As Jobs Vanish, Where Are Blacks Left?

A luminary-packed panel gathered by Henry Louis Gates Jr. shared insights in Martha's Vineyard.

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From left: panelists Simon, Boushey, Rice, Fryer and Summers (The Root)

(The Root) -- On the evening of Aug. 16 some of the nation's most astute observers of economics and the problems of the urban poor gathered in the idyllic setting of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts 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 in the island's Edgartown section, at the behest of Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, of which The Root's editor-in-chief, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., is the director. Moderated by journalist and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the panel included former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who is also a past president of Harvard University and a former economic adviser to President Obama; David Simon, creator of 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, who is 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 by Gates, the conversation kicked off with the observation by Summers that "We have a problem of failing our children." That set the direction 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, who shared statistics. "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. "If you compare [white and black] 40-year-olds who had the same test scores when they were in eighth grade, the income differences fall from 33 percent to about 1 percent. The differences in unemployment go from about 200 percent difference to about 90 percent … If you do one thing, it would be to figure out how to equalize those eighth-grade test scores."

So what can we all do to bring about change? For all of the panelists, it came down to accountability -- both collective and individual. If ever asked to serve on a jury for a drug-related offense, think hard about the conditions that led to that trial, advised Simon. 

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

Said Rice: 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.

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