The Underground Railroad: Pathways, Leadership & the Role of Equity

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.

First Comes Loves, Then Comes Marriage, Then Comes Economic Mobility?

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

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

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.”

Violated Pathways: How Gender-Based & Intimate Partner Abuse Impede Mobility

One of my favorite aspects of our State of the South blog is how this medium provides MDC staff members the opportunity to think through new things we’re learning. This site is where we turn our curiosity to exploration, to analysis, and to asking difficult questions regarding how social, cultural, and economic factors influence the odds of upward economic mobility in the South. In light of our recent community work sessions discussing economic mobility across North Carolina with the John M. Belk Endowment, my “#NCMobilityMatters” radar is on high alert. I’m more attentive than before to the myriad issues and experiences that may keep N.C. residents, and people all across the South, from progressing from foundational education all the way to economic security with a living-wage job.

So when I attended a screening this past fall of the documentary Private Violence, which shines light on the alarming rate of intimate partner violence cases across North Carolina (as well as the barriers to prosecuting such cases), my “mobility radar” went off. I was struck by the enormity of intimate partner violence (which in some form affects one in three women and one in four men) and sexual violence (which affects one in five women and one in 71 men)—the frequency of these crimes and their overarching effects on every aspect of a victim’s life: their ability to take care of their own families, to seek mental and physical healthcare, to save money, and to pursue their educational and career aspirations. I came away from the documentary wanting to know more about how intimate partner violence and sexual violence deter those who are affected by it—most often women—from staying on their chosen path to success and security.

ipv

Source: National Coalition against Domestic Violence

 

Stalled Mobility for Victims

We often hear commentary regarding the long-term effects on perpetrators of being charged with intimate partner violence (also called “domestic abuse”) and gender-based violence. Being convicted of a violent crime and sentenced to time in prison can certainly have enduring effects for perpetrators; for victims, who are disproportionately female, the pain, violation, and trauma of abuse and assault can carry devastating, long-term consequences. When these gender-based and intimate partner violence crimes are perpetrated, the path to opportunity is interrupted for both victim and convicted perpetrator. (However, it should be noted that only one out of four arrested abusers is convicted, and less than half of gender-based violence crimes are reported.) Furthermore, the fear of reporting assault—and the resultant pain when reports fail to lead to just convictions—can compound the trauma that makes it difficult for victims to complete educational and career endeavors.

These crimes are not inevitable parts of our society—the abusive actions that cause interruptions in opportunity can be prevented, so that fewer perpetrators and victims are derailed from pursuit of economic security and rewarding employment. Below are just some examples of how intimate partner violence and gender-based violence impede paths to success for victims, who are disproportionately female:

Nearly 50 years of working to expand opportunity in the South has confirmed MDC’s analysis that clear and accessible pathways leading from education to employment to economic security are crucial for building a more equitable society. So it’s unsettling to see that gender-based violence often inhibits progression and retention along the path to an economically stable future, particularly for women. As Private Violence demonstrates, these forms of abuse are pervasive in North Carolina, presenting further barriers to opportunity where there already is significant stalled upward mobility for those born into the lowest income quintiles. Indeed, the percentage of women in poverty in the state of North Carolina has increased in the last 10 years, and the rate of women victimized by gender-based violence in North Carolina has risen above the national average.

Violence, Mobility, and Belonging

It makes sense that trauma associated with interpersonal violence would have such life-crippling effects. After all, how are you supposed to move along the path from education and training to employment to savings to civic participation if you are being routinely told—physically, verbally, and emotionally—that your body, your power, your dreams are threatened or in someone else’s control?

When we talk about opportunity at MDC, we talk about three particular dimensions that position people on the pathway to success: belonging, thriving, and contributing. We know that when we create a civic narrative in which there is room for everyone to belong, and bodies and lives that are routinely and systemically told they don’t matter are lifted up and reaffirmed as valuable, communities become altogether stronger from a wider sense of communal investment and engagement. But currently, the messages to victims of gender-based and intimate partner violence are shaming or silencing, rather than supportive. The influence of these messages can be seen in the educational attainment and economic security figures cited above.

In order to increase opportunity for both those at risk of being perpetrators and those at risk of being victims, we need more affirming and equity-based messages about power and gender in order to prevent gender-based violence from occurring in the first place. We need to embrace messages that value people over power, and we need to intentionally communicate these messages to our youngest community members. This can happen at home, in schools, in media and in the workplace (e.g. middle school anti-bullying programs or corporate decisions to eliminate outsourcing to sweatshops).  Those messages are a starting point for influencing policies and practices that view every human being worthy of traveling the path to economic security with safety and support.

Inequity by Design

There is an endless supply of game metaphors for daily life. If we aren’t happy with our circumstances, we may be told that we all have to “play with the cards we’re dealt.” When something unexpected happens, we’ve been “thrown a curve ball.” Senator Cory Booker once cautioned against acting “…like you hit a triple when you were born on third base” to remind us that factors beyond our individual effort often play a role in our success. Despite our tendency to frame games as a simulation of daily life, the metaphors don’t all hold up. While many focus on strategies to secure resources necessary for survival and eventually abundance, the parallel ends there. The extent to which strategies and resources are equally accessible to all “players” are, by design, drastically different in these two realms. Monopoly players start with $1,500 and video game characters come pre-programmed with relevant attributes and tools. In the U.S, people do not begin with the same resources at birth or upon entering adulthood (e.g., guaranteed basic income). Unlike the world of games and gaming, what we start with is quite variable, depending on where we’re born and to whom.

When the stakes are low and the consequences of “losing” don’t influence our long-term livelihoods, it is relatively easy to agree on “fairness.” The high stakes game of living life, on the other hand, is more complicated. If we want to ensure that people have the opportunity to thrive and contribute in our society and remain actively engaged in the “game,” it is imperative that we do the hard work required to make the game board—our systems and society—more equitable.

Game Equity by Design

Both video and board games are increasingly popular. A recent Pew Research poll shows that about 50 percent of both men and women report that they play video games and many believe they are useful beyond entertainment value. Sixty-four percent agree that video games help develop good problem solving skills and 47 percent agree that they promote teamwork and communication. Given their growing popularity it’s no surprise that game designers go to great lengths to ensure that games are fun, which includes creating the proper balance of difficulty, complexity, fair competition, and enjoyment. They recognize that we are more likely to play (and purchase) games when we have a fair shot at winning or if our wins can be attributed to one’s own skill and ingenuity rather than some other external advantage. This balancing process involves constantly reworking game mechanisms that are too weak, too powerful, or too complex. It can take months, or even years to get this right and comes at significant cost in time and money to game designers. These mechanisms are scrutinized in the online gaming world, often invoking loud critiques by players; you may see claims that some element of the game is “OP” (overpowered) or “imba” (imbalanced) if it far outweighs the benefits awarded by other elements. It is also common to see cries that some feature has been “nerfed” (weakened) or needs to be “buffed” (strengthened).

If you think of our social systems as the board game, the design flaws are glaring. The long history of slavery, segregation, and stalled mobility in the South make the stakes especially high for low-income families and people of color. Securing high quality, reliable sources of food, housing, family-sustaining work, and healthcare while navigating the complex system of rules that dictate the distribution of those resources is difficult. The rules are always changing and those with the fewest resources often have the least say in how the game is played. Black WWII veterans, for example, were awarded the GI Bill alongside their white counterparts and promised low-cost loans and funding for education and housing. However, opportunity-inhibiting policies and other government-sanctioned barriers to success at the time, including the lack of schools admitting black students and the redlining that constricted their ability to purchase homes with higher property values, prevented many black veterans from reaping the benefits of their effort.

Life is (not) all Fun and Games

Many American households devote a significant amount of time to games as a form of entertainment; it reveals both our intense desire for fairness (and competition) and the ways in which these feelings drive our motivations and behaviors. We’ve all played games with sore losers and, while it is unpleasant, most of us accept milder forms of this type of reaction as an unfortunate, but common, part of the game.

However, we expect better “sportsmanship” in daily life when the stakes are higher, the chances more uneven, and the rules more complicated. When communities with the fewest resources play by the rules and lose, many are surprised when they challenge the rules of the game. Even when it is done peacefully, the efforts of these groups are met with a narrative that largely calls them “poor sports” or sees this as evidence of their lack of patriotism or work ethic. This is where an understanding and empathetic approach is more productive. The ability to step back and give credence to an experience different from our own can go a long way in identifying cracks in our system. Implicit bias can influence who we see as “sore losers” in our system. If the dominant group has a different set of OP or imba advantages, it may seem that “nerfed” complaints from others are unjustified; if we return to the rule book, we might see something different.

Game designers have a vested interest in all of the players; given the degree to which daily life is more complex than gaming, we should expect that it would take at least as much time (and surely much more!), effort, money, and collaboration to ensure fairness and balance. Our institutions should be designed in a way that makes the rules of the game explicitly and publicly stated, starting places shouldn’t determine final scores, and systems should be regularly re-evaluated to ensure that we all have a fair shot at success. It’s difficult to play by the rules when there is not a level playing field. Without this presumption of balance in the game of life, people will walk away from the game and we all lose—because our systems are at their best when everyone has a seat at the table.

Bootstraps vs. Blockades: Closing the Growing Racial Wealth Gap When Doing the “Right Thing” Doesn’t Work for Everyone

Conceptions of the American Dream often frame upward mobility as an ideal best accomplished through individual effort and perseverance. However, persistent racial disparities despite similar inputs demand a reconsideration of the story we tell ourselves about the degree to which success is available to everyone. A recent report using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances shows that, in 1983, white households held, on average, 5.3 times greater wealth than black households and 6.1 times greater wealth than Latino households. By 2013, those rates had increased to 7.7 and 6.7 times greater, respectively. This is a growth of 85 percent for white households, but only 27 percent for black households, and 69 percent for Latino households.

Source: CFED and Institute for Policy Studies. The Ever Growing Gap. August 2016

Source: CFED and Institute for Policy Studies. The Ever Growing Gap. August 2016

What is more striking, however, is that even if the wealth of black and Latino households had grown at the same rate as white households or even as drastically as those on the Forbes 400 list (a 736 percent increase in wealth between 1983 and 2013), their wealth would still not match the wealth held by white households. Black households would fall short by $181,000 and Latino households would fall short by $270,000. The report concludes that:

“If average Black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth White families have today. That’s just 17 years shorter than the 245-year span of slavery in this country.”

Catching Up: The Racial Wealth Gap is Unlikely to Narrow

In order to catch up to white families, black and Latino families would need to find a way to increase their wealth by over 700 percent. But traditional drivers of wealth creation do not produce as much value for people of color relative to their white counterparts (with the exception of Asians). For example, education has long been described as the great equalizer and, while there are significant economic returns to a college degree, there are large earnings and wealth gaps by race even among those who have earned postsecondary degrees. Similarly, homeownership is the largest expenditure for many families and represents a large portion of their total wealth, but non-whites are less likely to own their own home and, when they do, their property values are significantly lower. Given the extent to which homeownership is constrained by income and student loan debt (which is accumulated in larger amounts by non-white students), these racial disparities are not surprising.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The College Payoff. 2011

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The College Payoff. 2011

 

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. The Regional Economist. Unequal Degrees of Affluence: Racial and Ethnic Wealth Differences across Education Levels. October 2016.

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. The Regional Economist. Unequal Degrees of Affluence: Racial and Ethnic Wealth Differences across Education Levels. October 2016.

Intergenerational transfers of wealth are another major contributor to wealth creation, but for black families, this strategy is much less successful. Black children born into moderately wealthy families (the middle wealth quintile), are more than twice as likely as white children to fall from the middle to the bottom quintile as adults (33 percent vs. 14 percent).

This trend is especially concerning in the South, with deep racial divides in economic opportunities and a long history of excluding racial minorities from sources of wealth accumulation. For example, the high degree of residential segregation found in the South further exacerbates the gap in wealth created by home ownership; neighborhoods with higher concentrations of non-white residents often have significantly lower property values. Coupled with lower rates of intergenerational income mobility, this suggests that an even greater challenge exists for black and Latino families hoping to build wealth and economic security.

New Outcomes Require New Systems

If black and Latino families are pursuing the same strategies for upward economic mobility as white families, why aren’t they reaping similar rewards? As we’ve written before, our history, particularly in the South, of economic dependence on forced and exploitative labor limited opportunities for wealth creation for those outside the economic elite, and particularly for people of color. Unequal investment in community resources that are beneficial to the entire population, like schools, transportation, and healthcare compounded these issues. This history and it’s continued legacy, apparent in current disparities, undermines a pillar of our proclaimed American ideal that upward economic mobility is available to all who are motivated, persistent, and hard-working. If we believe that closing the racial wealth gap is an issue best solved with strategies implemented at the individual level, what then, is a viable pathway for black and Latino families to catch up, if not through education, income, or homeownership? If we do not have a good answer to this question, we cannot continue to tell ourselves that the only thing standing between poverty and prosperity is a strong work ethic. Instead, we must commit to systemic changes at the institutional level, which focus on the racial disparities among major drivers of wealth creation and create an infrastructure of opportunity that is prosperous for everyone.