Hidden Figures and Hidden Talent: Why We All Lose When Exclusion Reigns

“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

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

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

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.”

First Comes Love, 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.”

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.

Men of Color at Community College: Increasing Completion Rates

Race still plays a big part in who gets ahead in this country, and that stratification is very evident in postsecondary education. While improvements in access to education have resulted in increases in enrollment of students of color in recent years, racial disparities in degree completion still exist. And while race and income are commingled in this country, socioeconomic status does not completely explain why students of color are lagging behind their white counterparts. Data from the Department of Education show that 47 percent of students who receive Pell grants, a federal student aid program for low-income students, graduate within six years, a higher graduation rate than that of blacks and, until very recently, a higher rate for Latinos. When further disaggregating postsecondary data by gender, graduation rates for men of color in higher education lag behind not only those of white male students but also those of women of color. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute:

  • College enrollment among African-American males grew at less than half the rate of their female counterparts between 1990 and 2008.
  • College enrollment of Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) males declined by 9 percent between 1990 and 2008, while enrollment among their female counterparts rose by 11 percent.
  • College enrollment among Latino males grew at about two-thirds the rate of that of their female counterparts between 1990 and 2008.
  • In 2013, the percentage of males ages 25-29 who had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher was 55 percent for AAPI students, 37 percent for whites, 17 percent for African-Americans and 13 percent for Latinos.

However, the vast majority of men of color persisting towards a postsecondary degree are doing so at community colleges. In “Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges,” the Center for Community College Student Engagement found that while men of color are underrepresented in higher education overall, those who enroll in college are more likely to attend a community college than a baccalaureate institution. The past 20 years of research on men of color tells us that the profile of these students can look a little different from their white counterparts. Men of color often delay enrollment, meaning they’ve been employed or participating in the workforce for a while before attending college, they are a little older when they return to school, and tend to be concentrated in developmental education courses at the start of their educational pathway – often because they have been out in the workforce for many years before returning to school.

In 2011, the Minority Male Community College Collaborative (M2C3) was established to address the role of community colleges in educating men of color. Since so much of the previous research is focused on outcome disparities of men of color at the university level, M2C3’s primary objective is to expand the research on how men of color experience community colleges. In addition, the center is focused on research, tools, and resources to help institutions improve institutional effectiveness through a series of discussions and workshops that use faculty and staff professional development to achieve equitable student outcomes.

M2C3 research reveals that the education of men of color need to go beyond addressing the socioeconomic factors that create barriers to success and must focus on intentional culturally relevant teaching and the development of a positive campus environment that acknowledges both the racial and gender identities of students. Assessments of male students of color and best practice research point to four key relationship strategies that yield successful outcomes for men of color and can be applied to any underserved population:

  1. Build relationships from an anti-deficit perspective. Men of color are seeking postsecondary education for the same reasons as other students. Convey high expectations verbally and non-verbally. Convey mutual respect and avoid unintentional microagressions—for example, assumptions of a lack of intelligence or criminality (i.e. cheating).
  2. Focus on positive messaging that conveys “you belong here” and “you are college material.” College campuses should create an environment that welcomes and engages men of color without singling them out. Praise men of color publically, but critique privately (so as not to reinforce the “you don’t belong here” mentality many students of color feel when attending college.) Validation should be specific to their coursework and work ethic—not personality traits or athleticism.
  3. Practice authentic care. Faculty should connect to students on an individual level and make time for students outside of class. Men of color have better graduation outcomes when they have authentic interactions with faculty on a regular basis.
  4. Implement intrusive interventions. Avoid the “approach me first” mentality. Men of color are less likely to seek out help. Structure help as part of the class by making office hours mandatory for all students. Check-in frequently with students to see if they have questions or concerns and connect them directly to resources or people who can help them in other departments on campus.

While the above strategies for faculty are general and foundational guidelines that have been shown to benefit underserved men of color, M2C3 also designs campus-specific strategies and workshops based on a series of assessments and conversations with all campus stakeholders. You can even contact M2C3 staff for an institutional-level assessment of instructional areas for your campus. Faculty’s scores are compared to scores of exemplar faculty members who have a demonstrated track record of success in teaching men of color. The instrument report highlights areas where professional development activities should be concentrated. In addition, you can also access webinars recordings on educating men of color here. These strategies—and the cultural shifts they require—are essential to make meaningful changes in racial disparities in postsecondary completion rates.

Poverty, Diversity, and the Preschool Classroom

We are at a critical moment in early education. According to A Better Start: Why Diversity in Preschool Classrooms Matters, the recent surge in early childhood initiatives and the increasing diversity within the population of young children have yet to translate to diversity within the classroom. In order for all children to succeed regardless of race and class, we must see these investments through into the future.

In North Carolina, 14 percent of non-Hispanic white children under 6 live in poverty, compared to 44 percent and 46 percent of black and Hispanic or Latino children (US Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey). Even the overall success of investments and efforts to improve early childhood education programming and access has not addressed participation rates and quality of services along the aforementioned lines of economic and racial segregation. More must be done to incorporate diversity and instill equity into learning environments.

Child Pov NC

Source: CLASP calculations of American Community Survey data

Children’s peers are increasingly diverse. As the Center for Public Education explains, “Trends in immigration and birth rates indicate that soon there will be no majority racial or ethnic group in the United States—no one group that makes up more than fifty percent of the total population.” Economic and racial segregation of neighborhoods and schools misrepresents the world these children will grow up in and it begins in U. S. preschools; only 17 percent of children are currently learning in racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms.

Children, particularly children of color, are aware of—and thus affected by—race as early as age four. At this developmental stage, they ask questions to inform their own behaviors and learn from their environment to understand the way the world works, according to Louise Derman-Sparks. As A Better Start notes, “Children with disparate skills may learn from each other in the daily interactions and play activities that typically characterize the preschool day.” This kind of interaction enriches language and vocabulary development and, according to A Better Start¸ even promotes cross-cultural learning.   That’s why preschool is a significant supplement to the home environment of all children: though incoming math and language skills correlate to socioeconomic status (SES), children from low SES consistently perform better in math and language in the company of higher SES peers. A Better Start explains how classroom diversity can benefit higher SES, white students by reducing the prejudices and social isolation of children by race.

Getting that kind of head start on academic and social learning is a key foundation in an infrastructure of opportunity that works for children from day one. No matter how family demographics, ideologies, and resources may differ, parents share common values for their children. Providing families of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds access to the same high-quality early childhood education gives those children, full of potential, the opportunity to learn from each other rather than internalizing the “way the world works” through misleading cues like segregation.

MDC recently began work with the Kate B. Charitable Trust as the “activating agency” for Great Expectations, a major community-wide initiative of the Trust that aims to ensure that all young children in Forsyth County—with a special focus on those living in financially-disadvantaged families—meet age-appropriate developmental milestones in their first five years, enter kindergarten ready for school, and leave kindergarten fully ready for learning and life success.

The approach to Great Expectations centers on systems change with a strong commitment to creating ways to elevate the voices of low-SES parents and caregivers and parents/caregivers of color in the conversation about how to improve outcomes for their children. An improved system could increase availability and accessibility of high-quality child care classrooms for all families, regardless of SES and race. As more low-SES children and children of color enroll into childcare, more parents/caregivers will have the opportunity to share their vision for their child’s early education. Everyday experiences like story time and reading assignments could be transformed to show children their potential through stories from and about children from varying lifestyles and cultural backgrounds.

Through interactive exposure to diversity in play and in academic settings, children can turn their natural curiosity and sense of community into tools to form conceptions of equity—as they contextualize their identity with race and class. Doing so at an early age encourages the social responsibility and intuition children need to succeed and value the shared success of their peers—and that is essential to maintaining a productive and equitable society.