African Americans have made many accomplishments in the tech field, as shown in this awards notice of the “Blacks in Tech Top 10 Awards” from the Black Business Journal in Austin, Texas, last year.
Racial (in)equality in America
In honor of Black History Month, we are dedicating this February newsletter to the issue of blacks in technology and Harriet Tubman—a woman of strength and an early adopter for freedom.
More than 50 years ago, following an investigation into the causes of civil unrest and race riots in the mid-1960s, President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (better known as the Kerner Commission) concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Present-day racial inequities embody the Kerner Commission’s dire prediction. We know, and have known for decades, that if nothing is done to bridge the vast racial wealth divide, the nation will remain on the ill-fated path charted by the Kerner Commission five decades ago.
A very important part of the problem is that the most important data, used for federal, private sector and non-profit initiatives, is both missing and misinterpreted. For example, in the last five years, Federal Reserve data indicates that the wealth of Black households increased by $3,500—a positive trend on the surface, but only by a small fraction of the $140,000 increase in wealth experienced by white households over the same period. The median household income for a Black family is still around $20,000 less than for other families in America. This comparison of racial income and wealth inequality suggests that the wealth divide probably will not be bridged in this century without significant new strategic initiatives.
Continued from the emailed newsletter
Compounding this is a growing consensus that machines will be replacing humans in a growing list of professions and jobs, from bricklayers to doctors. If anyone has any doubts, they should read a book by Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Oxford, A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond. Susskind discusses the potential impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) today and in the future compared to that of machines in the past and envisions increasing inequality as one of the biggest consequences of technological change. “Today’s inequalities are the birth pangs of tomorrow’s technological unemployment,” Susskind writes.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that while Black labor force participation saw an increase from the 1970s to the 2000s, it is now in decline, and projected to continue in the coming decade. This pattern holds for both Black men and women and is even worse among youth.
We need to radically accelerate increases in Black labor-force participation combined with upskilling and learning how to develop businesses that leverage technology throughout operations and supply chains. A good start might include a highly visible dialogue about the roots and causes of Black LFP trends in the equivalent of a World Economic Forum—a Davos for racial equality—that would bring together many of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people. In addition to leveraging the power of talk, participants in the event would work collaboratively on creative strategies to bring together and harness corporate, public and nonprofit investments and other resources for transformative change in the capabilities of current and future generations of African Americans to lead financially successful lives.
Producing much greater racial equality in American society is not strictly the job of foundations and nonprofits or even the executive and legislative branches of the Federal government. It requires that the nation’s leading companies and partners strategically commit to operations that simultaneously achieve both goals of societal benefits and increasing revenues, sales growth and profits. In other words, America’s business community must pivot its ambitions from simple profit to profit in the process of doing social good and improving society.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos recently there were countless conversations about “stakeholder capitalism.” There was no disagreement, just consensus, as stated by Unilever CEO Alan Jope: “The predominant paradigm is an either/or paradigm—either deliver financial performance or pay attention to social impact. We believe nothing could be further from the truth.” The CEOs agreed that social, human, and intellectual capital have become even more important for the market value of corporations than their tangible assets.
In other words, companies need to be able to tell their investors and shareholders that they are doing social good by doing well in business and financially. This entrepreneurial strategy for doing social good in every phase of business development has to be grounded in strategic planning informed by in-depth research and facts, not merely good intentions.
A great example of this is Ford’s transformation of the crumbling Michigan Central Station in Detroit. The Ford team has said that they intend to build a collaborative ecosystem of companies, educators, investors and innovators. What they have not stated, yet, is the strategic social mission of their “innovation hub”, especially for Blacks that make up 80% of Detroit. This megaproject could serve as a model “innovation hub” for social and economic impact benefiting the Black community and the resurgence of Detroit. In addition to the potential to train thousands of African Americans in tech skills, the project will a highly symbolic impact on Detroit as it transforms an emblem of decline into a vibrant success story.
Companies in the tech field—and other corporations—as a central component of their business development strategy, should invest in “innovation hubs” that leverage AI for job development and skill training—hopefully countering some of the disproportionate impact that AI is projected to have on non-white populations. All this will take collaboration, creativity, and most of all will.
We at St. James Faith Lab hope to be part of this aspiring movement for doing good and social change in technology.
Share with us your ideas!
The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees
St. James Faith Lab