As an organization that has worked for nearly 50 years to build a South that is inclusive, thriving, and just, MDC is saddened and alarmed at the events in Charlottesville and a resurgence of the hatred and violent expressions of white supremacy that poisoned our region for too much of its history. We stand with our fellow Southerners and all Americans who wish to make our home a place that honors the dignity and talents of all its people, and that is guided by the conviction that society benefits when everyone succeeds. Only through recognizing our common humanity and grounding our actions and policies in a commitment to equity and inclusion can we make the South and the nation live up to our highest ideals.
You have made an informed decision, assessed all of your options, and are going to be a mom! Congratulations! You have guaranteed yourself a lifetime of macaroni art, tiny hand prints, misspelled poems, and eventually some flowers, or even a nice handbag. As Mother’s Day approaches I am left contemplating what I could possibly give the woman who sacrificed it all for me. She gave me her time, her attention, and perhaps her economic mobility as well?
We can’t talk about mothers and the economy without discussing the history of women in the workforce. World Wars I and II brought more women into industry and public service jobs, filling vacancies left by servicemen. These vacancies broadened the scope of both the type of jobs and the types of women in the workforce. (Before World War I, many employers refused to hire married women.) By 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which mandated equal pay for both genders. Adding another layer of protection, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, banned discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace.
Currently there are over 72 million women in the labor force, 47 percent of all workers. These women, however, are not paid the equal wage guaranteed to them by the Equal Pay Act, instead making 77 cents to every dollar made by their male counterparts. The wage disparities are even greater for women of color. African-American women earn only 64 cents, while Hispanic/Latinas are even worse off, with a mere 56 cents to the dollar.
Both dual income and single mothers face similar challenges at work and with economic mobility. In a Cornell University study entitled “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” researchers found that employed mothers face discrimination that could significantly interfere with their economic mobility, in both wages and perceptions of competence and commitment. Using job applications for a pair of same-gendered and equally qualified applicants who differed on parental status, researchers compared hiring outcomes in both a laboratory study and with actual employers. They found that in addition to the gender wage gap women face, mothers experienced a per-child penalty of 5 percent. Researchers also found that mothers are perceived as less competent and committed to their work. (The opposite was found to be true for fathers in the workforce. They were seen as more committed and even offered higher starting salaries.) Women without children were seen as more competent than men without children. The study was unable to determine the causal mechanism for this bias. The fact that evaluators offered higher salaries to fathers suggests a gendered mentality as to who the bread winner should be. (And let’s not forget the unpaid labor of mothers working in the home as primary caregivers. It is estimated that these moms should be paid about $59,862 for all of the work they do managing households and caring for children.)
These biases have even more devastating implications for single mothers, who do not have a supplemental income from a partner. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of about 12 million single-parent families in 2016, more than 80 percent were headed by single mothers. Of those single mothers, about 49 percent have never married and 51 percent are divorced, separated, or widowed. Single mothers earn well below married mothers on the income ladder: in 2013, single mothers had a median income of $26,000 compared to married mothers’ median income of $84,000. All in all, single mothers fare worse on almost all accounts when compared to married mothers. Making ends meet is especially challenging for single mothers with poverty rates five times higher than that of married mothers. This leads to a higher incidence of homelessness and subpar access to health care (75 percent of homeless families are headed by single mothers and over 20 percent lack healthcare).
As mentioned earlier, women of color face an even larger wage gap compared to men and white women. The challenges facing mothers of color—single and married, working and non-working—are notable. The proportion of female-headed working families is higher among African Americans (65 percent), compared with whites (36 percent), Asians (20 percent), Latinos (31 percent), and those in other racial groups (45 percent). Mothers of color must also manage the disparities in education, obtaining culturally relevant child care, and fear of violence that their children may face due to discrimination.
While there is no holiday where more money is spent to celebrate any one individual more than Mother’s Day, I wonder if mothers have the same place of high esteem in our policies or practices. Perhaps the best way to appreciate a mother’s role in society this year would be to offer equitable wages, flexible employment opportunities, and supportive services, like quality, affordable dependent care. (But you could send the flowers, too, I guess.)
Completion of a college degree has long been associated with higher lifetime earnings, and many prospective students expect that their best chance for upward economic mobility lies in the classrooms of the most elite institutions of higher education. Much of our media and messaging reinforce the idea that the smartest, most successful people are those who attend or have graduated from such institutions. The message sent to prospective students is that, if you can gain access to these institutions (not easy for many), success is guaranteed.
The results of a new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, however, suggest that while elite institutions provide increased chances of becoming rich as an adult, the largest share of students who move from the bottom to the top of the income bracket actually attended mid-tier, public institutions. The research explores links between college attendance and intergenerational mobility and finds that colleges rarely have both high rates of access to low-income students and high rates of postsecondary earnings success.
Using income (converted to 2015 dollars) from tax records of people born between 1980-82, Equality of Opportunity researchers calculated “access,” “success,” and “mobility” rates for each college in the U.S. that enrolled at least 100 students per incoming cohort. Here’s how they define each indicator:
- Access rate: Percent of students who were born to parents in the bottom income quintile (household earnings of about $25,000 or less)
- Success rate: Percent of students, among those born to parents in the bottom income quintile, who had earnings in the top quintile as adults (household earnings of about $88,600 or more at age 32-34).
- Mobility rate: Percent of students, among all students at an institution, who were born to parents in the bottom income quintile and had earnings in the top quintile as adults.
The pattern in North Carolina is consistent with these broader findings across U.S. colleges:
- Elizabeth City State University enrolled the largest percentage of low-income students (32.1 percent), but had only a small share of such students rise to the top of the income distribution as adults (12.5 percent)
- Duke University enrolled the smallest percentage of low-income students (3.2 percent), but had the largest share of low-income students rise to the top as adults (50.4 percent).
If we look beyond mobility into the topmost quintile of income earners, we see that Elizabeth City State University students had a 34 percent chance and Duke University students had a 61 percent chance of rising to the top 40 percent (household income of approximately $52,000 or higher). If we look even broader at those who make it from the bottom into the top 60 percent (household income approximately $29,000 or more), the chances even out to 71 percent and 74 percent, respectively.
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While it’s clear that the chances of becoming rich are higher at an elite university, if we look at odds of moving from the bottom into the top three quintiles, it is not necessarily the case that elite universities are the best vehicles for upward economic mobility or that they move the largest share of low-income students out of poverty. In fact, students who attended more elite institutions comprise a smaller share of those who made it out of the bottom than those who attended less selective colleges.
- 24 moving to the top 20 percent
- 29 to the top 40 percent
- 34 to the top 60 percent
Elizabeth City State University enrolled 107 low-income students with:
- 13 moving to the top 20 percent
- 36 to the top 40 percent
- 79 (more than double that of Duke!) to the top 60 percent
Despite the fact that Elizabeth City State University enrolled far fewer students, they enrolled more low-income students and more of these students rose to the upper 40 percent and 60 percent than Duke University. But, in looking at the extremes of access and success among low-income students, we are still missing an even larger point: low-income students who attended less selective, public institutions comprise a larger share of upwardly mobile adults. North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University had more than double the number of low-income students rise to the top 60 percent as adults (188 students) than Elizabeth City State University, as did Fayetteville Technical Community College (160 students).
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So, if you are able to get into an elite institution (and that’s a very big “if” for low-income students), they will likely offer you the best chance of reaching the very top. However, since postsecondary education is one of the primary vehicles for upward mobility, we need to be clear about which schools are facilitating these opportunities for more than just a select few. It’s tempting to see the success of low-income students at elite universities and look to them as models of mobility, but this outcome should come as no surprise given institutional and student-body access to relatively larger amounts of financial, social, and cultural capital. Instead, we should be taking a closer look at the mid-tier, public colleges that send the largest share of low-income students to the middle and upper income brackets, providing broader access to economic mobility–and with significantly fewer resources.
Considering the decline in public funding for higher education in recent years, we likely can’t rely on additional federal and state dollars to compensate for the resource divide between elite universities and mid-tier public colleges, but we can investigate what is unique to those institutions that are able to maintain both high levels of access and postsecondary success.
If you’ve watched TV (or been exposed to any online advertising) in the last couple of months, you’ve almost certainly seen one of my favorite actors (and fellow Mizzou alumnus) John Hamm serve as the pitchman for a series of commercial spots promoting the tax services of H&R Block. April 15th is just around the corner!
Using slick advertising (explosions, zombies, and period-costumes) that will remind viewers of the hit TV show he is best known for, Mad Men, Hamm urges the viewer: “Don’t just get your taxes done, get your taxes won!”
Normally, I would give Hamm a pass on his role as a product pitchman; after all what celebrity hasn’t tried to benefit from their status? However, my years on MDC’s economic security team have brought me face-to-face with tax preparation business practices that prey on low-income working families by charging exorbitant fees. Those questionable fees and practices have taken a large bite out of one of our country’s largest anti-poverty programs: the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
Quick primer on the Earned Income Tax Credit
The EITC is one of the few federal programs that have received bi-partisan support since its initial passage. Signed into law under President Ford, and expanded by Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama, the EITC has had a significant impact on reducing poverty. In fact, President Reagan referred to the EITC as “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.” Analysis by The Brookings Institution found that from 2009 to 2011, 2.2 million Southerners were kept out of poverty by the EITC alone.
For the 2016 tax year, as shown in the chart below from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a single parent with two children that has gross household income between roughly $14,000 and $18,000 may be eligible for the maximum credit of $5,572. Similarly, a married couple with two children and income between roughly $14,000 and $24,000 may be eligible for that same maximum credit. For families living paycheck-to-paycheck, the promise of a significant cash infusion from the EITC each year too often masks the effect of the cut that paid preparers take for their services. The magnitude of the tax refund dollars (driven primarily by the refundable EITC) that are diverted from our country’s low-income tax filers is astounding.
In tax year 2014, 49 percent of North Carolina’s tax filers claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit used paid preparers. Using a conservative estimate for the average tax preparation fee of $200, over $91 million dollars were diverted from low-income households. Does $200 for tax preparation assistance sound egregious to you? Well, keep in mind that 60 percent of EITC-claiming tax households make less than $20,000 in adjusted gross income for the year. According to the NC Justice Center, the value of tax refunds diverted to paid preparers is equal to 85 percent of what the state of North Carolina spent on a state-based version of the EITC in 2014 before the General Assembly ended the program ($107 million).
While the tax preparation industry has shifted a good chunk of its advertising to its online products (which typically offer lower prices with fine-print caveats), brick and mortar stores are still where a large proportion of low-income households file their taxes. Most of the largest tax preparation firms operate a franchise model lending the weight of their corporate name to independent operators in communities across the country. These in-person locations typically charge consumers much higher rates to file their state and federal returns – and often charge extra for consumers claiming the EITC or to complete the necessary forms that to reconcile tax credits (financial assistance) received through the Affordable Care Act.
The high rates low-income households pay to meet their tax filing obligation isn’t the whole story. Consumer advocates have raised concerns about the lack of oversight and standards for the paid-preparer industry, but have not succeeded in securing protections against predatory practice. In testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance in 2014, Chi Chi Wu from the National Consumer Law Center noted that while CPAs, enrolled agents, and volunteers with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program must complete testing and operate under strict regulatory oversight, private preparers can open businesses and operate without licensing or regulation.
Liberty Tax Service, recognized by the chain’s prominent use of contractors dressed up like the Statue of Liberty roaming strip mall parking lots and busy street corners, promises prospective business owners that with a $40,000 franchise fee (and other associated start-up and operations costs) in as little as 60-90 days anyone can begin helping consumers file their most sensitive and important financial documents. Last year, an article by The Virginian-Pilot highlighted dozens of lawsuits and forced closures of franchise locations between 2014 and 2016. In at least one these cases, a franchise owner with 50 locations had his e-filing privileges suspended in connection to reports of widespread fraudulent returns.
Another prominent national chain, Jackson Hewitt, was the focus of a recent local news story out of Knoxville, TN where a local independent contractor purportedly charged a mother of two who only earns a little over $25,000 roughly $600 to prepare a simple two-page return. According to the statement from the corporate office, the error was simply a lack of communication with its franchise operators about the fee caps on preparation services.
Strengthening our civic infrastructure for the low-income tax-filer
While the tax filing season is winding down, Southern communities should take the time to reflect on the important role that free tax preparation programs (both in-person and online) play in ensuring upward economic mobility for hard-working, low-income families. While large corporate tax-filing companies like H&R Block may have the most effective and beautifully crafted commercials (and John Hamm), they clearly don’t provide the best service for our region’s working poor. Instead, we should be looking to leaders in the South, like MDC’s Board Member Stephen Black of Impact America, that refuse to accept the current realities of the massive redistribution of the EITC to the paid preparer industry. In 2016, Mr. Black’s SaveFirst initiative supported a cadre of 675 IRS-certified student volunteers from universities across the South in completing nearly 16,000 tax returns and assisting clients in securing more than $20.4 million in tax refunds. Similar models of free tax preparation are offered by local volunteers (the majority of whom are retired CPAs) at VITA locations (the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program). For consumers that prefer the independence of filing their return online, there are free tax-filing programs like The Benefit Bank or free programs that are verified by your state’s department of revenue. While programs like VITA and The Benefit Bank may be lesser known, and have much smaller marketing budgets than their commercial counterparts, they are providing valuable high-quality assistance to the working households in your community striving to achieve economic mobility.
“Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”
This is the slogan that proudly faces passersby on MDC’s front window on Main Street in Durham. I’ve seen pedestrians stop in front of MDC’s windows, visibly pondering the meaning of the above statement. This sentiment undergirds our work; despite tried and true examples of trickle-up gain resulting from initially targeted policies, the idea that “society benefits when everyone succeeds” can seem abstract at best and untrue at worst. A scarcity mentality tempts us to dismiss collective benefit and cling to the belief that for one group to succeed, to matter, and to be recognized means that another group loses something. So what does MDC’s mantra, the antithesis of scarcity, really mean, and how do we know it’s true?
This past Sunday night, a 98-year-old African-American woman appeared on stage at one of the most prestigious awards ceremonies our nation celebrates. She was greeted by a standing ovation as the crowd of stars gathered for the 89th Academy Awards cheered her legacy, the inspiration for one of the year’s highest grossing films. But Katherine Johnson’s achievements are far more profound than the narrative of a blockbuster. Looking out at a sea of glamor and elitism, Katherine Johnson proudly exemplified why success and opportunity are not a zero-sum game.
Her story, as many have come to know it, is portrayed in the recent film Hidden Figures, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s true account of four black women who played a key role in 1960s Space Race through their work at NASA. Though the film collapses the historical timeline and creates composite characters, the film has been acclaimed as an impressively accurate account of the struggles and triumphs of black female mathematicians relegated to backstage yet critical work at NASA. The film follows the work of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson) at the height of the nation’s anxiety over Russian advances in space—and the U.S.’s lagging pace. In a time of looming threat from a foreign power, U.S. residents across region and identity had a vested interest in putting all hands and minds on deck to maximize talent and progress. But Jim Crow laws in Virginia, where NASA was working to send the first American into orbit, stubbornly and systemically inhibited equal inclusion of all American talent. Though Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson had the skill, intellect, and passion needed to make a difference in America’s voyage to space, the narrative of white and male superiority is clear and biting: “We don’t need your talent. We can go farther without you.”
Except: yes, they do, and no, they can’t.
Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson, who start out in the film as human “computers” in the all-black West campus of NASA know the worth and necessity of their talent, and choose to persist against unjust obstacles to make their vital contributions. (Their stories are examples of personal heroism that, as we’ve discussed here on the State of the South blog, can come at a high cost and ought not to be placed on individuals to begin with.)
Mary Jackson notices a defect of the heat shield surrounding the capsule that will carry John Glenn into space. But without the credentials offered by the whites-only school in Hampton, V.A., Jackson is barred from contributing her talent. Engineering in Virginia, therefore, is structurally maintained as a white field, for white talent. The American people are eagerly awaiting Glenn’s journey to space; little do they know the progress of U.S. space advancement is tied to the progress of integrating their schools—a measure met with opposition from large segments of the Southern white population. Jackson petitions the city of Hampton to allow her entry to the all-white school and breaks the barrier that had been erected to keep people of color from accessing opportunity and actualizing their talent. What is seen by opponents of integration as an advantage for people of color and a loss for white students and families is, actually, a gain for the entire nation.
Dorothy Vaughn similarly asserts herself in NASA’s work to accelerate progress in space travel. With the arrival of the IBM 7090, a machine that can rapidly compute calculations, Vaughn realizes that the new IBM could displace the black female computers she unofficially oversees. She throws herself into learning about the machine to ensure a place for her talent in the transition to using the IBM. But of course, the literature that would help her learn about the machine is in the whites-only section of the library. In the film, Vaughn’s character “bends” the rules by taking the book from the library, even though it is not approved reading for African Americans. From this book, she teaches not only herself, but also her all-black team of female mathematicians. By educating herself, which required covert studying and disobeying Jim Crow laws, Vaughn becomes the first person to successfully operate the IBM—something that made everyone’s work easier, more efficient, and ultimately made the U.S. more competitive.
Finally, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson, who faces discouraging messages and procedures at every turn. She’s needed on the Space Task Group to calculate high-level equations to ensure Glenn’s safe orbit—the first black female to serve on the prestigious team—but she’s resented by her white counterparts. Her colleagues undermine her abilities and her contributions—everything from installing a “colored” coffee maker and excluding her from critical meetings. When Katherine spends critical work time walking miles to the “colored” bathroom, when she’s given partial information because she’s not deemed trustworthy, the nation falls further behind in the Space Race. But when segregation of facilities is no longer enforced and Katherine demands and is provided a seat at the table during top-secret meetings and knowledge-sharing, only then does the U.S. emerge victorious in sending the first American into orbit. Our whole nation benefited when Katherine succeeded, and she had the opportunity to fully contribute her talents only when intentionally exclusive, white-supremacist barriers came toppling down.
Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson’s stories teach us about the collective cost and unnecessary drain caused by Jim Crow policies in the South, as well as raise the question of why so many defended these policies in the first place. In hindsight, it seems obvious that structural and micro-level racial discriminations divided critical talent and held the whole country back. Stories like this always cause me to think: What kinds of harmful inequities will seem obvious to us fifty years from now? Instead of experiencing this history lesson and blockbuster film as a voyeuristic trip to the past, Americans can use the insights gained from Hidden Figures to sharpen our understanding of current barriers to opportunity—and consider what we all might be losing in defense of policies and structural practices that make it harder for those suppressed by disadvantage to maximize their full potential.
And surely there is much unsupported talent trapped in the lowest income quintile, particularly here in the American South, where a child born to parents with earnings at the bottom of the rung has only a 0-6.4 percent chance of entering a career with earnings in the top income quintile as an adult. The researchers who unearthed these alarming data found that this stalled mobility was associated with lower quality schools, high rates of racial residential segregation, lack of connection to social capital, lack of two-earner households, and high rates of income inequality. These factors exacerbate one another: income inequality combined with racial residential segregation creates inequitable quality of schools, negatively affecting students of color at a disproportionate rate, given local school funding formulas that often rely on property taxes. These economic mobility toxins plague the South at a higher rate than any other region in the U.S.—the same region, of course, that clung to racial segregation and Jim Crow legal discrimination for so many years. These exclusive policies were designed to bar people of color from accessing the same degree of opportunity and success as the white population, and the data show us that historical educational and economic suppression carry long-lasting symptoms that have intergenerational effects on families and entire communities.
But the stories shared in Hidden Figures tell us that when the walls of exclusion are lifted, when white superiority is debunked as talent across identities is valued, we all go farther together. Our nation houses an abundance of unique passion and talent. The choice is ours: Will we make room for our collective potential and insist on equity for all, from childhood to the workforce? Or will we pay the price of our own scarcity mentality? Like the film’s character Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) tells a white NASA worker, who is disgruntled by Katherine Johnson’s presence and recognition of talent, “We get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” Or—as we like to say at MDC: “Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”
This post is adapted from remarks MDC President David Dodson made on February 4 in Tempe, Arizona, to an audience of community college presidents, faculty, and administrators gathered for the American Association of Community College’s Pathways Project annual institute.
As I considered my remarks for today, my thoughts went to an extraordinary new novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. It is a magical work. The historic Underground Railroad was a series of well-concealed way stations that gave sanctuary to enslaved Africans fleeing to freedom in the North. In Whitehead’s tale, the Railroad becomes an actual subterranean rail line, a marvel of technical engineering that literally burrows under the slave states of the antebellum South—a pathway to safety and salvation, complete with actual locomotives and rail cars.
As described by Whitehead, the Railroad itself is a work of genius:
The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross-ties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus (pg. 67).
But the path is still not easy for those who view it as the one great hope for their liberation. Rules of passage are mysterious—opaque for people who have spent their lives in the closed and cruel system of slavery on plantations. Trap doors and dead ends make the path perilous. For those who do get on the Railroad, like the novel’s heroine, Cora, the danger of being captured and returned to the plantation—and to violent punishment—is a constant reality.
Cora is a young woman who has been brutalized in captivity. She is a third generation of her family to live in slavery. Her mother has run off from the plantation to seek her own freedom, leaving Cora to raise herself. Given a life of abandonment, forced to survive on the plantation by her own wit and native intelligence, Cora is relentless in her pursuit of freedom. She has escaped the plantation with Caesar, a brave fellow, also enslaved, who has seen glimpses of the wider world beyond the plantation and knows both the delights of freedom and the dangers involved in securing it. But Caesar is killed in a skirmish with a notorious slave catcher sent to find the duo. From that point, Cora persists to get to the railroad alone. By turns hopeful, terrified, confused she makes her way doggedly, alone.
For Cora, the beautifully engineered path of the railroad is a strange gift. Nothing in her life has prepared her to navigate it. Throughout the novel, she is truly dependent on the kindness of strangers, like station agents and conductors, to get to safety. Station agents, who shepherd escapees to railway stops, pair their knowledge of the path with their courageous spirit to help the enslaved enter the pathway to the freedom. Conductors rely on their own lived experience and geographic expertise to lead the train away from the cruel system of slavery and toward a land where survival and autonomy could become Cora’s reality.
The book follows Cora on her journey north from Georgia. The first stop on the railroad is South Carolina, a state that looks like the Promised Land, but in fact is a twilight zone of deception and cleverly concealed brutality. The next stop, North Carolina, possesses a culture of raw cruelty, where public lynchings are the occasions for picnics and band concerts in the town square. On Cora’s pathway to freedom, nothing is what it seems. Hope appears and then vanishes as each stopping point becomes a perverse mutation of the cruelty Cora has escaped on the plantation.
The Underground Railroad is about the unconquerable, existential human drive for the dignity of a better life. It is about the essential role that a brilliantly engineered salvific pathway plays to deliver a young woman to freedom and the fulfillment of her dreams. It is about the station agents and fellow travelers without whose leadership, courage, guidance, and wisdom Cora’s aspirations and even the pathway itself would have been insufficient to deliver a young enslaved girl to the threshold of freedom. It is, in many ways, a metaphor, for all that our work advancing equity and opportunity in the South requires.
The Underground Railroad speaks to me not just as a metaphor and as a literary work. It also is part of my personal story. My great-great grandfather, Stanton Hunton, with whom I am pictured here at the museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad in Chatham, Ontario, used the actual Underground Railroad to escape slavery in Virginia in the 1840s. Stanton’s story is worthy of a novel, itself, including two unsuccessful escape attempts before he managed to achieve (the Promised Land of) Canada, put his skills as a brick mason and carpenter to work for himself, and start a family. His story was the beginning of the mobility story of my father’s family.
Every family has a mobility story. And today the narrative of upward economic mobility and liberation is unquestionably dependent on attaining a postsecondary credential that prepares its holder to access, navigate, and advance within employment that offers meaningful, living-wage work. Like Cora and the Underground Railroad, the pathway from foundational education to a postsecondary credential to living-wage employment, even when brilliantly engineered, is fraught with pitfalls, trapdoors, headwinds, and rip-currents. Success in navigating the pathway requires the vigilant engagement of others at every step of the way, others who are committed to equity outcomes for each and every traveler.
And while Cora’s story offers a tale of overcoming, it also offers a caution. The Underground Railroad was a beautifully engineered system for ushering people to freedom. But its engineering was compromised by a surrounding culture that was not supportive of and, in fact, often hostile toward, people making the journey. In the absence of a fully supportive culture, Cora’s success depended on a high degree of personal heroism on her part that exacted a very high cost. The best engineered strategy for success along the pathway to upward economic mobility will run aground unless it is supported by a reinforcing culture of equity across the institutions that touch it. Otherwise the burden of success requires an unreasonable level of heroism on the part of individuals trying to make their way forward. And the cost of heroism can be toxic.
A few years ago, a deeply disturbing conversation ran across several issues of the alumni magazine of my college. Under the banner “My Classmates are Dying” was a dialogue carried out through letters to the editor of the alarmingly high, statistically significant rates of premature death by illness and even suicide of black men who had attended Yale College in the 1960s, when the university, an overwhelmingly white institution, began to open its doors seriously to men of color. (There were no women at Yale until the 1970s.) Death rates for African American alumni in the class of 1970 were three times that of whites in the same class. Scholars looking at these data and noting the physiological stresses associated with black men trying to advance in an often inhospitable culture made links to the phenomenon known as “John Henryism,” so named by the brilliant scholar of public health, Sherman James. According to legend, John Henry was one of the “steel drivers” who hammered down spikes used in the railroad expansion that made America big and rich. With the coming of the steam-powered drill, the livelihoods of the steel drivers like Henry were threatened. Henry, full of bluster, challenged the owner of the railroad to a contest pitting Henry against the new drill. Henry won the contest, but he died from the mental and physical strain.
John Henryism reminds us of the unacceptable personal burdens that fall on underrepresented people trying to navigate a culture where a commitment to equity is not pervasive. The price of success can be a harrowing journey like Cora’s or even life itself like the pioneers before me at Yale. And it persists. Just last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article about first-generation Latino college students who were able to obtain Social Security numbers that would allow them to lawfully work, drive, and pursue an affordable postsecondary credential, through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA.) The title of the article, “The Only Way We Can Fight Back is to Excel,” hit me in the gut. Excel at what cost? Like Cora? Like the Yale men?
We need less personal heroism and more equity and systematic support if the pathways we are dedicated to building are to deliver on their promise: Equity at every turn, for every individual on the path to opportunity. This work has existential importance for our young people and our institutions and our nation. Let’s let nothing stand in its way.