As everyone remembers, the economy was booming before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Unemployment was at an all- time low, including for minorities and in some areas there were more job vacancies than applicants. A rising tide was lifting all boats, as they say. But with the onset of the pandemic, the tide suddenly ebbed. Some boats managed to stay afloat but they belonged mostly to the affluent, those providing essential services and those able to work from home.
It’s clear from the statistics that the pandemic and the economic recession it caused impacted brown and black minorities the hardest. The reasons are many, among them, having jobs (if they still had jobs) that put them at greater risk of infection, lack of access to health care, greater prevalence of underlying health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, obesity and dense living conditions making social distancing all but impossible.
Racial justice activists are finding racial injustice in almost every aspect of American life and it’s beyond question that our nation has a history of it but we can’t change the past or deny our children the lessons to be learned from our mistakes by trying to erase history and its artifacts or by re-writing it. Energy spent focusing on the past is often wasted energy, especially since it now appears, for the first time in my recollection, that everyone seems to agree that racial injustice did occur, some still exists and that it must end. Reasonable people, however, may disagree on how to end it.
It should already be obvious that defunding police departments and demonizing police will do little to promote racial justice and will make matters worse for those most vulnerable to crime, namely minorities. The urban crime statistics already reflect that in the brief time since the demands to defund the police began. Defunding police departments leads to increased crime rates which causes businesses and taxpayers to flee crime-ridden cities, taking jobs and economic opportunities with them.
The focus should be on the future, not on the sins of the past and assigning blame for them. While some may find evidence of racial injustice everywhere they look, the facts suggest that the biggest problem facing African-Americans is economic hardship, not police brutality. Raising black employment and promotion opportunities and income levels would at least ameliorate many if not most of the other problems like better access to health care, better housing and healthier lifestyles. Employers urgently need to address these issues with actions, not platitudes and promises.
Many corporations are signaling their support for racial justice by taking out full page ads and making donations to organizations that campaign for racial justice. Though well-intentioned, these are largely feel-good gestures, not actions that actually create jobs for people of color or provide the training that will help qualify them to fill those jobs. Actions speak louder than words. Words and virtuous intentions won’t create economic opportunities for African-Americans. Changing employment and recruitment practices will. Removing barriers to their advancement will.
One step might be to eliminate unnecessary job pre-requisites like a requirement for a college degree unless university training has been shown to be absolutely necessary in order to acquire the specific skills needed for a particular job. We have somehow managed to create the notion that everyone needs to attend college in order to be successful. It’s true that statistics show that college graduates will, on average, earn more over a lifetime than those without a degree but it is by no means assured and, obviously, some won’t. Not all degrees or majors are equally marketable. An undergraduate degree these days takes the average student more than four years to acquire and is extremely expensive, thanks to the easy availability of student loans and the competition for admission. For many, it may be a waste of time and money, better spent in learning a marketable skill in a community college or university extension program, requiring much less time and expense. Some CEOs of our most successful companies dropped out of college because they felt they were wasting their time. Children of affluent families are much more likely to attend college than those of lower income parents, putting African-Americans at a disadvantage because of income disparities.
Employers need to take affirmative action to increase economic opportunities for African-Americans by actively recruiting in black communities, removing as many barriers to employment and advancement as feasible and by providing internal and external training opportunities in order to enhance their chances of success.
Dr. Kelly is a freelance writer and retired Navy Captain who commanded three San Diego-based ships, a research and development center and taught ship handling, seamanship and navigation at Naval Base San Diego. He earned his doctorate in education at USD, taught graduate students and was a senior vice-president and director of training and development at Great American Bank. He has written over 1500 newspaper and journal articles and has been a regular contributor to the Eagle&Journal since 2001.