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Julianne Malveaux

In Jobs, we’re in a Race to the Bottom

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(NNPA) On May 21, I had the opportunity to testify before a Congressional Progressive Caucus meeting on how federal dollars drive inequality by paying contractors who pay too many of their workers too little. The hearing was driven by a study from Amy Traub and her colleagues at Demos, a New York based think tank, that issued a report exposing the many ways that federal contracting often adds to the burden of the low income, especially those who earn less than $12 an hour, or less than $25,000 a year.

If these workers have even one child, they are living at or below the poverty line. As summer looms, we know that children who are in summer programs will be better prepared when they return to school in the fall. Yet those with income limitations will find it difficult to pay fees that range from $50 to $125 a week for summer enrichment programs. This cycle of disadvantage means that low wages yield more limited opportunities for students who, but for their parental situation, might be exposed to the kind of opportunities that would make them more competitive for college admissions. Their limited wages create a cycle of disadvantage for children.

The Obama administration has supported a “Race to the Top” in education, yet job creation suggests that we are running a “Race to the Bottom.” We are underutilizing talent and expertise when we sideline so many Americans. Those over 50 who have experienced downsizing have moved into lower paying retail jobs. New college graduates have been pushed back into their parents’ homes, and into low-wage jobs because there is little else available. Too many take unpaid internships to make them more competitive for future jobs, working at night or on weekends in the retail market because these are their scant possibilities.

Some economists suggest that we are in an economic expansion, not a recession, and the 2.5 percent GDP growth last quarter might support that. Still, there has been little trickle down from the top. People take what is offered in salary because they have few choices. The federal government can help or hurt these workers, depending on how they choose to protect them with minimum wage legislation, with regulation on federal contractors, with requirements to make health care and other social protections available.

Instead, according to Demos, we have millions of workers who work full time, but are paid at low wages, thanks to federal contracting policy. If government takes the lowest bid to provide services, workers will likely earn the lowest wage. If our government specified that a living wage and benefits are part of the contract we would reduce inequality. Today, too many contracting executives earn six or seven figure salaries, while workers earn poverty-level wages.

I am especially concerned about home health care workers, and others in the hospital services industry because these are predominately Black and Brown women, taking care of our sick, infirm and elders. How can we expect these workers to offer the highest quality care, when we are not offering them the highest quality wages? These are women who bring chips of ice to the dying, who hold a hand and say a prayer to someone who needs comforting. They rub the feet and massage the heads of those who are in pain. What if the low wages they are paid becomes a stressor, not allowing them to fully focus on their work for worries about their own economic survival?

Our economy has been bifurcated between those who have good jobs and bad jobs. Good jobs have decent pay and benefits, while bad jobs have hourly pay and none of the above. Increasingly, the Great Recession has pushed former good job workers into bad jobs, and bad jobs have become the norm for too many. We may be creating a permanent underclass by offering too little to too many, using federal funds to subsidize this inequality. When full –time workers need food stamps and federally subsidized health insurance, when full-time workers cannot afford apartments, when full time workers give full effort and remain in poverty, then we have turned the American dream into a nightmare!

We cannot compete in this global economy if we cannot pay people wisely and well. Without regulation, the private sector may pay unequal wages, but there is no reason for the federal government to do the same thing.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Placing Athletics Above Academics

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(NNPA) Why does sports play such a prominent role in college education? Does it crowd out the attention we pay to other aspects of college life? Why are student athletes treated like slaves or gladiators, playing to pay colleges for the fruits of their labor? Other students enjoy “school spirit” when their team wins, and universities collect revenue from advertisers when they make it to the big leagues.

Women’s sports don’t reap the same benefits that men’s sports do. Still, Spelman’s President Beverly Daniels Tatum deserves kudos for eliminating the college’s basketball program in favor of providing physical education for all of Spelman’s students. She made the important calculation that organized sports activity costs hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, and just a few students benefit from the athletic training. To be sure, school spirit is elevated when Spelman students cheer against opponents; yet a burst of school spirit, however, is worth a lot less than graduating a cadre of physically aware, if not fit, young women.

At Bennett College for Women, our goal was to educate the “whole” woman – academically, intellectually, spiritually, physically, and socially. Yes, people come to college to be prepared academically, but colleges are more than four-year matriculation experiences. This is why so many colleges attempt to offer a holistic experience for students.

Unfortunately, too many schools place athletics above other aspects of student development. At Penn State University, the football team was such a moneymaking machine that the fabled coach Joe Paterno jeopardized his legacy by allegedly covering up a sex abuse scandal. At Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University (FAMU), the revered marching band found its glitter not only tarnished but also corroded by the death of one of the band members as a result of his hazing. At Duke University, lacrosse players were accused of enticing, then abusing strippers at their apartments. While the allegations were disputed, the university earned a black eye for the bad behavior of its athletes. At nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, departing Chancellor Holden Thorp spent nearly half of his time dealing with athletic scandals that included no-show classes for football players, the firing of a coach, and the possibility of academic sanctions against the university.

Basketball and football at top athletic universities (as distinguished from top academic universities) generate millions of dollars for their institutions. Athletes may be rewarded with scholarships, but with full time academic and training schedules, have to hustle for money to buy a phone, travel home, and pay for other incidentals. If a generous alumnus chooses to subsidize a student for these expenses, both the student and the school will be sanctioned.

Why not pay these athletes at least some of the money they are generating for their colleges? Or why not take college athletics down a notch, putting the millions of dollars of advertising money aside in favor of the purpose of college – education. This would probably shatter a student-pimping industry. It would also remind students that their tenure in college is about academics, not athletics.

This proposal is as likely to be implement as ice cubes are likely to survive 10 seconds in hell. Yet college leaders must grapple with the many ways that sports dollars and energy distort the educational experience. There are stadiums full of fans clapping for the last 3-pointer, or the winning touchdown, but little applause for the Phi Beta Kappa graduate, or the best poet on campus. These are societal values that have, unfortunately, penetrated the ivory tower.

My interest in this issue is the fact that many of the athletes are African Americans who often come from low- and moderate-income families. Many are student athletes who combine their athletic prowess with academic ability. Too many others have been recruited for their athletic prowess, notwithstanding athletic ability. Classes that do require little – not even attendance — do not advance the long-term interests of students.

When student-athletes get hurt, what happens to them? Some colleges will continue their scholarships, others will not. Further, the likelihood of moving from the college basketball court or gridiron to a professional one is something like 1 percent. Those who aren’t drafted and don’t make it to an athletic career often languish without even basic skills to market.

If I had my way, I’d ask that every college spend more on physical fitness than on student athletics. If I had my way, fitness would be as required a course as literature or history. Truly, if I had my way I would consider putting exploitive college athletics on the back burner.

I’m not going to have my way. On too many of our nation’s college campuses the sports mission has overshadowed the education mission. Kudos President Beverly Tatum for choosing the road less travelled.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Black Empowerment 'At Last' – or Last?

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(NNPA) When Beyonce Knowles sang the Etta James song “At Last” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the song could have had several meanings. At last we have an African American president? At last, the muscle of the Black vote has been flexed? At last, there is some hope for our country to come together with the mantra “Yes, We Can”.

Watching the President and First Lady Michelle Obama slow dance to the romantic standard reminded us that African American families have not often been positively depicted. This attractive image of an intact Black family had come “At Last”. Thus, the song was symbolic of what many folks, and especially African Americans, believed about the Obama presidency.

Some of us blindly believed that with an African American president opportunity had come “At Last.” Some believed it so fervently that the least criticism of President Obama, no matter how mild and how lovingly conveyed, could cause you to be run out of the race. An alumnus of Morehouse College, Rev. Kevin Johnson, the selected baccalaureate speaker at his alma mater, wrote an opinion piece that was mildly critical of President Obama. As a result, the former director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs and new Morehouse President John S. Wilson, Jr. changed the format of baccalaureate to a panel, not one speaker, as is customary.

The purpose of baccalaureate is to have one speaker to focus on the spiritual dimensions of graduation. There is no way that Rev. Johnson would deliver a political speech. Still, he was essentially disinvited from the baccalaureate because of his views.

President Obama is the president of the United States of American, not the president of Black America, we are often reminded. Yet, it seems that African Americans have been kicked to the curb in terms of focus and attention. Other groups – the LGBT community, the Latino community – have been mentioned explicitly. However, on African American issues, our president has been silent.

Now, some African American people are crooning “At Last.” Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx has been nominated to serve as Secretary of Transportation. If confirmed, Mayor Foxx, an outstanding an eminently qualified candidate would join Attorney General Eric Holder as the second African American to serve in a regular cabinet post.

Similarly, the nomination of Congressman Mel Watt to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency is a step forward. FHFA regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and allows Congressman Watt the opportunity to implement some of the Obama initiatives on homeowner recovery from the Great Recession. The raging right has already come after Congressman Watt. The Daily Caller (a political blog) has reported an unsubstantiated claim by former presidential candidate Ralph Nader that the Congressman disrespected him in a letter. Nader has never produced the letter. Thus, the purpose of the claim is to besmirch FHFA nominee Congressman Mel Watt.

If Watt is confirmed, this represents a step forward for both President Obama and for African American people, and for the entire nation. The issue is, of course, confirmation. Will the White House Congressman, be able to garner the votes Watt needs to be confirmed?

What does the White House gain or lose if Watt is not confirmed. The “At Last” segment of the African American community will credit the president for making the nomination, even if not confirmed. The more critical segment of the African American community will view the ways the White House embraces this nominee, and question commitment. Ask UN Ambassador Susan Rice knows what it feels like to be dropped, when Senate confirmation seemed unlikely.

During President Obama’s first term, his inattention to the African American community was understandable, though not acceptable. He was busy straddling lines, seeking compromise, and leaving a legacy of health care reform. African Americans were patient in the hope that “as last” African Americans would get recognition in his second term. After all, as a lame duck president, he has much to gain, and little to lose in rewarding his most loyal constituency. At last some of us have our disappointment confirmed. Our president’s inaugural speech mentioned every community except the African American community.

President Obama and his supporters should not be thin-skinned. Philadelphia’s Rev. Kevin Johnson should not be “disinvited” from the Morehouse baccalaureate. Nor should a panel dilute his message, when the tradition is to have a sole speaker. Johnson is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse College, who deserves to be treated with respect. His column pointed out realities – President Clinton appointed seven African Americans to his cabinet, President Bush, four, and President Obama, just one. Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, in a letter to President Obama, wrote, “The people you have chosen to appoint in this new term have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity.

Are the Foxx and Watt appointments a response to criticism? Based on their appointments, should Black folks sing “at last” or “not yet”?

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Blacks Underepresented in Immigration Debate

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(NNPA) The Senate’s Gang of Eight have put together an 844-page monstrosity known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, legislation that President Obama says he “basically approves” of. The crafters of this essentially unreadable bill was put together by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Michael Bennett (D-Col.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.).

On its surface, the bill provides much-needed relief to many of the 11 million undocumented people who live in our country. The challenge is that it disadvantages some immigrants, especially African and Caribbean immigrants, while helping others.

Further, the Senators crafting the bill put goodies into the bill that only serve to advantage themselves or their states. Senator Lindsay Graham wants more visas for the meat packing industry. Senator Charles Schumer provided special provisions for Irish people with a high school diploma (why?), Senator Marco Rubio, the much touted possible presidential candidate in 2016, asked for more visas for the cruise ship industry, and Senators Michael Bennett wants more visas for workers in ski resorts.

Meanwhile, the legislation would eliminate the Diversity Visa Program, which allows a visa lottery for countries that have low levels (less than 50,000 people) of immigration to the United States. Many African immigrants come here through this program (Ghana and Nigeria each had 6,000 immigrants through this program in 2011; African immigrants are 36 percent of those receiving diversity visas). Thus, while Senator Schumer pushes for special provisions for Irish immigrants, there is no one on the Senate side pushing for special provisions for African and Caribbean immigrants.

Instead of the Diversity Visa Program, the Senate Bill 744 creates between 120,000 and 200,000 visas on a “merit based” system, which gives highest priority to those who have future employment opportunities. Because employers do not seek out African and Caribbean immigrants for employees (as they seek out Indian and Chinese employees), the merit-based point system is likely to provide fewer opportunities for those from Africa and the Caribbean. Senator Schumer’s special provision for the Irish carries no stipulation that these people be employed, essentially granting them a pass from the merit-based point system.

Many hi-tech companies use the H-1B visa program on the grounds that there is a shortage of skilled workers in the United States. There is evidence that this claim is specious and that employers prefer foreign workers who they can pay less and control more. The new legislation will prevent employers from holding workers hostage because their continuing employment is necessary in order to keep their visa. The new legislation gives H-1B 60 days to find a new job. But why do we have H-1B visas at all. With unemployment over 7 percent, and Black unemployment over 13 percent, surely there are unemployed people who could work effectively in technology companies. Howard University economist Bill Sprigs has written that there are proportionately more African American students majoring in computer science than White. Many of these graduates cannot find jobs. Meanwhile, African and Caribbean immigrants get just a small percentage of H-1B visas.

The Immigration Modernization bill will spend $4.5 billion in an attempt to secure the southern border, which will “secure” our country from Mexican immigrants, but ignores the northern border, which makes our country more open to Canadian immigration. Of course, Canadian immigrants are more likely to be White, and thus less feared, than Mexican immigrants. The Congressional Black Caucus is one of many groups that suggest that this $4.5 billion could be more effectively spent, perhaps on STEM education.

The immigration bill is by no means final. The House of Representatives still has to vote on it, and many of them will add amendments and exceptions to take care of their “pet” causes. Meanwhile, President Obama has been urging Democrats to accept the immigration bill as it is, because too many amendments may jeopardize the bill. For example, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would like to propose an amendment that would allow gay Americans to sponsor their partners for green cards. The Judiciary Committee is likely to pass this amendment, but the whole Senate might not pass it.

President Obama has had a bad year, so far. He didn’t get his way on gun control, and he’s been kicked around by an obstructionist House of Representatives. He needs immigration reform to fulfill promises he made to the Latino community during his campaign. But the unwieldy 844-page piece of legislation contains lots of provisions that don’t pass the smell test. It makes it more difficult for African and Caribbean immigrants to become citizens of the United States.

The African American community must take a closer look at this legislation. If Senator Schumer can give 10,000 Irish immigrants the open door, how many Africans and Caribbeans will he make exceptions for? At the very minimum, Congress should restore the Diversity Visa program. The bill is called the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. Exactly who will have more economic opportunity? And is immigration really being modernized when it locks foreign-born Black people out of the process?

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Learning to Teach Students How to Learn

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(NNPA) African American students achieve at a different level than White students. Test scores are lower, as are high school and college completion rates, and the number of African Americans attending four-year institutions is falling. The rate of African American suspensions and expulsions from K-12 schools is higher than that of other groups. By almost any metric there are gaps between African American students and White or Asian students (Latinos achieve at about the same rate as African Americans).

Why does this happen? The late sociologist John Ogbu hypothesized that the gap was the result of young African Americans thinking that learning was “acting White.” His theory was batted around as if it were fact, even after Duke economist William Darity refuted the Ogbu theory. Why? Because it fits somebody’s stereotype to describe African American youngsters as culturally alienated from the mainstream, so much that they eschew the very institution that could be a bridge for them into the middle class.

Give the history of African Americans and education; it is hard to swallow these stereotypes. Some states had laws on the books to prevent African Americans from learning to read and write in the pre-Civil War period. Both White and Black people risked flogging, fines and other penalties for “teaching a slave to read.” Millions of African Americans sacrificed for the right to be literate, and ensured that their children would also have opportunities by baking cakes, frying chicken, and raising a few dollars to get to college by whatever means necessary. At the beginning of the 20th century, the only colleges open to African Americans were historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and we went despite the obstacles. Our presence rejected the notion that learning was “acting White.” In fact, we were acting learned and literate.

Still, it is in the interest of some to continue that stereotype. You’ve heard the adage that if you don’t want an African American to know something, just hide it in a book. That kind of ignorance is the very reason that African American people were able, during the Civil War, to spy on Confederates who thought they were only illiterate enslaved people. That is why Mary Ellen Pleasant was able to eavesdrop on conversations on stock and turn them into wealth. Those who write about the achievement gap ought not underestimate African Americans.

Where does the achievement gap come from, then? It comes from the opportunity gap. The average African American household) earns $31,000 a year, compared to $51,000 for Whites. Fifty-one thousand ( $51,000) can buy a lot more opportunity than $31,000 can. If income determines housing clusters, neighborhoods with a $51,000 mean income have better schools and more involved parents than the $31,000 neighborhood does.

Closing income gaps closes opportunity gaps, according to a Ford Foundation-sponsored book written by Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, an Obama education adviser. She says poverty and segregation means that some students attend schools that have fewer resources than others. Indeed, inner city high schools are less likely to offer Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. Sometimes when these courses are available in suburban high schools, African American students are discouraged from taking them.

Ivory Toldson, a professor at Howard University and a contributor to the Root also refutes the notion that African American students think learning is “acting White.” Most African American students, he says, are interested in attending college but may not because of cost factors. He also says that academic support should be provided to all students, and that the way to close achievement gaps is to “reduce racial disparities in income and to increase equity and inclusion in education.”

For a great deal of students the issue is not “acting White,” but being connected to educational options and outcomes. One of the more important factors in student achievement is parental involvement, yet many parents find themselves “too busy” or too uninformed to interact with teachers. One study says that parents don’t necessarily have to help with homework, but simply to reinforce that homework should be done, and to be inquisitive about it. Unfortunately, many parents, frustrated with the school system, write it off. Further, too many of our community organizations don’t sufficiently emphasize education, or if they do, don’t get into the “down and dirty” of it, preferring to raise much-needed scholarship funds than to take a young person by the hand and guide them through next steps to education.

The majority of African American students are still first-generation college students. They aren’t always sure what next steps are, and they often need help maneuvering through a system with which their parents have no familiarity. Too many smart students don’t have the parental and societal support, they need to achieve. The United States falls way behind the rest of the world when we don’t value students who have the potential to be high achievers, regardless of race or ethnicity. We further disservice ourselves as a nation when we fail to value those who have the intelligences to change our world.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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