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Monday, June 17, 2024

Smith: Education is not enough

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A few weeks ago, I found myself shopping for a couch. A salesman approached me and we began a friendly conversation. At one point we began talking about how proud we were of our kids. I mentioned that my eldest is married with children, whereas my two teens are doing very well in high school. (Both are straight-A students.)

The salesman also has teens, so we began discussing colleges. The gentleman — who is white — then said something akin to the following: “Education is the great equalizer. Race isn’t really a factor (in determining success) anymore.”

This gentleman was earnest and sincere. He genuinely believed what he was saying. I nodded my head in acknowledgement, but not agreement. (I did note his tacit admission that racial discrimination has existed in America.) I considered whether to engage in what promised to be a long conversation given that empirical evidence does not support his assertion regarding education. Ultimately, I decided simply to continue shopping. (I really needed that couch.)

For at least a decade, I have heard many people — across the political spectrum — proclaim that education is “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” While I understand this sentiment, I disagree with it for at least two reasons. First, it assumes — correctly — that securing the right to vote was the preeminent civil rights issue of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, Republican state legislatures across the nation are abrogating voting rights for African Americans, aided and abetted by their counterparts in the federal government and the Supreme Court. The tragic reality is that African Americans cannot take the right to vote for granted.

Second, while obtaining a high-quality education is a key component of lifting people out of poverty, there are many ways in which it falls short of ensuring racial equity. (And it certainly does not exterminate racism.) Most obviously is the fact that African Americans make less money than do white Americans at every educational level — from bachelor’s degrees, to master’s degrees, to doctoral degrees.

Indeed, whites who have a high school diploma tend to have higher wages than African Americans who have obtained a bachelor’s degree. Further, Black college graduates have lower homeownership rates than whites who dropped out of high school.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that obtaining a good education is unimportant. Indeed, I have demonstrated as much in my life. For example, my former wife and I committed ungodly amounts of money to send our kids to a superlative private school for 10 years. We believe that the sacrifice was worth it. However, we also agree that education does not completely level the playing field.

Moreover, I grew up in a low-income area in Indianapolis. My parents were divorced when I was very young and my father was mostly absent from my life. I became a teenaged father. While I was a decent athlete, I was never going to be good enough to become a professional. Fortunately, I did well academically. This led me to graduate from two so-called “elite” institutions of higher education. I am well aware that I am successful today largely because of education.

I still earn less than my white counterparts.

By choice, I have served in the nonprofit sector for 20 years. I can state unequivocally that there is a certain arrogance that we are the “good guys” when it comes to social justice. However, the fact is that our sector mirrors corporate American vis-à-vis the racial income gap.

Incidentally, the gender income gap still exists. Women earn less than men at all educational levels. Further, Black women earn less than do white women. (Notably, the wage gap between Black women and white women was smaller in the mid-1970s, but widened once more women entered the workforce.)

Earning a college degree does not prevent African Americans from being pulled over by the police at higher rates than white people. It does not prevent us from serving longer sentences than whites when we commit the same crimes. It does not prevent housing discrimination. It does not eradicate discriminatory voting laws. It does not give us better health outcomes relative to whites.

In short, earning a college degree is a step toward higher wages for African Americans, but it does not ensure racial equity — including income parity. Education confirms that race is still the No. 1 factor in determining an American child’s life chances.

Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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