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How To Compete When The Playing Field Is Not Level
Posted By: Roger E Madison Jr on May 20, 2015

The history of the African American sojourn in the USA is one of disadvantage.  Brought here as slaves; considered chattel property; emancipated after 300 years; subjected to second class citizenship; faced with constant struggle to achieve equality and justice.  While the constitution of the USA claims a foundation of equality and unalienable rights, this has not been the experience of African Americans.

According to a Pew Research study in 2012, -- Economic Mobility For African Americans May Be A Myth. The research indicates "It is the case that African-American families manage to get to the middle class and they have some sense of economic security, but their ability to pass that on to their kids is not as high as the white families." See Pew Research - Economic Mobility of African Americans.

In a related study, the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard University looks at the upward mobility potential of low-income children, and reaches a similar conclusion - "Where you grow up matters. Equal opportunity is a myth." This study is very relevant to recent events.  Black children are disproportionately poor, and interestingly, Baltimore, MD is at the bottom of the list of counties with a loss of earnings potential. The playing field is not level for poor Black children growing up in Baltimore. See Equality of Opportunity.

We live in a society that claims to be democratic; our "free market" economy is built on the myth of individual achievement and the opportunity to reach one's full potential.  The practical reality of this environment is that we live in a society where the playing field is tilted in favor of those who are descendants of our historical oppressors. As African Americans, our constant reality is that we are always running uphill.

There will be those who say that many African Americans have attained equality, but by every measure, outcomes have been and continue to be less than our white counterparts for the African American population.  From high school dropouts to Ph.D. candidates, the achievements of African Americans lag their white counterparts -- from education, to employment, to home ownership, to wealth.  There is some progress to be sure, but the relative positions remain unchanged from a century ago.  The Civil Rights movement of the 20th century opened doors of opportunity for some African Americans. Yet, Black entrepreneurs have less access to capital and markets to grow their businesses.  Black college graduates - even from Ivy League schools - experience roughly double the unemployment of their white counterparts.  The most glaring disparity is that aggregate Black family wealth is measured to be at 5% of white family wealth. See Wealth Gaps Between Whites-Blacks-Hispanics.

The playing field is not level.  So what advice should be passed along to Black children and young adults about how to navigate this environment? As the Pew study referenced above indicates, it is possible for African Americans to rise from our disadvantaged beginnings to get to the middle class.  However, at that stage, we cannot depend on the government or other well-meaning people to facilitate our continued upward mobility, especially as it regards what we pass on to our children. Developing a legacy of wealth and upward mobility is a challenge we must accept and advance for ourselves. 

Some of us have lived and traveled this route. While our outcomes may lag, the road traveled has taught us some lessons that can be passed along.  The path is still uphill, and strewn with barriers, obstacles, and people who will resist our progress. This is more than a wealth-building strategy. It is more a battle strategy to deal with the struggle we face every day to achieve positive outcomes. This is my experience. Here are 10 lessons I have learned over the past 50 years.


How To Compete When The Playing Field Is Not Level

1. Start with an honest assessment about your competitiveness -- In most cases you are behind the curve with a lower quality education, fewer resources, limited connections, bias against you, historic and systemic barriers to your progress. Don't ignore the reality of this starting position.

2. Education -- There is no substitute for a good education. A post-secondary education is a necessity. Become a continuous learner. Lifelong learning is NOT a cliché. Every day you wake up without learning something new, the competition moves farther ahead of you.  Education offers no guarantees, but a quality education is the ticket to admission to the game. We live in the Information Age. Knowledge is growing at an increasingly rapid pace.  You must be an active learner to keep up.

3. Preparation -- You must be better prepared than the competition to overcome your disadvantages. Understand what you must do to prepare.  Find out as much as you can about the arena you are competing in. There is no time to relax. My grandparents told me, "You have to be twice as good to be considered equal."  When your competition has a 300 year head start, you have to be better prepared to catch up and excel.

4. Networking -- Develop a competitive network. Look specifically for supporters who can help you achieve your goals.  Take the initiative to identify what help you need. Success comes to those who seek and learn from their mentors. Don't wait for a mentor to find you. Be prepared to disconnect from those who are a hindrance.

5. Self-Esteem -- Be honest about who you are and how you are positioned.  Understand your history. Identify the gaps. Develop confidence about what you have achieved. Don't indulge in hype. False bravado is just as bad as feeling inferior, and may hinder your progress.  Do everything you can to be able to say with confidence, "I'm Black and I'm proud."

6. Be willing to work harder - BECAUSE THE PLAYING FIELD IS NOT LEVEL.  As an adult, you can overcome many of the disadvantages of your childhood. Don't waste time complaining. Get busy and do the extra work to overcome a poor start. You may begin at less than an optimum starting point, but you must still prove your value.  Those in positions of privilege won't concede their positions out of the kindness of their hearts. You have to gain respect the old fashioned way.  You have to earn it.

7. Support policy makers and change agents with your votes and money. Become an advocate for change. THE BEST ADVOCACY FOR CHANGE IS YOUR HARD WORK.

8. Advance your struggle for improved outcomes with your job performance. You are not being paid to be a CIVIL RIGHTS CHAMPION. Decide what battles you want to fight, and which battles you are willing to lose everything to win, or if your strategy is to survive to fight another day.

9. Cultivate a strong family and community support system to provide a focus on what is important in your life. Your journey is a long term effort.  You need good support resources to sustain your focus on what is important.

10. Finally, enjoy your victories, and share your success with others. As you make progress, understand that you can't win this war alone.  Don't let frustration limit your enjoyment of what you have achieved. Pay it forward to your children. Become a mentor to the next generation.

The ultimate goal of our efforts is to make our dreams a part of the American dream. Yes, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "America has given the **** people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."  We must continually demand payment in full, even while we compete on a playing field that is not level.

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