Slump sets back black progress Economic downturn widens the income gap

May 16, 1991|By Wiley Hall 3rd

In 1986, the Rand Corporation issued a generally upbeat report on the economic status of middle-class black America: "Closing the Gap: Forty Years of Economic Progress for Blacks".

Acknowledging that 20 percent of the black community was being left behind in poverty, researchers nevertheless found the growth of the black middle class cause for celebration:

*They found that the wage gap between blacks and whites had narrowed significantly since the 1940s.

*They found that the past 40 years had seen a dramatic growth in the percentage of blacks who belong to the middle class, and that the chances of a black man joining what they called the country's "economic elite" had increased tenfold.

*And they found that the black professional and managerial class -- primarily because of affirmative action legislation -- had grown to the point that it constituted a "new black economic leadership" consisting of "fully a fifth of all black men."

"For the first time," exulted the authors, "many blacks now have the financial ability to secure the American dream for their children."

But now we skip ahead five years to a conference room in Baltimore. The economy has nose-dived. And Leonard Cornish of the Baltimore Urban League is telling a story.

"Things aren't like they were five, 10 years ago," he said grimly. Around him are 15 black professionals from a variety of fields, called together for a round-table discussion on the effect the economic downturn has had on black professionals.

"The economy has changed," Mr. Cornish continued. "Suddenly we're seeing a whole new breed of people out on the streets looking for work. People with master's degrees, double master's degrees, Ph.D.s. People with credentials down to here and they can't find work.

"They're desperate," said Mr. Cornish. "They're out of money. They can't find jobs. And where are they going to go? There's no place to go."

Mr. Cornish paused.

"And as counselors, we have to make people understand that these layoffs are permanent, not temporary," he said. "The downsizing of the 1980s was really about right-sizing. Companies are cutting away to where they should be. In the 1990s, there aren't going to be any call-backs."

A grim picture, but not particularly surprising.

In its "State of Black America" report for 1991, for instance, the National Urban League reported that the income gap between blacks and whites has widened in recent years, reversing the previous four decades' progress.

More ominously, the Urban League warned that the national will to achieve racial parity in America has waned over the past decade.

All of these factors, coupled with the economic downturn, has darkened what had once seen a rosy future.

"We used to say blacks were the last hired and first fired," said Barbara Hamm, an executive producer at WJZ-TV. "Unfortunately, that is still very true."

"One of the things we have traditionally responded to was EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity programs] and affirmative action," said Dorothy Brunson, the chief executive officer of Brunson Communications.

"But in the 1990s, where we're looking at lean and mean, that corporate attitude to bring blacks in no longer exists."

The professionals at the round table represented a range of disciplines and perspectives: There were financial analysts, corporate executives and business entrepreneurs. There also were representatives of government agencies and social service organizations.

There was a tendency among members of the group to defend their own turf, yet a consensus emerged -- both about the problem and the solution.

The problem, as Ms. Hamm noted, is that even black professionals with impeccable credentials are falling prey to the "last hired, first fired" syndrome that once plagued blacks in the blue collar field.

The solution, they agreed, is for professionals to be more creative and more flexible in their approach to careers -- what some called an "entrepreneurial spirit" to life.

"We've got to change our mind-set," added Ms. Brunson. "Until that changes, there is going to be massive black unemployment."

"It's a matter of changing our approach from getting a job to creating wealth," said Stanley Tucker, of the Maryland Small Business Development Fund Administration. "Let's learn to make entrepreneurship a prominent option for young people as well as for older professionals, whereas before, it may not have been a prominent option. The mind-set we are talking about means realizing that you're not just stuck in one 9-to-5 job."

Added Rod Armstrong, of Equitable Financial Services: "We're talking about being more creative in the ways we use our skills and training. Looking for alternatives. Looking for ways of creating additional income, even when we have a job."

Participants offered anecdotes of acquaintances and colleagues who had lost jobs in their chosen field, only to discover unexpected opportunities elsewhere.

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