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As jobs vanish, where are blacks left?

Sheryl Huggins Salomon

Some of the nation’s most astute observers of economics and the problems of the urban poor gathered last week in Martha’s Vineyard to discuss one of the most pressing problems facing the black community: What happens when jobs disappear?

They convened for the annual Hutchins Forum at the Old Whaling Church at the behest of Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, and its director, The Root’s editor-in-chief, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Moderated by journalist and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the panel included former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, a past president of Harvard University and a former economic adviser to President Obama; David Simon, creator of TV shows “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire”; economist and education researcher Roland G. Fryer Jr.; Constance L. Rice, co-director of the Advancement Project; and Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress.

More than 200 people, including scholar Lani Guinier and “The Wire” actors Wendell Pierce, Sonja Sohn and Andre Royo, packed into the sweltering church to hear the discussion. Following opening remarks with Gates, the conversation kicked off by Summers’ observation that “We have a problem of failing our children.” That set the tone of a discussion that focused heavily on education and the effects of the war on drugs on poor communities.

“We are absolutely wasting away our most precious resource, which is our children K-12,” said Fryer. “There is not a city in America where more than 25 percent of black and Hispanic [eighth-graders] can read or do math at grade level. To me, that’s an absolute crisis.”

“Now that work has changed and there’s a premium on skills, and we’re leaving our most disadvantaged and vulnerable kids behind, you see the [achievement] gaps,” Fryer also said, explaining that it’s important to focus on closing the education achievement gap by the time students make it to the eighth grade.

Simon galvanized the conversation with what he admitted to be a darker, more draconian view of the problem, drawn on years of experience as a Baltimore Sun reporter.

“Joblessness is here to stay unless we rebel, because there’s no economic incentive to get rid of it,” Simon said.

In his view, those who control the capital in this country would rather monetize the poor by making money off of their incarceration via the war on drugs than investing in educating the poor so that they can get jobs.

“Until we accept the fact that there is no economic incentive to do all these worthy things – it’s right to value every eighth-grader, but there’s no money in it, and there’s no profit in it. And until we rebel against the notion of that metric [of profitability], it’s over, and the cost is going to be our republic.”

So what can we do to bring about change? For all of the panelists, it came down to accountability — both collective and individual.

Fryer suggested visiting a low-performing school to understand the conditions that are leading to our children’s under-education.

Constance L. Rice, co-director of the Advancement Project said, “Don’t forget to hold your elected officials accountable for the policies they vote into law.”

Sheryl Huggins Salomon is managing editor of The Root.