Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Earning Your Life's Prospects

Black leaders visited President Obama today and harped on the 16.5% unemployment rate for black Americans, which is much higher than the 9% rate for whites and 12.5% rate for Hispanics. The NPR news report mentioned their focus on the chronically unemployed base in the black community. I'm also aware that a high percentage of young black men are unemployed. It's a shame, but it's also their problem in far too many cases. We've got to have a little more personal accountability here.

The high schools in Rochester are open for business every day, and there are no state troopers keeping black youth out. If the students are from low income families they qualify for free breakfast and lunch at the school. Free transportation is provided to and from school. In other words, there are no institutional impediments to getting a good education in the city of Rochester. Yet only about 50% of Rochester's high school students graduate. It's not a discrimination problem; it's a social problem.

Nothing would make me happier than to see every black youth graduate from high school, then college, and then enter the work force prepared to compete on the basis of equal preparation. If the unemployment rate of high school or college-educated blacks stayed much higher than that of other races, then I'd complain about this apparent discrimination and try to do something about it. But I have little sympathy for those who don't take advantage of the opportunity to become educated and able to contribute to the U.S. economy.

I've heard all the rationalizations about kids growing up in poor, disfunctional families. I know it's tough to grow up in those conditions. At the same time, it's a matter of community pride and intent - if there isn't any, then nothing will change. Just giving money to poor, disfunctional families does not change attitudes. There has got to be an intent to succeed for success to occur.

I've been working with a group of Burmese refugees for several months. They've recently come the U.S. with only the clothes on their backs, and many come from tribal societies. Most have no English when they arrive. I'm amazed at how they have strived to adjust to American society, learn English, and get jobs. Their upward mobility from the absolute bottom is a sight to behold! The difference between them and many who surround them in poor neighborhoods is that they have decided to get with the program. There's no secret about what it takes to achieve some upward mobility in this country.

So, black leaders, go home to your communities and ask the hard questions. Tell the truth. You get what you give, and if you give no effort you can expect nothing. Chronic unemployment is not just about lack of opportunity; it is mostly about lack of preparation.

In this month of Martin Luther King day, I mourn his passing partly because he held up great expectations for the people he led. His successors seem to focus mostly on handouts. It's a darn shame!

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