Arthur Ashe once said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
Living in America for a lot of black people is hard. It’s very hard. According to the State of Working America in 2010 the poverty threshold in the United States was $22,314 per year for a family of four. That is $10.73 per hour. During that same year 15.1% (46 million Americans) lived at or below the poverty line. African Americans had the highest percentage of poverty at 27.4% and 45.8% of young black children under the age of 6 lived in poverty.
Housing is a direct issue one has to deal with when they have meager incomes. HUD gathers demographic information about tenants receiving assistance, and the most recently published statistics published in African American Policy Forum reflect housing statistics from March 1, 2011-June 30, 2012. According to this data, of those households receiving a Section 8 type of voucher-funded assistance, fifty (50) percent have a White head of household. For the same group of people, forty-five (45) percent have a Black head of household. Asians make up two (2) percent of the group, while Native American and Alaska Natives comprise only one (1) percent. Because the statistics are divided to represent Latinos as an ethnic group, as opposed to a race like other groups, their statistics fall within the other categories. Of the entire group, fifteen (15) percent are Hispanic or Latino.
Another issue in our community that continues to be a hurdle is healthcare. The Affordable Care Act certainly accomplished a great deal in providing insurance to more people. Even with its improvements to access according to the Kaiser Family Foundation the coverage gains under the ACA reduced percentage point differences in uninsured rates between some groups of color and Whites, but disparities persist. As of 2018, most groups of color remained more likely to be uninsured compared to Whites. Moreover, despite the larger coverage increases for groups of color, the relative risk of being uninsured compared to Whites did not improve for some groups. For example, Blacks remained 1.5 times more likely to be uninsured than Whites from 2010 to 2018, and the Hispanic uninsured rate remained over 2.5 times higher than the rate for Whites.
Let’s look at education. US News & World Report reported on February 26th, 2019 that white students get more funding K-12 than black students. In fact according to their report majority black school districts receive $23 billion less in education funding than predominantly white school districts. Public education is tied to property taxes in the vast majority of cases, but even geography plays a huge role. According to the same report some states are bigger offenders that others. Arizona and Oklahoma were the biggest offenders, with nonwhite school districts in Arizona receiving 46 percent, or $7,600, less per student, and 30 percent, or $3,600, less in per-student funding in Oklahoma.
In the age of Coronavirus students across the nation have to attend school and do their homework from home, which requires a computer and internet access. According to the PEW Research Center 25% of black teens said they often or sometimes cannot do homework assignments due to lack of reliable access to a computer or internet connectivity, compared with 13% of white teens and 17% of Hispanic teens. Teens with an annual family income below $30,000 were also more likely to say this than teens with a family income of at least $75,000 a year (24% vs. 9%).
In the same survey, around one-in-ten teens (12%) said they often or sometimes use public Wi-Fi to do schoolwork because they lack a home internet connection. Again, black and lower-income teens were more likely to do this. Roughly one-in-five black teens (21%) said they use public Wi-Fi to do schoolwork due to a lack of home internet connection, compared with 11% of white teens and 9% of Hispanic teens. And around a fifth (21%) of teens with an annual family income under $30,000 reported having to use public Wi-Fi to do homework, compared with 11% of teens in families with a household income of $30,000-$74,999 and just 7% of those living in households earning at least $75,000.
On March 6, 2020 The Zebra published the statistics of car ownership in America by race. Researchers at UC Berkeley found in 2006 black households were much less likely to own a car than were white households, identifying a growing gap between car ownership in white and black households that spanned income levels. 19% of African Americans reported living in a household without access to a vehicle, 4.6% of White Americans reported living in a home without access to a vehicle, and 13.7% of Latino households reported not having access to a vehicle. White Americans comprised 64.7% of U.S. car buyers in 2015. In 2015, Hispanic buyers accounted for 12.2% of U.S. car buyers. That same year, the purchasing power of African- and Asian-Americans combined made up less than 15% of total car buying power in the U.S. If where you live is too far from where you work, shop, or go to school (and you don’t have access to public transportation) there will be opportunities that black people will not have access to compared to other races of people.
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
As a black man I read all of these statistics and the reality of our collective malaise is palpable. The miasma of hopelessness hangs heavy in our community. I didn’t even go into disparate health outcomes, violence, and substance abuse that permeates many in the black community.
Every once in a while my faith is rekindled. Every once in a while I’m reminded of the fact that in your spite of all of these realities, we continue to not only survive but thrive. With one victory at a time we take another step to change our collective future born out of a past filled with pain and despair. Today I read about Lashawn Samuel of Columbus, OH and I remembered that black people can do anything.
Lashawn Samuel was born into a family of poverty, raised by his single mother, and lived in Section 8 housing. He lived in a dangerous part of Columbus, OH. So much so that he lost one of his childhood friends to gang violence. His family couldn’t afford a computer, which didn’t mean much because he didn’t have internet access at home (broadband or otherwise). He got sick and had to be hospitalized as a teenager and I assume that his insurance was the state of Ohio’s CHIP program. In addition he often dealt with hunger. The schools in Columbus aren’t the greatest. In fact ABC Channel 6 News reported that the public school system in Columbus received an “F” from the state of Ohio.
So it looks like we have all of the boxes checked. Lashawn lived in poverty in public housing on a dangerous side of town, had Medicaid for health insurance, attended a substandard public school with no personal computer or internet access at home, and lived in a food desert. This last one is an assumption, but his family didn’t have a car.
I assume this because from the eighth grade through his senior year in high school, Lashawn regularly walked to the Franklinton Branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library that was 1.5 miles away (that is three miles round trip). Once he got to the library, he signed into the Homework Help Center around 3pm, worked until the center closed, and walked back home often after dark.
This young man had every excuse to give up and allow his circumstances to dictate his future, but his inspiration was that quote from Arthur Ashe at the beginning of this article: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
So what did this young man get in return for his hard work and tenacity? During his senior year of high school, Lashawn’s first letter of college acceptance came from the University of Akron, and Lashawn said that he was as happy as if he got into his dream school. As more acceptance letters began to trickle in, Lashawn’s concern changed from getting into college and instead deciding which college to attend. However, once Lashawn was accepted into the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University, his dream school, the decision was made for him. On top of getting accepted at Ohio State, Lashawn soon found out that he was also being offered scholarships that would make it almost free for him to attend school.
We All Have A Choice
I have had conversations with many well intentioned and passionate people over the years about the conditions from which Lashawn and so many others have had to escape. White supremacy, structural racism, socioeconomic inequality, inequitable access to resources, malfunded schools, and all of the other issues that I discuss in this article are unfair. Everyone should be able to live a life where they can realize their potential and live out their dreams. But life isn’t fair. Far from it. Lashawn had the same choice that we all have. We can either convince ourselves that our circumstances are insurmountable and be consumed by them, or we can make up our minds to take our one finite life and take what we want.
I don’t know if there is a collective effort by an invisible cabal of social engineers whose sole reason for being is the maintenance of the social order that makes it more difficult for more black people to realize social mobility. I am sure that if that group does exist, I can think of no greater revenge that Lashawn Samuel, against all odds, should overcome all of the obstacles that were meant to prevent his success. Furthermore, I am convinced that if Lashawn Samuel can succeed that far more young black men can succeed. Right now he’s the exception, but we can make his experience the rule. We can do that because I really do believe that black people can do anything.