African-American men and economic success

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Tuesday July 17th, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It.

Filling in for Mary Reichard, I’m Megan Basham. Good morning!

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Good morning to you, Megan.

BASHAM: Thanks. I’ve been looking forward to filling in for Mary. This’ll be fun.

EICHER: It will be.

Well, first up on The World and Everything in It: African-American men and economic success.

Most mainstream media news reports about black men follow a highly negative narrative: deadly encounters with police, high incarceration rates, poverty.

BASHAM: But those stories leave out an important reality: That black men are succeeding at higher rates than ever, with a majority entering the upper and middle classes.

Here now with the details on a new study is WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Jesse Kemp grew up in inner city Los Angeles in the 1960s. His father pastored a church, and he made sure Kemp and his brothers participated in the ministry.

KEMP: We really got involved in his church because he wanted to help the downtrodden, those who were struggling, you know, basically, his church was in the inner city of Los Angeles.

Kemp says besides church, he made good grades and loved sports.

KEMP: I was fortunate enough to excel at football wrestling and track, and when time came for my senior year, uh, basically I could have pretty much named whatever college I wanted to go to, because of either wrestling or football.

Kemp accepted a full ride to play football at Utah State. After a knee injury ended his run at professional football, Kemp married, had seven children and worked at a dairy factory making a comfortable salary. Today, he pastors a church in Ogden, Utah, while his wife works as a health educator.

KEMP: We had a very happy family, you know, and we had all of our needs taken care of and a whole lot of wants taken care of. Life was good, and life is good.

Kemp’s economic success as a black man in America is more common than one might think. That’s according to a new study by the American Enterprise Institute. The study found many black men are experiencing financial success.

Researchers followed more than 800 African-American men born between 1957 and 1964 from childhood to ages 50 and older. Researchers wanted to see how the men fared financially.

Brad Wilcox is one of the report’s authors. He says the results showed black men are largely succeeding.

WILCOX: What we’re finding is it about 57 percent of black men are in that middle third or that upper third when it comes to households in America.

In other words, more than one in two black men are in America’s middle and upper classes today. That’s up from 38 percent in 1960. Even more positive? The share of black men who are poor has fallen from 41 percent in 1960 to 18 percent today.

The report also looked for common characteristics between these middle- and upper-class black men. Besides education, researchers found three main “engines” contributing to their success: marriage, the black church and the military.  

WILCOX: Marriage of course also tends to make men become more responsible and oftentimes do better at work, but also kind of be more likely to be saving or buying a house and things like that. I think church-going tends to reinforce both kind of marriage and work….with the military, it provides people with real skills and some experience, the responsibility, loyalty, etc.

Some of these engines can be seen working in the lives of both Jesse Kemp and D.J. Jordan.

JORDAN: My name is D.J. Jordan. I am 40 years old. I have four children, and I’m married, and I live in northern Virginia.

Jordan is one of five black senior staffers in the U.S. Senate. He grew up in a Christian home and has a masters degree from Johns Hopkins University. Although he didn’t join the military…

JORDAN: My extended family, cousins, uncles in law’s, brother-in-law, uh, lots of men served in the military, and that was a big catalyst for their success.

Jordan says he sees many of his peers succeeding.

JORDAN: It wasn’t a big surprise to me, believe it or not, when I saw that data, um, because I’ve seen it in my community. It’s very, very important that data like that and the good stories about what black men are doing get out more in our society, because it will change perception culturally. Um, it will definitely change even on down to the local communities.

Despite their increasing success, black men still face inequality in the workplace. A different study conducted earlier this year by Harvard and Stanford researchers found black boys raised even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds.

Wilcox’s study found reforming the criminal justice system is critical to closing the income gap between white and black men. Only 28 percent of black men who had contact with the criminal justice system when they were young moved into the middle or upper class by midlife. That’s compared with 52 percent of black men who avoided contact with the system.

WILCOX: We need to continually think about ways to reduce racial profiling in the criminal justice system. And what we see in the research is that black men tend to be charged more for similar issues compared to white men.

Both Kemp and Jordan said they’ve been racially profiled. But Jordan says studies like this one and his peers’ success give him hope.

JORDAN: I believe because of educational opportunities for more people overall more people are just learning about some of the issues that we have today. The systematic racism still exists, um, especially in certain communities, but things are improving.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Ogden, Utah.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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