Black America: a reality check | Unfinished
By Rogette Harris
I recently looked at some old photos and came across my kindergarten graduation photo. When you are that age you are told that all you need to do is be good, get out of trouble, work hard, and the world is yours. Our parents, ministers, teachers, politicians like President Obama tell us. Life, however, teaches us differently.
We don’t all start on the same starting line and who we are often determines what opportunities we also have access to and what obstacles we face. This is especially true for black women as we deal with the intersectionality of sexism and racism. The current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the disparities in employment and wages in the United States.
From childhood, black children are told that we have to work twice as hard to get half of what whites get. However, when looking for a job, sometimes even this is not enough. When you have the experience, then you are told that you do not have the education. When you have the education, then it is the experience that you don’t have. When you have the experience AND the education then you are not a good cultural fit.
I remember a job interview where a panel of three white women, who had less education and experience than me, told me that their main priority was to hire someone who could get along with different types of people and be a good cultural fit. While it is now all the rage for companies to hire a diversity manager and pretend they are striving for diversity and inclusion to help diversify their homogeneous workforce, the phrase ‘cultural fit’ is. often used by interviewers to reject applicants. He has become the embodiment of an unconscious bias.
It is well documented that even when they are more educated, black women earn less money from work, entrepreneurship and venture capital. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, at our current rate of progress, Black women will not receive full pay equity compared to white males until 2119. That’s almost a hundred years away. In comparison, white women will achieve salary equity with white men around 2055.
Black women are the most educated demographic in the United States when you look at the number of degrees obtained. However, for several reasons, our education levels and the financial rewards we receive do not match, especially in the business world. The toll that the job search has on black women can be daunting.
Sly Stone, a legendary black musician from the 1960s, once wrote a hit with the chorus, “Thank you for letting me be myself.” It’s a fun song to sing, but harder to live with for many black people. For much of American history, black people have and continue to struggle under what some call the “white gaze,” which means looking at the world through the eyes of anxious and racist whites.
Living under the white gaze is exhausting. Always mindful of this they or they can think, what they or they can do, how they or they may react if your subjects and verbs disagree – or if they catch you eating fried chicken.
It is rare but pleasant to see black achievements when they occur, indifferent to white gaze. Not to be arrested, killed or dismissed from a job for not “knowing your place”. To applaud.
Most, if not all, white Americans have long accepted the humanity of blacks when they perform. Entertainment and sports are two areas, with black being accepted. The problem comes when black is not performing well. When we not only want to patronize a business, but own it. When you want to be president of a company, or even run for office. Both political parties need more financial support for candidates of color – not just coming to our churches, marches and communities during election time. These are some of the areas in which we are viewed with suspicion as if we do not belong to ourselves.
However, it is up to us to start mandating our Blackness on other stages. We can do more than sing, dance and run. Not all black Americans are in jail and / or need pardon. We don’t all live in urban areas, and it’s time our voices were heard and recognized.
Discrimination is still very much present in the United States, even as an elite layer of the black population has integrated into the mainstream. Jim Crow is still alive and well – just in a different form, and the planning that we are living on now is in mental form. All of the positive changes since the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s have yet to be realized, and being a person of color is still considered a birth defect in many sectors of American society.
I, along with other black college graduates, have done and continue to do everything our professors, alumni network, and career posts said we should be doing, but for some reason there was still a problem.
I now know that there were elements that are and continue to be beyond my control. This is unfair, but unfortunately it is also the reality. For my career-seeking black colleagues, you don’t have to feel alone or that the problem is you. It is not you, but the society and the structure in which we live.
Sometimes it’s not in your hands, but that’s no reason to give up. SO, NO!
Rogette Harris, MPA, MBA, is a political analyst and member of the editorial board of PennLive and The Patriot-News.