Young, Gifted, Black & Shackled by Debt: Why Representation without Power is Not Enough
Last month, when Black Panther won outstanding performance by an ensemble in a motion picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the film’s star, Chadwick Boseman, framed his success as an example of being “young, gifted and black.” The now famous line comes from Nina Simone’s 1969 song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Simone was inspired by the work of her late friend and famous playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. Four years after Hansberry’s death, Simone composed the song and Weldon Irvine wrote the lyrics.
To be young, gifted and black,
Oh what a lovely precious dream
To be young, gifted and black,
Open your heart to what I mean
In the whole world you know
There are billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black,
And that's a fact!
Young, gifted and black
We must begin to tell our young
There's a world waiting for you
This is a quest that's just begun
When you feel really low
Yeah, there's a great truth you should know
When you're young, gifted and black
Your soul's intact
Young, gifted and black
How I long to know the truth
There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth
Oh but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gifted and black
Is where it's at
The song quickly became an anthem for young black activists. Highly aware of the physical, cultural, social and psychological threats that surrounded them, these activists embraced a vision of a black future full of potential. Today, the song is often invoked during moments that reflect black excellence as a sort of fulfillment of that dream. It is this latter part that I wish to question, however.
Undoubtedly, we are living in an era of unprecedented black achievement. Our incomes are higher, our educational achievement is higher and our positive representation (meaning not overtly racist or stereotypical) in film and television is greater than ever. The recent success of films like Black Panther, or television shows like Blackish, attest to this. Yet, for all the celebration of racial representation in America, can we really say that this signifies black excellence?
If, by excellence, we mean visual representation, then the answer is yes. However, if we measure black excellence in terms of equity, then the answer is unequivocally no. Just over a year go, The Washington Post published an article titled, “No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years.” The article details the Economic Policy Institute's comparison of black American life today versus in 1968, when the Kerner Commission report came out. The EPI found that, despite what appears to be significant growth in black income and achievement, relatively little has changed over the last half century for black Americans’ economic position in the U.S. Homeownership rates - a key factor in wealth accumulation - have remained the same. In some ways, black Americans are worse off today than in 1968. Black unemployment is higher today, as is black incarceration. The racial wealth gap between black and white Americans has tripled. Today, black families have just 5% of the wealth of their white counterparts. Even more interesting though, is that, when surveyed, most Americans estimated this gap to be much smaller. As shown below, the public perception is that black families have 85% of the wealth of white families. It is this disparity between perception and reality that fuels narratives of racial progress.
While I, like others, celebrate and root for black people, the reality of black economic disenfranchisement reveals that narratives of black excellence do more harm than good. Rather than “uplift the race,” these narratives perpetuate the myth of racial progress when, in reality, racial disparities, specifically economic ones, are only increasing exponentially.
So, what does it really look like to be “young, gifted and black today?” A 2016 study titled, “Young, Black, and (Still) in the Red,” found that even for those black young adults who manage to earn a postsecondary degree, they are disproportionately more in debt than their white counterparts. In fact, black graduates reported having approximately 33 % more student debt than white graduates. The study also notes that this sample includes more affluent black Americans, with household incomes around $67k and an average parental wealth that is 25% of that of their white counterparts (compared to the 5% national average for black Americans), and that the racial wealth disparity among lower income black graduates was undoubtedly higher. The study concludes by finding that “parents’ wealth, while largely protective of indebtedness among whites, is not associated with debt among black youth. As such, the black–white disparity in debt is greatest at the highest levels of parents’ net worth.” What this translates to is “that student loan debt is a new mechanism by which social and economic inequalities by race are reproduced across generations.”
So, even among black Americans who manage to become highly educated and obtain good paying jobs, the racial wealth gap makes economic equality a perpetual impossibility, while downward mobility is much more of a certainty. This study’s findings resonate with me personally as a black Ph.D. holder whose educational and professional achievement is often praised as an example of black excellence. Yet, just like the participants mentioned in the study above, my achievement has meant very little in terms of economic equality.
The reality of the racial wealth gap does not just impact my economic prospects either. A few months ago, 24/7 Wall St published a list of the worst cities for black Americans to live in. My hometown, Minneapolis, was listed as number 4. A large part of their methodology involved racialized socioeconomic disparities. The fact that in the Twin Cities black homeownership rates are ⅓ of white homeownership rates, black median incomes are just over 40% of white median incomes and black unemployment is 3x that of white unemployment explains this ranking to some degree. However, what is not written or captured in these statistics is the experience of being racialized as “young, poor and black.”
Regardless of how hard one may try to perform middle-class belonging, or the kind of educational and professional achievement that is the hallmark of black excellence, being black in America, especially in cities like my hometown, is synonymous with being “urban,” “poor” and “ghetto.” The point is, these statistics correlate to cultural perceptions of blackness that shape the lives of people like me, regardless of how well we play America’s game of so-called meritocracy. As long as these racialized economic, cultural and social disparities remain unaddressed, there can never truly be black excellence in America.
About the author: Dr. Yelena Bailey is a writer, researcher and educator working in the field of cultural studies. When she is not writing about popular culture, she enjoys spending time with her miniature schnauzer.