Last week I moderated a panel on 3-D printing at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference, where two CEOs offered insights into this technology that has the potential to disrupt gun safety, manufacturing and possibly the geopolitical relationships between countries. On another panel, a 16-year-old winner of the Intel Science Fair Grand Prize explained how he created a simple test to detect pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. Others discussed the rise and fall of civilizations and the mobile Web explosion, while Al Gore lamented spider goats. (Google it!)
Held at the plush Beverly Hilton Hotel, where the halls are lined with pictures of Hollywood celebrities in their heyday, the conference attracted some of the world’s most affluent people, who mingled with some of the most innovative minds. A few of us were there to ask questions and learn. The global elite gather regularly at Milken, TED, the Clinton Global Initiative, Aspen Institute and other conferences to ponder the future of the planet.
Unfortunately, relatively few African Americans attend. Instead, more black leaders attend conventions and conferences held by national organizations of fraternities, sororities, professional societies and civil rights organizations.
Some of these organizations are more forward-looking than others. The National Action Network, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, had discussions on building generational wealth (pdf) and college access at its most recent conference, and the Urban League’s last convention had a heavy focus on encouraging entrepreneurship, but none of them has the convening power of the granddaddy of civil rights groups, the NAACP, whose theme for this year’s annual NAACP convention is “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
African Americans face a 13 percent unemployment rate; a 44 percent homeownership rate, compared with 77 percent for whites; and a 53 percent drop in black household wealth to $5,677, versus $113,149 for whites (2009). In addition, only 40 percent of black students graduate from college within six years. If African Americans hope to have a productive future in the 21st century, shouldn’t the message be something closer to “We Better Get Moving”?
Fifty years ago this summer, the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights groups led hundreds of thousands of Americans in the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. The NAACP is stalwart in its focus on justice, but where are the creative, future-oriented policies to help black people get jobs? The group rightfully highlights issues such as criminal justice and voting rights, but shouldn’t the education discussion at its conference be broader than reducing gun violence and the school-to-prison pipeline?
There are good people at the NAACP. From President Benjamin Jealous down to the chapter presidents and church volunteers, members focus their talents on uplifting people of color. They have phenomenal convening power, with presidents of the United States, corporate CEOs and youths from around the country regularly attending their meetings; however, they are getting the focus wrong, and they are not alone.
I’m guilty, too. As a pundit on cable and network news, I focused too much on the short-term nature of politics, the horserace and slim agenda of what is possible in the current political dynamic, instead of what we ought to do as a nation, even if the politics of the moment are uncooperative.
We all have to change.
To fix what ails African Americans, the country needs to adopt moonshot projects like the one Utah leaders are implementing. School officials there are spending millions, with Republican support, to transform their state into a locus for international business by giving 14,000 elementary and middle school students the opportunity to learn in language-immersion programs for half of each school day; 20,000 will participate next year. What skills will urban children offer the global marketplace?
Civil rights leaders in the 1950s and ’60s took real risks, and it’s time for this generation to take a few more, including broaching touchier topics.
Affirmative action gets narrower every time the Supreme Court accepts a case for review. How should we prepare black children for a post-affirmative action world?
African Americans are no longer the largest minority group. How can blacks strengthen cross-racial coalitions with Latinos and Asian Americans before it’s too late?
Most African Americans are against cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits to lower national deficits, but should we raise the entitlement-eligibility age and lower cost-of-living increases, along with closing business-tax loopholes, to fund massive education reform and apprenticeships for American youths?
Black leaders should take the organizational capacity of black radio and the Internet that brought attention to the Jena Six and Trayvon Martin cases to focus the community on problems and opportunities for the next generation. If we want people to look back at our generation 50 years from now with the same pride we have in the people who filled the National Mall in 1963, we’d better get moving.
A mutual friend told me in 2007 that Barack Obama believed campaigns are more like decathlons than single event contests. In this scenario a candidate doesn’t have to win every event, but has to do well enough for their strong performances to carry them over the top. If that is true Barack Obama did fine in his first presidential debate with Mitt Romney, but he didn’t win. In the long run Romney’s strong performance may be just what Democratic troops need to light a fire under them to volunteer even more for campaign field efforts where the Obama campaign is surely superior.
Surely, among the 47 percent of Americans that Romney lumped into the victim or dependent category in his secretly taped remarks are parents of kids like me. There were days I stood in line at the market to buy government approved items such as milk, eggs, cheese, peanut butter or dry cereal. I wasn’t the only person on public assistance in our neighborhood, but I felt like every eye in the store was watching me when I sheepishly handed the cashier the WIC coupons. While other kids wore designer sport shirts with polo player or tiger logos, I sat up at night with a needle and scissors picking at the threads of undesirable off-brand logos to remove telltale signs that my shirts were bought at discount stores. Once, after the hot water was cut off, the skin on my right arm bubbled and peeled away after I tripped while carrying a pot of boiling water from the kitchen to warm a bath.
Despite Romney’s characterization, we didn’t feel entitled. Instead, we were determined to have a better life.