3 False ‘Truths’ We All Need to Let Go of So Black People Can Advance
By Michael Collins
Black History Month is a time for remembering. It is a time to hold on to the struggles and triumphs of my people from the Middle Passage to today. It is also a time of letting go of what no longer serves us on our journey to equality. As a Black nonprofit executive who has spent the last year working on strategies for economic advancement for Black learners and workers, I believe there are some universal beliefs that all Americans need to let go of to achieve economic justice.
Consider these commonly held beliefs about how to make it in our economy (and how to succeed in life):
- Education is the great equalizer.
- Merit is the determiner of access and opportunity.
- You can be anything you want to be.
First, let’s look at education. Many believe education is the great equalizer. The general thinking here is that if you are a “have not,” you can join those who “have” by getting an education. It’s axiomatic — we assume this goes without saying. However, it’s simply not true.
Black Americans have made strides in increasing educational attainment. But they have not come close to zero-ing the economic gap with their white peers who have similar levels of education and experience. Since the 1970s, despite increased education attainment, Black people continue to be twice as likely to be unemployed as their white peers with similar qualifications — across all education levels.
Second, consider Americans’ enduring belief that merit is the determiner of access and opportunity. This is the abiding faith that those who work hard and earn the appropriate qualifications, such as college credentials, will be rewarded “with all of the rights, privileges, and honors appertaining thereunto.” This is another axiom that isn’t true.
In a series of studies, researchers evaluated hiring rates for job candidates with identical resumes — some affixed to names associated with Black people (Lakeisha and Jamal) and some affixed to names associated with white people (Emily and Greg). The resumes with the names associated with white people received 50% more call-backs for interviews than the resumes with the names more commonly associated with Black people.
In another study, researchers circulated the identical legal memo to 60 law firm partners who agreed to evaluate the writing competency of young lawyers. The researchers intentionally inserted errors into the memo and led one group of reviewers to believe the author was Black while leading the other group to believe the author was white. The law firm partners evaluated the memo they thought was associated with a Black attorney more harshly than the identical memo that was associated with an attorney thought to be white.
Third, the commonly held belief — you can be anything you want to be — is certainly not true. Especially for Black workers who aspire to good jobs paying high wages with benefits in growing industries that will be around for a while. Instead, they are segregated in low-wage jobs. About 45 percent of Black workers — roughly 6.7 million individuals — are in health care, retail, hospitality, and food service. And many are in frontline and entry-level jobs with low pay and little opportunity for advancement.
Of course, there may be elements of truth in the axioms: education is the great equalizer, merit is the determiner of access and opportunity, and you can be anything you want to be. But these ideas ignore the inconvenient reality of racism. Looking the other way from the wall of statistical evidence built over the last 50 years documenting racial discrimination in the labor market is akin to believing the world is flat.
While American society effectively accepts the lower employment rates, earnings, and advancement opportunities for Black workers with equal qualifications as their white coworkers, this acceptance destroys Black lives and livelihoods. The cascading, compounding effects of the racial inequality to which Americans are largely complicit keep Black Americans trapped in a vicious cycle of economic insecurity and lack of economic opportunity.
My work is focused on scaling solutions for Black learners and workers deserving of and striving for racial economic equity. Before we get there, we have to acknowledge what hasn’t worked. Letting go of these fabricated universal beliefs would allow us to gain the answer to the critical question — What would need to change in American society for education to be the great equalizer, for merit to determine access and opportunity, and for Black Americans to be anything they want to be?
These truths will speed us on our journey to economic justice.
About Michael Collins
Michael Collins is vice president at Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit that drives change in the American workforce and education systems to achieve economic advancement for all. At JFF, he leads work to directly address the ways in which postsecondary education and training systems can help members of populations that have historically been denied opportunity to advance economically — with an intentional focus on Black learners and workers. His writing has appeared in several national media outlets, including Bloomberg and Fortune.