’s single-room house where we worked hard labor for twelve hours a day. When we returned to the house each evening, we had a member of the secret police standing guard outside. Every few months, we were hauled to the local secret police headquarters. There we were each taken to a separate room where we were interrogated, screamed at, and threatened by a policeman in full uniform.

It was there that I learned the anger of a displaced person, persecuted for no fault other than being born to the wrong family. It was, unjust, unfair, and humiliating. Even worse, there was a pervasive feeling of hopelessness. Cleaning sewers and digging holes for electric poles was to be my life. Hopelessness dominated my consciousness.

In 1953, luck finally turned in our favor. The Soviets sent a Romanian diplomat to New York to meet with my father with a horrifying proposition, “If you want to see your children alive again you will have to spy for us.” Instead, my parents turned to the F.B.I. and went public with the blackmail attempt in the hopes that it would spur Russia to force Romania to spare our lives.

The strategy worked. The press conference about the release of the Georgescu boys went viral, 1950s style. Every little town in America carried the dramatic story of our peril – made even more interesting by the integrity and courage of my parents – on the front pages of their local newspapers. And the national media – newspapers, magazines, television and radio – reported the riveting and shocking story.

The complicated tale meant that my brother and I stepped off the plane at Idlewild Airport in New York with barely a word of English beyond “Coke” and with the scars of a long separation from our parents and imprisonment in our native land. We were interviewed, heralded, and offered so many opportunities. A critical opportunity that came my way was a first-class education and an opportunity to be the best I could be. I will spend the rest of my life trying to repay the debt that this country offered me while mourning the current state of the country where such an American dream story is unlikely to ever happen again.

I first came face to face with a human of a different color within days of my arrival in this country. I was walking down Fifth Avenue with my brother. Coming toward us was an attractive young couple. They were older than I was, young adults. Their faces were darker than anyone I’d ever seen in Romania. I’d never seen an African American. For some reason, their skin color struck me as odd and fascinating, but an insignificant detail in their appearance: they were just two Americans. Yes, Americans came in different colors. Interesting. And that was that.

I don’t even recall mentioning that to my brother. Not long after we arrived, the 1954 baseball season began and the Georgescu boys were there in Brooklyn to help start it. I met Jackie Robinson on the field where we shook hands and I thought: “There it is again that darker skin tone. Huh.” I knew that people really liked this American who happened to have that color skin. It would never have entered my mind that anyone could hate him. They cheered every time he touched the ball or ran around the bases.

I filed away these encounters without, at that point, understanding anything about racial tensions or racism, completely unaware of any social impact of differences in ethnicity.

I had no idea that my experience, the feeling of being an alien in this wonderful land, was similar to the experience of other immigrants in some ways and completely different in other ways. I was destined to be helped by many people who knew that someone in my position needed assistance and might thrive if given help. My first, big lucky break came early after my arrival. The headmaster of Exeter Academy in New Hampshire called my father shortly after we landed. He said, “I’ll keep a place open for your younger son this fall. Just help him learn enough English to attend class.” My father understood how fortunate we were to get this offer, but he wanted to be honest. He told the headmaster that my education had ceased early in grade school. The headmaster put his anxieties to rest. “I have read all about him. I know the details. He learned some things about life far more significant than math and English. He’ll catch up. He’ll be fine.” So, I got a crash course in the English language. I was even told to watch a lot of television, where the long hours of dialog would help me internalize much of the language. We met with the headmaster in the summer, and he told me that if I could pass the courses on my own, with no special consideration or allowance for my history and background, then I could stay at Exeter. If I couldn’t, then he would find the right school for me. Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about! I did remember to say the words I’d memorized beforehand: “Thank you, sir.”

Unlike today, where diversity reigns and some 50% of kids are on scholarship, Exeter had no minority enrollments at that time. The skin tones were identical to the ones I’d known in Romania. Slowly though, the notion of bigotry became a subject of casual and serious conversations among the students. A version of Black history began to emerge.

It was a theoretical construct for me. I couldn’t begin to understand why a different color or a religious preference could make a person superior or inferior. Nor could I even begin to imagine how to internalize this antipathy and hatred. I simply had to conclude that Americans must be taught these negative emotions, through a kind of family brainwashing, early in life. And so, whether it was in my military training years or business, I was always sensitive to what we call race and its challenges. I say this not to congratulate myself, but rather, as a reminder that it remains simply a natural inclination. Americans do come in all sorts of shapes and colors. Like cars. That’s it. It has no connection to what’s inside the skin. Those who are minorities come here from other places and are, therefore, outsiders from the start—as I was. But my skin color looked the same as the color of the majority of white Europeans whose descendants were in power then and who helped me as one of their own, in a way.

The cruelty and dehumanizing hatred that drove Romanians to side with the Soviets and persecute their fellow Romanians finds a parallel in the racism that runs through American history. It took several centuries of misinformation and lies to develop hatred and pass it along through one generation after another, as has been the case among a large part of white America. But this level of bigotry is hard to overcome. It takes a willingness to face reality as it is, to see oppression, to see and sense the unfairness and injustice and then say one can no longer be a spectator but must take the side of freedom as an activist.

My eyes have opened to racial injustice far too slowly. Perhaps my benign attitude about race held me back. There were other causes and issues I understood and fought for as a business executive. Gender equality for one. But slowly, arguably way too slowly, I started to expose myself to the reality that is racism. I came to realize that the civil rights legislation of the 1960s did not bring about a promised land of equality and equity.

A decade ago, I became an activist against income inequality and social immobility in America. I came to realize that, out of the eyes of the media, out of plain view, the vast majority of Americans are struggling and suffering. In reality, business guided by shareholder primacy governance—still the predominant version of capitalism being practiced today—was the main driver of this devastating reality. Worse yet, the marginalized African American community was disproportionately affected. I published an Op-Ed in the New York Times in 2015 and a book in 2017, as a way of calling attention to the need for a sea change in how capitalism operates. Speeches, lectures, media appearances, television interviews, podcasts: I looked for any way to call attention to the need for a new capitalism paradigm.

Then something seminal happened to me in 2018. At the invitation of the House of Representative chairman Richard Neal, I spoke before the House Ways and Means Committee and staff. It was a lengthy hour with charts, graphs and commitment to urge business to change. A question-and-answer session followed. Some nine Congressmen took turns. The venue was the Freedom Forum in New York City. The committee was about to tour the remarkable 911 Museum. The last Congressman to speak was the legendary John Lewis. He didn’t have a question, but said, “Mr. Georgescu you’ve become a preacher. You must carry on. America needs your message. Go to work and get it done, Mr. Georgescu. His words and his plea are burned into my brain and keep motivating me to act almost every day.

Lewis’s words spurred me to dig deeper and dedicate the lion’s share of my time to change this version of capitalism, advocating for stakeholder capitalism which produces multiple winners. I joined Paul Tudor Jones’s nonprofit organization JUST Capital as director and began working with them and business leaders across the country to argue for the abolition of the shareholder primacy model of capitalism. That destructive model which American business has been practicing for over 40 years has benefitted the lucky few and ignored the rest of Americans – leaving in its wake a nation rife with income inequality and robbing the rest of the opportunity to better their lives.

That opportunity is part of the very essence of America, something I was reminded of on a recent trip to Washington, D.C. where I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum’s moving photographs, movies, poetry, and historic lessons made clear to me the heartbreaking facts and insights around race in America. And there, I saw the words from our forefathers that now resonated on one wall, in oversized type, you will read a plea that makes slavery and inequality impossible in a free society:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”

More than 200 years after those words were written, after a civil war and civil rights legislation, racial equality continues to elude us.

Pre-pandemic, the top 25 percent of the population by income, all being shareholders, owned over 90% of the value of the stock market and 91% of the business operating profits (54% in stock buybacks and 37% in dividends). The rest of America came to struggle. The outcome? Outside the shareholder class, who became unimaginably rich, the vast majority came to suffer.

Nearly 60% of America’s households had to borrow money most months to put food on the table or pay the rent. America has the best secondary and higher education institutions in the world. Yet, on average, American students rank at the bottom of those in the developed world. Our health outcomes are equally below developed world averages. The longevity difference between the top 1% by income and the bottom 1% by income, is 15 years. And on it goes. And at the bottom of the pyramid, as expected, rests the Black community. When Covid hit America, the Black community suffered the most, followed by the brown community. Racial discrimination continued to do its dirty work.

Stakeholder capitalism is designed to support a living wage for individuals and families at adequate levels in every community they work. In addition, workers for the first time in 40 years would participate in the incremental productivity and innovation increases produced. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a must. Gender equality is a must. Equal pay is a must. Simply put, diversity is a must at all levels of the corporation including boards of directors. Bottom line, business aspires to become a fully democratic institution.

Progress in this direction is already happening. Are we there yet? No. Is there resistance to the shift from shareholder primacy to stakeholder capitalism? Yes. But I believe the die is cast. The black and brown communities will become the biggest winners under stakeholder capitalism. And urgency matters. Stakeholder capitalism is the only version of capitalism that works in a democratic system. The 80+ million workers in America in reality must feel that democratic capitalism is working for them. Otherwise, once again, they could fall for the lies and false promises of the authoritarians, white supremacists who will, in practice, turn business back to maximizing shareholder interests.

I believe I was right in my early observation that Americans come in different colors. That’s it. All these 400 years of bigotry were driven by greed and power. It was exploitation by any other name. What that twelve-year-old boy walking in New York City did not know was how brilliant that insight would turn out to be. Science has shown that there’s only one race on this planet. Let’s remember we all started out to be black. Even the beloved Jesus Christ was black or brown. He certainly wasn’t white.

Can “we” make all this happen? Yes. Will it be easy? No. Again, business must be a leading force driving this change. Can that happen? Yes. Does a truly Democratic America in the 21st Century have any other choice? No. We simply must keep on working until we’re there. And then, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will simply have to add a new wing.

As for me, I did get to live the American Dream. Yet still, I can never forget my years under hardship and oppression. Just like any Black in America. Perhaps I got to America with more luck than the proverbial Irishman, to write this article and spend the rest of my life with the wingspan of my ability to help in my small way, make this vision a reality. Ultimately, my wish is for some visitor to arrive on the streets of any town in this country hundreds and hundreds of years ago and think, as I did some 70 years ago, that Americans come in different colors. How interesting.

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