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New York Times file photo by Nicole Craine / LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, speaks at a protest in Atlanta on March 25. Last summer big companies pledged to support social justice and racial inclusion. As a wave of restrictive voting bills that would target Black voters make their way through state legislatures, companies took their time speaking up.

We all know — or should know — that legacies persist. That's why we call them legacies. They have persisted.

But some of us are in denial of the power of legacies. In particular, one called systemic racism.

That crossroads of denial and systemic racism seems to be where we are right now about all things having to do with race and equity and the newest conservative GOP dog whistle and culture wedge.

President Abraham Lincoln understood the legacy of racism. While not spotless in his own opinions of race, he knew the consequences of inequality and inequity. In his second inaugural address during the Civil War, he observed that we "all knew that [slavery] was somehow the cause of the war."

More than a century and half later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put it this way in a 2018 report that evolved out its Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism: "Today, racism continues to exist in our communities and in our parishes. Racism is what makes us see the "other" with suspicion or to attribute negative characteristics to an entire group of people ... Today's continuing inequalities in education, housing, employment, wealth, and representation in leadership positions are rooted in our country's shameful history of slavery and systemic racism."

For our money, looking for unity, equality and equity are not unlike the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And when we're not sure what that looks like or how to do it, we talk to friends and leaders and seek help and thoughtful education to learn.

The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce has embarked on that sort of learning experience with Velocity 2040 visioning process, and last week the Chamber began circulating a pledge for racial equity that quickly drew about 40 business signatures — along with the unhappy howls of the local right-wing group, Hamilton Flourishing, which has a history of opposing equity and equity training.

Also last week in the Tennessee General Assembly, Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, penned an amendment to an education rules bill he is carrying that would ban any school lessons including discussion of systemic racism. Along with the proposed ban is a measure that would withhold funding from school districts that include those and other similar history discussions in curriculum.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Republicans pass bill that punishes public schools that teach systemic racism concepts)

The biggest sticking point for these conservatives seems to be the phrase "systemic racism."

In the statehouse, Ragan specifically included it in his list of lessons to ban, telling members of the GOP House Education Administration Committee, "Today, subversive factions are seeking to undermine our unique form of government, of the people, by the people and for the people."

The use of the phrase also appeared in the Chamber pledge that drew the ire of Hamilton Flourishing. The pledge includes a commitment to "educate ourselves and share the history of systemic racism in Chattanooga and Hamilton County and the barriers that continue, so that as we recognize them, we can find new ways to overcome them."

Doug Daugherty, president of Hamilton Flourishing, fussed: "Tangentially it might help some businesses, but it's not [the Chamber's] primary job to reorient the culture. We're supporting them to recruit business. If they're not doing that, what are they doing?"

He also groused about the Chamber conflating access to opportunity and ensuring success based on race.

"Everybody should have an equal opportunity, but that's not the same as outcome," he said. "This document actually puts the two together," he said.

Well — yeah. And it should.

A 2019 report as part of Velocity 2040 showed the racial gap in household earnings in Hamilton County is 30% greater than in the country as a whole, with the typical white household in Chattanooga earning twice as much as the average Black household.

That's not just bad for Black households here. It also has an impact on growing more jobs — all jobs — locally.

In early 2019, consultants told the Chattanooga City Council that for all our success in recruiting three of the biggest business investments in Tennessee during the previous decade, the city's job growth had slowed in the last five years — so much so that it trailed other comparable mid-sized cities and was growing even more slowly than that of the rest of Tennessee and the U.S. as a whole.

Lorne Steedley, the chamber's vice president of diversity and inclusive growth, reminds us that our city competes globally for skilled workers to help companies grow. Working to correct inequity makes Chattanooga a more competitive business destination.

"If you close the wealth gap, [the city] opens itself up to more consumer spending, and provides an environment, and Chattanooga becomes a destination for opportunity," he said.

Mayor Tim Kelly, who campaigned on the issue of narrowing the city's equity gap and growing Chattanooga's economy, has signed the chamber's pledge. He says years of systemic racism have "split us over time into two cities," in which one city has not shared in the rising prosperity experienced by the other.

"But it's not just a moral problem, it's an economic problem. This issue is holding us back from economic progress," Kelly said.

Our state lawmakers and Hamilton Flourishing — like Donald Trump and Lindsay Graham — would have us deny that there is such a thing as "systemic racism."

But, then, they also seem to be in denial about that "do unto others as you'd have them do unto you" thing.

And that is a moral issue.

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