Gwendolyn Grant dismisses any notion that we’ve entered a post-racial period since the nation elected and re-elected its first African-American president.
In the last 50 years, black men and women have gained freedoms and risen to civic and business heights that were once unimaginable.
But Grant, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, also sees that civil rights gains are under fire, and the path chiseled through the hard rock of racism is closing, making continued progress in the next 50 years for African-Americans less certain.
Disparities are still stark. Median household income for blacks at $33,223 trails whites by $22,000. During the Great Recession, black home ownership rates plunged and unemployment rates skyrocketed, even for those with college degrees.
“Almost all the economic gains that blacks have made in the last 30 years have been lost in the Great Recession that started in December 2007 and in the anemic recovery that followed since June 2009,” the 2012 Urban League State of Black America report said.
“This means that the size of the black middle class is shrinking, the fruits that come from being in the black middle class are dwindling and the ladders of opportunity for reaching the black middle class are disappearing.”
Economic empowerment has been a vital part of the Urban League since it began in 1910. Helping people hasn’t changed; however, the black population today is more diffused. The black community no longer is bound by legal segregation.
But the dispersal came with a cost. While a range of socio-economic families once lived together, that is largely gone, said Grant, who is among African-American chief executives who have agreed for this column series running through August to assess the civil rights gains of the last 50 years and share insights into the next 50 years. Those blacks who could get out did. People living in poverty mostly remain, with poor schools, poor housing, poor health care and poor futures.
“For the African-American community, what is more than likely is to pass poverty from one generation to the next,” Grant said. Blacks must focus on building wealth and passing it to their children.
Grant, who lives in south Kansas City, sees nothing wrong with people leaving the urban core to pursue the American dream, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. “But to not stay engaged in the lives of others is our sin,” she said.
“We need to do more and a better job of cultivating emerging leaders,” she said. Grant counts herself as the beneficiary of succession planning by her predecessor, William H. Clark, making her the first woman to head the local Urban League.
Today, the league’s Project Leadership helps prepare young people for college and careers.
Young people also must be willing to accept direction. Today’s black youths often see instruction as the start of negotiations.
“We were more pliable, more trainable,” Grant said of baby boom African-Americans. “We did it out of respect for elders.”
Connecting to past
Yet, older African-Americans have a duty to connect youths with the civil rights history so they know achievements came at a high price. Grant said black youths must respect themselves and others to end violence. Their lives must have a 21st century civil rights purpose similar to blacks of the last 50 years.
“Education is still the key,” Grant said. “There is no entitlement mentality.”
Nor should there ever be.
Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board.