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Whether the American economic system discriminates against minorities is a matter for debate in some circles. What is clear is that one-in-four African Americans currently lives in poverty, compared to only one-in-ten white Americans. We explore how learning about African American economic successes may help non-white Americans more successfully navigate today’s economic landscape.
- Julianne Malveaux Economist; President, Bennett College; and author of "Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History" (Last Word Productions)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrank McWorter was an unusual man, born into slavery in 1777. He purchased his own freedom and eventually that of 16 family members. People started calling him Free Frank. And he went on to found the first African-American town, New Philadelphia, Ill., in 1836. He's one of many black entrepreneurs whose story is told in a new book by Dr. Julianne Malveaux, the president of Bennett College for Women. Her goal, to remind us of the contributions of African-Americans that have made it -- made those kinds of contributions to our economy and to provide a bit of encouragement to people who have been hit hard by our economic downturn.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJulianne Malveaux joins us now in studio to talk about the history, the present and the future of African-Americans in our economy. The new book is called "Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History." Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College. Dr. Malveaux, good to see you again.
MS. JULIANNE MALVEAUXGood to be here, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDITell us a little bit more about Free Frank.
MALVEAUXJust a tremendous brother. He was a craftsman, you know? When people were enslaved, they were -- they had Sundays off...
MALVEAUX...so that the slave masters could proselytize to the Bible on Sundays. But those who were especially entrepreneurial used those days to work on their own. Often, they cut a deal with their masters. And to cut a deal with your master, you just get a little paranoid because how do you cut a deal with master in the same time that you have a Dred Scott decision that says that blacks have no rights...
MALVEAUX...that whites are bound to respect. But many folks cut deals and said, okay, if I work on Sundays, I can keep my wages or I'll split my wages with you, or I'll use my wages to purchase my own freedom.
MALVEAUXAnd again, that's one of those (makes noise) moments. How do you purchase or how do you buy yourself?
MALVEAUXBut that's -- that was what Free Frank did. So he was a craftsman. And he used his Sundays to accumulate dollars. Of course, in the course of attempting to do that, as he walked from one place to another, he hooked up with a sister. So they marry, jumped the broom. So she became pregnant. So before he can even get his own freedom, he had to try to work on the freedom of his wife and of his child, and the story goes on. But you know, Kojo, there's another brother, John Parker, who I just adore. I wish I could have ever met this man. You take a little Jesse and little Farrakhan and sort of wrap it up. (laugh) And this man bought himself at age 18. But he cut a deal with someone to buy him so he can buy himself back. Now, this is supposed to just totally wreck you brain.
NNAMDIYes, it does.
MALVEAUXHow do you even begin to do that? At age 18, he purchased himself and he moved to the Kentucky-Ohio border.
MALVEAUXThis brother was so bad. He would go on other people's plantations and say, come on, you all. Let's just leave. He's responsible for the freedom of at least 900 people. There was a price on his head. He made and lost several fortunes. He was an inventor. But he just, you know, he just believed in freedom. The scene in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," where Eliza is going across the ice...
MALVEAUX...is based on a true story based on John Parker. So if...
MALVEAUX...folks are listening in Cincinnati or are going to Cincinnati, the Underground Railroad museum has this movie about him. You're just like (makes noise). (laugh) It just -- it takes your breath away.
NNAMDIWell, look, you're a Ph.D. in economics from MIT. What do you learn from a story about this Parker?
MALVEAUXWhat do you think I learned? Well...
NNAMDIWhat do you take away from these stories, period.
MALVEAUXJust upliftment. And also, when you're looking at an economy like the economy now, where the unemployment rate is 9 percent, where the unemployment rate for African-Americans is 15.8 percent and where lots of people are saying I can't play the game, these folks played when the game was even more rigged than it is now. When I deal with the 750 students that we have at Bennett College for Women and look at the array of economic circumstances that my students and their parents experienced, what I want to say to black folks is that we can never give up, is that we really can never give up. Lots of times, the temptations are there. I met with a young lady yesterday who's thinking of dropping out because of money reasons. And I'm like, look, you got to send some more applications to the United Negro College Fund because, you know, you're a B-plus student and you can't give up.
MALVEAUXAnd it gives me motivation because I've got to raise dollars for scholarships for these young people, but get back out there, get back out there, get back out there. The stories, Kojo, are not just entrepreneurial stories. There are lots of stories about entrepreneurship, about freeing yourself, but there are also stories of activism and how activists made a difference in the economic story, because economics is like, what? Who gets what, when, where and why, how you slice the pie. And so people have made a difference in pie slicing. You know, the National Urban League has made a difference. So...
MALVEAUX...you know, so many of our organizations, the tenant unions, the Emergency Land Fund, which documented our lost of land. Long before the Shirley Sherrod story or even the lawsuit of black farmers, we had African-American people who are documenting land loss in our community and seeing how so many people had their land ripped off. Indeed, I dedicate the book to my own family. We had the moving fence in the Hawkins family. We went to bed one night at Moss Point, Miss., woke up...
NNAMDII was about to say your family was originally from Mississippi.
MALVEAUXYeah, Moss Point, Miss. And went to bed one night and woke up the next day and we had access -- sole access to a bayou area, where there was fishing and all that. And people were very envious of that. And so it became public land.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Dr. Julianne Malveaux. She's president of Bennett College for Women and author of the book, "Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History." Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Why, in your view, are African-Americans and Latinos disproportionally affected by the economy in general and by the downturn in the economy in particular? 800-433-8850. You tell the stories of women like Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Ellen Pleasant. At the same time today, we have stories that you tell in your book. We have new data from the Economic Policy Institute predicting that African-American unemployment will reach a 25-year high this year. Why, in your view, have African-Americans in particular been so adversely affected by this downturn?
MALVEAUXThe downturn has hit those who are the most vulnerable. And those who are the most vulnerable either have less education, as many African-Americans do on average, less education, have been in more volatile professions, and in some cases, have less to fall back on. Many of those who are -- have lost jobs are not technically unemployed, because they've gone on to do entrepreneurship. But when you don't have the dollars, you're not really doing that. So the African-American community, frankly, is even more vulnerable. You -- when you posed a question to your audience, you said African-American and Latinos.
MALVEAUXLatinos have a bigger toehold in entrepreneurship than African-Americans, owning more businesses with business that grows more. So we were just very much more vulnerable.
NNAMDIAnd I'm glad you mentioned much more vulnerable, because a recent study about the wealth gap released by researchers at Brandeis University's Institute on Assets and Social Policy says, quoting here, "By 2007, the average middle-income white household that accumulated $74,000 in wealth, an increase of $55,000 over a 23-year-old -- 23-year period, while the average high-income African-American family owned $18,000, a drop of $7,000. That resulted in a wealth gap of $56,000 for an African-American family that earned more than $50,000 in 1984 compared to a white family earning about $30,000 in that same year." You have written in this book, to be sure the dice are loaded, the game is rigged and absent reparations, African-Americans will never catch up. This Brandeis study seems to indicate not only that African-Americans are not catching up, but that we are falling behind.
MALVEAUXAbsolutely. That's -- you know, wealth gap is the essential inequality that exists in this country. We can talk about the income gap. That's been closing. Although, whites earn about 40 percent more than African-Americans. But that gap has closed a bit. The unemployment rate gap, of course, has been two to one for a long time. But the wealth gap, which is intergenerational transmissions of wealth, that just continues to rise. Look at it though, Kojo. Let's say that today, you lose your job. If you own a home, you've got something to fall back on. You've got some savings. You've got some of that. African-Americans are -- 74 percents of whites owned their homes compared to 46 percent of African-Americans. So these folks don't have something to fall back on.
MALVEAUXIf you want to send your child to college and, unfortunately, you say, well, the financial aid isn't there, your material wealth makes a difference in what kind of loan your child can get. I have students whose parents don't own anything, so their credit rating is such that they can't even get access to federal financial aid. So you hear about federal financial aid as if people don't wanna take out a loan. Some of them can't take out loans. So that means that young lady is restricted from coming to college, her income stream then is gonna be less. So the dice are loaded and that, you know, Sarah Palin didn't wanna hear it.
NNAMDIWell, in that case, explain this cultural phenomenon. In a recent survey conducted by The Washington Post, a majority of African-Americans are optimistic about the economy and their own financial prospects, confident that they will do better than their parents do. What do you make of that apparent optimism?
MALVEAUXI applaud the optimism because it allows people to play the game. I think that African-American people because of our faith, because of any number of things tend to be optimistic. And I don't want to lose optimism because when you lose optimism, you know, what did Langston Hughes says, you know, take care of dreams because when dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly. We have to have that optimism, but I fear that much of that optimism is misplaced. When you look at what the real numbers say, it isn't there. But, you know, I...
NNAMDIThat's why I said it's cultural.
MALVEAUXWell, I'll tell you, I have a cousin who -- and I love to tell this story because it's just -- it's our optimism. I have a cousin who is a high school dropout and he's probably in his 50's. And he is always talking about he's gonna do better in life. Now, he has episodically has jobs. But he's always saying he's gonna do better, and I'm like, you know, Tony, why don't you just go get a trade, do something, do something. You're about to retire. And he said, girl, when I hit the lotto.
NNAMDIYeah. Hope springs eternal, yeah.
MALVEAUXNot if I hit the lotto, not if but when I hit the lotto, he says, you’re gonna be hating on me.
NNAMDIHope springs eternal.
MALVEAUXThe last time I talked to him, he said, when I hit the lotto, I'm gonna send your college some money.
NNAMDIWell, we can hope that Tony will send Bennett College some money. It seems there's an inherent tension in your book and in your life between wanting to promote the success of individual African-Americans and needing to critique a system that you feel has really thrown up obstacles in the paths of African-Americans over the centuries. Talk a little bit about that tension, if you would.
MALVEAUXWell, I'm a neo-classically trained economist from MIT, so that means that I was taught capitalism. But I'm basically a homie from the hood in San Francisco who's a former Panther, so basically I was taught how to dismantle capitalism. So that becomes the tension. I applaud those folks who've been able to make the system work for them. And if I'm very honest, I would say that the system has worked for me. At the same time, we understand that the capitalistic system is one that pays people factor payments, and people who wants other people's factor payments can never catch up. In other words, I used to be somebody's wealth, and so I'm never going to be able to catch up with a similarly situated person.
MALVEAUXAnd while that's kind of okay, it's not okay in terms of the way the pie is divided, and looking at -- looking down the road at generations. And so, you know, I think about conversations I've had with folks who are more conservative and they say, well, gee, don't you think the system works. And the answer is no. The answer is no. It works for some people. It doesn't work for everyone. While we wanna celebrate success, we also want to agitate for a system that's more fair.
NNAMDIOur caller, Roy, may take you to how you think the fairer system would operate. Here is Roy calling from Seattle, Wash. Roy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROYYeah. Thank you. Thank you. My question has to do with basically the, I guess, economic nationalism. So it's -- how can we -- and particularly our spokespeople like yourself -- begin to instill, you know, the idea of a stronger -- developing a stronger economic base, to develop prosperous African-American communities as other ethnic groups have and build that on top of the civil rights gains and so on that we've already made?
NNAMDIYou're talking about a multi-faceted problem. I don't know which facet or aspect of it, Julianne Malveaux, will want to address.
MALVEAUXBut I do think that the caller raises a very interesting question. Clearly, economic literacy has been part of the civil rights conversation, especially coming from organizations like the National Urban League, like young John Hope Bryant who's doing some great things with Operation Hope. I do think that economic literacy, economic acumen are important, but I think that at the same time, we have to clearly deal, again, with issues of inequity. It's not one or the other. It's definitely both.
NNAMDIHave to deal with issues of inequity, and to what extent is the story of the black condition in America today, the story of the breakdown of African-American families? It seems to me that we cannot talk about economics without talking about that.
MALVEAUXThat's a really good question, Kojo, especially when you look at the family composition in the African-American community. Certainly, more single mothers heading households than in other communities. Certainly, the fatherlessness that a lot of people talk about being a factor. At the same time, those women who had households are women who are not fairly paid. Those fathers who are absent are fathers who have not had opportunities. The disproportionate incarceration of African-American men is not a function of African-American male criminality as much it's a function of a system that chooses to go after these men. So while I think that the whole issue of family functionality is important, I think that oftentimes it becomes a foil to allow people to ignore economic infrastructure and its inequalities.
NNAMDIWhen you say a system that chooses to go after these men, a lot of people are saying, but these men are committing crimes and violent crimes. Why do you think that the system should ignore them?
MALVEAUXViolent crimes, let's go after. But let's look at drug use and the extent to which drug use has basically decimated many African-American communities and the extent to which passive criminality. You have three joints, ends you up in jail for five years. You have -- I mean, (unintelligible) and some others have been doing great work around the whole crack cocaine, powder cocaine inequality. But, you know, a white guy picking up some powdered cocaine gets a much smaller sentence than a brother with the crack. In addition, the fact that African-American men don't have the cover of their suburban mansions to -- in which they engage in their drug trade means that they're out in the corner, very visible, easily caught.
MALVEAUXIn 1995, which I know was 15 years ago, but still in 1995, not one white person, nary a one, as we say in Mississippi, not one white person was convicted of federal drug possession. Not one. Now you have to tell -- in Los Angeles, now you have to tell me L.A., I mean, let's not call the roll of all the people we know in L.A. who have drug possession. But they chose not to go after whites. They went after street boys because it's easier to go after street boys than Charlie Sheen, is that him? Anyway...
NNAMDIHere is Michelle in Silver Spring, Md. Michelle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHELLEHi. Yes. I was curious about the comment about reparation. If reparation is one of the ways to genuinely close that economic disparity gap between African-Americans and the white population, what does that look like? What would a reparations plan entail?
MALVEAUXGreat question. Lots of people have studied it starting with a preacher in America who's been writing about it since the 1970s. Array of plans, you could go individual, you could go community. I would say go community. I would say dollars to institutions. I would say a generation at least of any African-American who want to go college, having a free college, perhaps subsidize mortgage rate, some of the things, you know, you're not gonna give someone cash and say go Disneyland, but you basically would say there are ways we can prove that you can catch up and you won't have to go into debt.
NNAMDIAnd it would be the result of a long conversation, Michelle. Thank you very much for your call, but that conversation has to begin, I guess, with an acknowledgement of reparations in the first place, and we haven't gotten there yet.
MALVEAUXAnd we don't even have H.R. 40, which John Conyers introduced in 19, I believe, '88, again now, 20-some years ago, which simply asked for a study of the impact of slavery on the African-American community has yet to be passed. You can't even get the whole Congressional Black Caucus to line up for a simple study, a simple study. I don't know what people are afraid of. But when you say enslavement, when you say reparations, when you talk about inequality, even when you talk about race, even in the so-called post-racial Obama era, people start cringing and, oh, you're a racist. I got a letter yesterday from someone who said, why do you always say black. Can't you just say American? No. Why are you sending me a crazy letter with a stamp on it? It wasn't even an e-mail.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Dr. Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women, author of the book "Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History." A fact today.
NNAMDIAll year long. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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