Happy holidays from MDC and the State of the South blog! This is a time of year where many of us pause to be reflective. For some, it’s a season of advent: of waiting in stillness for something we hope for. For some, this is a season of celebrations of culture and self-determination. Many of us may be reflecting on our 2017 new year’s resolutions, asking ourselves what we accomplished this year and setting goals to move forward. MDC is also especially reflective these days, as we celebrate our 50th anniversary. As part of our upcoming events to mark this milestone, we’re releasing a new edition of our State of the South report in early 2018. This report will look back at the state of the South over the last 50 years, examine the present–both our assets and challenges—and consider how we must work toward a future of shared well-being.
In that way, you could say MDC is encouraging the South to have a moment akin to what Ebenezer Scrooge experienced in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Dickens’ classic Christmas tale, Scrooge must confront his past, acknowledge his present, and change his future, or else suffer a fate he does not want. Our 2018 report will encourage leaders in the South to ask themselves similar questions about the direction of the region: to take stock of the past, address the realities of our present, and actively participate to shape a future that benefits all. I wonder what a Southern Christmas Carol would look like?
Though there are a number of areas the South could and should confront, acknowledge, and change, this post provides a brief exploration of the South’s relationship with education. (Our upcoming 2018 report will explore education and a variety of other phenomena more deeply, so please stay tuned.)
In Charles Dickens’ original story, the “Ghost of Christmas Past” shows Ebenezer Scrooge flashbacks of his own past. In the process, Scrooge sees examples of generosity shown to him. But he also sees himself sink into loneliness, because he values his own money and profit above all else. Surely the South can relate to both being the beneficiary of generosity—and to clinging tightly to our own wallets. That’s not to say that the South isn’t itself a generous region. As we’ve just described in our report produced in partnership with the Southeastern Council of Foundations, the region is home to a multitude of philanthropists who care for their home communities. In addition, the concept of “Southern hospitality” conjures images of families opening their homes, widening their dinner tables, and supporting their neighbors through difficult times. However, when we look at systemic investments in practices and institutions that change the odds for people living with poverty and economic insecurity, rather than helping them overcome the odds, we start to get a different picture.
If the “Ghost of the Southern Past” visited us today and gave us a glimpse of the South’s history with education, we might be reminded of an uncomfortable number of efforts to hold power and resources and to keep many people—especially people of color—from accessing the knowledge and tools that could help them advance economically. Maybe we’d see images of families held captive in slavery sneaking their children to dilapidated school houses to learn their ABCs. In the years following the abolition of slavery and Reconstruction, we’d see a mere evolution of similar thwarting efforts. Though Brown vs. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional in 1954 and called for the desegregation of schools, states across the South were slow to provide equal quality education, and many white Southern residents met the ruling with resistance and violence. If the “Ghost of the Southern Past” were to take us back 50 years to 1967, we’d still see a raw response to desegregation among Southern communities. We’d see the Supreme Court further handing down rulings to ensure the South gave children of color equal educational opportunities, such as the 1969 ruling asserting that “all deliberate speed” was no longer good enough for Mississippi. Shortly after, we’d be reminded of the 1971 ruling in Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education allowing the use of busing and other strategies to ensure desegregation. And then we’d see the wave of backlash: droves of white families pulling their children out of public schools to maintain racial separation. In The Warmth of Other Suns, her prize-winning book on black out-migration, Isabel Wilkerson caught the situation at that time:
All the marching and court rulings did little to change some southerners’ hearts. A 1968 survey found that eighty-three percent of whites said they preferred a system with no integration. And they acted on those preferences. By 1970, 158 new white private schools had opened up in Mississippi. By 1971, a quarter of the white students were in private schools, the white families paying tuition many could scarcely afford.
Considering this legacy of institutional efforts to keep nonwhite children across the South from quality education, we shouldn’t be surprised today to reflect on Southern data from 50 years ago and see the glaring disparity in who was equipped with a postsecondary credential and who was not:
What if the “Ghost of the Southern Present” came to visit? We might breathe a sigh of relief, ready for some good news and knowing that things can’t be as bad today as they were 50 years ago. In Dickens’ tale, Ebenezer Scrooge sees the present from a new vantage point, and this forces him to acknowledge issues that were around him all along, but that he did not want to see because it was inconvenient to his own greed. When Scrooge sees clearly the reality of his employee’s life, struggling to support an ill son (Tiny Tim), he sees the present with new eyes. Here at MDC, we hope our 2018 report will also encourage leaders across the South to see our present with new eyes. Because while the South has made progress increasing equitable conditions in education, there is still much to confront—or as we say, the state of education in the South is better than it was, but not good enough.
“The Ghost of the Southern Present” may commend the South for strides on academic completion. If we look at Virginia, for example, we see that whereas in 1970, only around 14 percent of whites and five percent of blacks in the South had a bachelor’s degree, in 2015 those numbers went up to 40 and 22 percent, respectively. However, we see that disparities remain. Our warning visitor might give us glimpses of the lived realities of students today: students who know that a postsecondary credential is key to economic success, but who face seemingly insurmountable odds of tuition fees, limited access to financial aid, and logistical barriers like inadequate transportation. We might also confront resegregation efforts across the South that exclude poor and minority students in the name of local control and school choice, with the ultimate effect of unequal school quality, given school funding formulas that rely on property taxes. At the same time, we’d see that local school quality is key to upward economic mobility and that a postsecondary credential makes a difference to students’ eventual earnings:
But the “Ghost of the Southern Present” might show us something else, too—something MDC has seen in our work with community colleges, leaders in higher education, and other concerned residents across the South: a determination to address systemic problems, value student voices, and expand access to education. For example, in a forthcoming report for the ECMC Foundation, we saw the thoughtful way Southern community colleges are making transfer easier for students who aspire to attain a four-year degree. Through our work with Healthy Places North Carolina, an initiative by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, we see how community college leaders are ensuring their students have access to the resources they need to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. And we’re now seeing North Carolina establish a statewide educational attainment goal through My Future NC, a commission designed to advance this goal with attention to equity.
The state of education in the South in 2017 is a blurred image of progress and disparities. Depending on the sustainability of our current efforts, our future could look very different. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge realizes his present matters for his future. When he sees that his current track leads to neglect and unhappiness, he makes a choice to do better. I imagine the “Ghost of the Southern Future” would encourage us to see that the region’s history of exclusion and lack of upward mobility also leads to a place of repression and economic instability. Our future, too, is not yet determined: if we continue on a path of divestment and exclusion, we could see an even more widely stratified society. As we become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, we could see huge segments of the population barred from the tools and knowledge they need to be economically secure. That would put a drain on communities, the region, and the nation as a whole. But, if we intentionally confront barriers to education, all the way from pre-K through a postsecondary credential, by investing more in teachers, infrastructure, and supplies; by amending current funding formulas that rely on property taxes; and by addressing the financial and logistical barriers that keep students from attaining a credential, we could start to see more people equipped with what they need to be upwardly mobile. The South as a whole would prosper as a result, because, as we say at MDC, “society benefits with everyone succeeds.”
Like Ebenezer Scrooge, the region has a choice to make going into 2018. Leaders in the South can soberly confront the region’s past, clearly examine its present, and choose to proactively shape our future, so that the South is a place of shared well-being. We hope you will be on the look-out for our report in 2018 and consider together with us the kind of place we want the South to become—and what we need to do now to make that happen.
View from Moratoc Park in Williamson, NC, overlooking the Roanoke River
For communities across the U.S., the wrap-up of summer means the start of school, crisper and cooler air, and college football season. For Southern and East Coast states, this time of year is also marked by the looming threats of hurricane season. Already this season, we’ve seen two significant hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, bring destruction to coastal islands and Southern communities. A natural disaster that damages homes, businesses, and local infrastructure can be an inconvenience at best and a devastating set-back at worst for communities that are working hard to improve outcomes for their residents. When we consider what it takes to create Southern places characterized by belonging, thriving, and contributing, we know it’s important for communities to be forward-thinking about equitable growth and bright spots of opportunity—and we’re reminded that environmental resiliency is crucial to these efforts. We’ll be exploring the need for this kind of resilience in Southern communities. We’ll talk about the risks posed by climate change, who is particularly vulnerable to these risks, and why this matters for communities that seek to propel their residents toward higher levels of upward economic mobility.
Today, we begin with an examination of 17 northeastern North Carolina counties that know all too well the frustrations and obstacles brought on by environmental vulnerability. These counties—Beaufort, Bertie, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Craven, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, Martin, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell, and Washington—comprise North Carolina’s “Inner Banks,” part of the focus region of North Carolina Land of Water (NC LOW). NC LOW is a nonprofit organization supporting sustainable development of northeastern North Carolina’s natural resources and cultural history. While they focus on eastern parts of the state including the Outer Banks, NC LOW recently commissioned MDC to conduct a data scan of the state’s Inner Banks to examine educational attainment, poverty, upward economic mobility, availability of living-wage employment, and emerging industries. MDC visited some of these counties’ lovely natural spaces and spoke with local business owners who are dependent on the tourist economy driven by the region’s natural assets.
Pettigrew State Park Trail, by Somerset Place (formerly Plantation) in Creswell, NC
It’s not surprising that many entrepreneurs in the Northeastern part of the state have invested in the tourism industry, hunting and fishing services, and restaurants that welcome tourists. For rural communities close to the water and characterized by unique ecosystems, tourism can revitalize towns and turn communities into centers of celebration and festivities, as Chowan County has seen in the small town of Edenton. In fact, NC LOW would like to see local leaders in government and economic development place their bets even more on the ecotourism industry, rather than recruit industries that have the potential to harm the area’s natural resources.
According to Dr. Stanley Riggs, the Chair of the Board of Directors for NC LOW, in the past few years a new generation of young people returned to these counties with aspirations of starting guide services in the unique swamps and waters of the Roanoke River and Albemarle-Pamlico sounds. However, the localities hadn’t yet invested in the infrastructure needed to make this sector robust. Since then, some municipalities have built camping platforms, boat ramps, new parks, and other features that undergird the ecotourism industry.
For this economic development strategy to work, however, communities in Northeastern NC need to have environmental resiliency: decreased vulnerability to natural disasters and other forces that could harm the area’s natural resources. Last year’s hurricane season provides a case study of the damaging effects natural disasters can bring to local economies. In 2016 alone, Windsor, a small town in Bertie County, saw 10 to 20 feet of flooding in some areas three times over the course of the hurricane season, with Hurricane Matthew doling out particularly devastating effects on the heels of previous floods. Local business owners we surveyed referenced the area’s vulnerability to natural disasters as they discussed the challenges of having a brick-and-mortar business. One Windsor restaurant transitioned to a food truck after repeated flooding; the state’s FEMA policy covers homes, but not businesses. While this adaptation has been an exciting new experience and challenge for the business owners, closing their restaurant meant laying off many employees whom they valued and who, in turn, surely valued that source of income.
These effects are particularly troubling considering the high rates of poverty, low rates of educational attainment, and low chances for upward economic mobility in the Inner Banks counties. In Bertie County, for example, where the Windsor business is located:
- 22 percent of the population lives in poverty (nine percent of the white population and 30 percent of the black population) (U.S. Census Bureau American FactFinder)
- Only three percent of those born into the lowest income quintile in the area will make it to the top earnings bracket as adults, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project. Conversely, 72 percent of these individuals will stay in either the lowest or second-lowest earnings bracket as adults.
- Only 47 percent of the white population and 27 percent of the black population have at least some education beyond high school.
- In 2016, only 17 percent of jobs paying between $20-30/hour were occupied by workers with just a high school degree. Meanwhile, a single adult supporting one child must make an average of $20.98/hour to meet basic living expenses in Bertie County. (MDC analysis of EMSI data and the MIT Living Wage Calculator)
These factors alone create a discouraging situation for economic resilience—add recurring natural disasters to the mix, and it’s clear that communities like Bertie County, in which 62 percent of the population is black and 35 percent is white, are particularly at risk for the crippling effects of natural disasters, especially as those events are projected to occur with increasing frequency and strength.
Source: Equality of Opportunity Project
We sometimes think about climate change affecting endangered species or making snow a little less likely here in the South. While scientists warn of the likelihood of both scenarios, it’s worth considering the economic dangers of climate change. Current global practices, such as relying heavily on fossil fuels, contribute to increasing atmospheric temperature, which may explain in part why we’re seeing such intense storms that relentlessly hit communities in the South. As we know, many of these communities are vulnerable due to proximity to water, low-lying lands, higher rates of poverty, lower levels of educational attainment, and policies that don’t adequately support recovery.
So what can communities like Bertie County—and its neighboring Inner Banks counties—do to increase environmental resiliency in its area, particularly when ecotourism seems like a promising economic development strategy? “Resiliency” doesn’t mean that a community is utterly invincible; it’s about being prepared so that recovery from unexpected set-backs like natural disasters or economic recessions can be as smooth and strong as possible. Resiliency can be built at local or state levels, for example, by creating recovery policies that more accurately reflect the realities of flooding or by ensuring that local manufacturers and other industries don’t contribute to the degradation of natural resources. Forward-thinking leaders in education and employment also can help build community resiliency by providing education and employment opportunities that lead to credentials and living-wage employment, so that residents can acquire the savings and safety net needed to literally “weather” life’s storms.
In our next State of the South blog on climate change in the South, we’ll examine an effect of natural disasters that doesn’t discriminate between rural and metro areas: the threats to healthcare centers and the patients they serve. Stay tuned, and from all of us here at MDC and State of the South, we extend our sincere condolences and hopes for recovery to those affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. To support local and national recovery efforts, you can donate to one or more of the many organizations assisting victims and their families in Houston and areas affected by Irma and Maria.
“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.)
Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson attending engineering courses at an all-white school. Source: https://www.theaterbyte.com/tb_env_gly_/hidden-figures-2016
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.
Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn teaching black female mathematicians about the IBM 7090. Source: https://ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org/2017/01/09/hidden-figures-brings-the-excellence-of-historic-black-women-to-2017.html
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.
Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson, the first black female members of NASA’s Space Task Group Source: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/how-hidden-figures-got-1960s-kodachrome-look-963042
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.
Source: New York Times, based on Equality of Opportunity Project data
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.
Love is in the air! As you celebrate Valentine’s Day with your bae or your friends, consider that just 50 years ago, some marriages were illegal. The ban on interracial marriage was found
The Edelmans in 1968
Source: New York Times
unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Loving v. Virginia case of 1967. This recent story on Peter Edelman and Marian Wright Edelman got us thinking about love and marriage…and economic mobility. (It also reminded us of that day Peter came to visit MDC.) Marian Wright, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Peter Edelman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University Law Center, were the third interracial couple to be married a year after the Loving case. This union was the beginning of a powerhouse couple in the civil rights arena. At the time of their marriage, Marian was an accomplished Yale-educated civil rights lawyer and the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. Peter had been an aide to U.S. Sen, Robert F. Kennedy and was working in policy and law. No doubt, Marian and Peter Edelman’s mutual support and encouragement contributed to their many successes. Similarly, one can speculate that some financial benefits of marriage helped in strengthening their partnership and the prospects of their three children as well. Just a year earlier, the marriage would have been unlawful.
And sure, love and commitment are great, but marriage historically is an economic engagement, too. Conventional wisdom points to financial benefits like having a dual income, the ability to share expenses, tax breaks, and lower rates on health insurance. The U.S. Supreme Court used the precedent set by Loving for reasoning as such in Obergefell v. Hodges (2005), which protected the right of same-sex couples to marry, making the institution available to even more people. There is research that suggests some economic benefit to some people who tie the knot. However, there is much debate about how marriage and financial benefits are associated with one another. While some argue that this link is direct and causal, others argue that the relationship between the two is more nuanced. For example, dual-earner households have higher household incomes and, therefore, more resources at their disposal that can be used for personal enrichment, creating a financial safety net, or investments in their children’s future. Proponents of this perspective suggest that strategies to improve upward economic mobility should focus on improving “the security of poor people and their children,” which will in turn “also tend to improve the stability of their relationships.”
But still, the moral of the story is: more marriages and the wealth gap closes, right? Sorry to ruin your honeymoon, folks, but the racial wealth gap persists regardless of family structure. As you can see in the figure below, the median, single-parent white family had roughly twice as much wealth as the median, two-parent black or Latino families.
Source: Demos. The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap
This recent Demos report argues that “family structure does not drive racial inequity, and racial inequity persists regardless of family structure.” In short, the financial benefits of marriage are failing to close the racial mobility gap.
Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in 1967: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” So, considering factors such as personal rights, happiness, and disparate benefits to different people, the Facebook status of the relationship between marriage and economic mobility might just be: “It’s complicated.”