Two Good Questions
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Last week I gave a Zoom book talk to employees of a major Wall Street firm. A famous market commentator and investment strategist, who I have followed and admired for many years, posed two questions which are worth sharing.
First Q: "What can we do to bring down the number of Black kids who drop out of high school and fail to graduate? It's almost impossible to succeed in life without a high school diploma."
TWJ A. I believe the high number of black high school dropouts reflects the strained families in which many black children live, primarily due to dire economic conditions. Economists report that 30% of prime-aged black men are not in the labor force, twice the comparable rate for white men. These men are stripped of the dignity and self-worth associated with providing for their families. Their children may not have a respected father's guidance on navigating adolescence. The Economist magazine reported recently that killings by police are the sixth leading cause of death for black males; one-third of the US prison population is black (2X per capita rate); and median white household wealth is 7-10X that of black households. These socioeconomic conditions breed despair and hopelessness, and school dropouts are one byproduct. When white America faced similar dire circumstances in the 1930's Great Depression, the government response was to create the Works Progress Administration to provide employment and training opportunities. America should provide a similar response today to help the black men left behind and left out of American society.
Second Q: "Why have we not made more progress since the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960's?"
TWJ A. The most fundamental reason is that the effects of 400 years of abuse, neglect and deprivation of African Americans cannot be overcome in just 60 years. For most of the 60 years since the 1960's America has preferred to pretend that the race problem was solved with the end of de jure racial discrimination in the law, and everything would be ok over time. America preferred to ignore the ongoing multigenerational impact of historical maltreatment of African Americans; and the continuing racial inequities of education, employment, housing, and medical care available to African Americans. This "willful ignorance and denial" was driven by political resistance to targeted governmental assistance for African Americans.
On the other hand, however, this question could be flipped and phrased as "How have we made so much progress since the 1960's?", because the truth is that America has come so far that it would be unrecognizable to most people who lived in the first half of the twentieth century. After all, it wasn't until 1962 that a black vice president was appointed by a major US corporation (Pepsi, prompting a boycott of Pepsi products by the Ku Klux Klan). In the years since, millions of African American families have lifted themselves out of poverty as racial barriers to employment have diminished. Millions of African Americans have received college degrees as racial barriers to higher education have diminished. African Americans have reached the pinnacle of every occupation and profession as racial barriers to career advancement have diminished. Even this years shocking spectacle of police and vigilante violence against African Americas -- think George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others -- as awful and unacceptable as it is -- is better than it used to be. Think 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma race riot which killed over 300 African Americans, and hundred of similar incidents of anti-black mob violence across the country. Think National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama which memorializes over 4,400 lynchings of African Americans between 1873-1950, an average of over one lynching per week for 77 consecutive years! This is why I believe -- while the work is unfinished to make equality a reality for African Americans -- all Americans should be proud of the progress we have made.