The hidden costs of progress

According to research supported by the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities and the National Institute of Mental Health, Black men, even as they attain greater financial and educational success on average, don’t gain much protection against negative physical and mental health outcomes. The same holds true for black women who while more credentialed than many of their peers, still suffer worse maternal health outcomes and find themselves earning significantly less over the course of their careers than all other subgroups.

The Washington Post notes in an article exploring the growing wealth gap, the historical data reveal that no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households over the past 70 years. The article goes on to say, higher education has long been touted as a ticket to the middle class, but for black Americans that has not been as true as one might hope. The typical black household headed by someone with an advanced degree has less wealth than a white household with only a high school diploma. Wow, talk about a gut punch for idea of “meritocracy”.

Just this past week my wife and I met with a financial advisor to begin our own wealth planning, only to be met with the stark reality of just how far we’re behind. Yet, we’ve done all we were supposed to do. We went to the prestigious (and expensive) schools. We both possess advanced degrees (my wife has 3 degrees to my 2). These degrees were our cost to entry to careers that don’t necessarily really require them, but for *some* reason we needed to prove our worth (*some* equals systemic racism). Like most black professionals, our costs included hefty student loans because we didn’t have college savings or acquired generational wealth to fall back on.

Also like many black professionals, the little we have, has to flow upward and downward as we’re responsible for supporting multiple family members in addition to investing in our own children. Ann Helen Petersen in an article for Vox writes, In the mid-2000s, 36 percent of middle-class Black people had a parent living below the poverty line, as opposed to only 8 percent of the white middle class; according to one 2006 study, Black middle-class Americans are 2.6 times more likely to have a low-income sibling than those in the white middle class.

[As a result, Black professionals] have a higher probability of becoming the primary source for the “reservoir” of stability for their extended family — which in turn makes it more difficult to save, or invest, or set up the financial infrastructure that will ensure that you won’t need help from your children later in life.

For all the talk about us being ahead, it sure doesn’t feel like it, at least economically. Apparently we’re not alone, the same article paints a picture of the mirage of the black middle class as a reminder of how precarious our position really is.

All of which brings me to a real question I’ve been pondering lately… what is the real cost of economic achievement for us, and is it worth it? For those who have bought into the myth of meritocracy, which suggests that we get what we earn, it means essentially ignoring the hundreds of years of built in systemic racial advantages afforded to white folks. I grew up hearing, along with many other black kids, you’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as much as them. As it turns out, the statistics bear that out (in addition to our lived experiences), yet I’m now left wondering… is it worth it, especially since the game is rigged anyway?

Truly, for all the hoops I’ve had to jump through to achieve some modicum of economic success, I’m starting to see the toll it’s taken. I assumed I had no other choice but to endure years of emotional trauma as the only black kid in all my classes just so that I could get into a prestigious PWI (predominantly white institution).

Through black mentorship programs like Inroads and others, I was taught the importance of code switching and how to navigate various white hierarchical systems in order to get promoted. This was for my protection and advancement, and for many of us, it worked. We got the job, the door was opened, because we learned to make ourselves less threatening, more accommodating, we learned how to fit in. But it also taught us to dim our lights, and that has taken years of unlearning for me.

As a parent there are the costs of finding the “right” which can sometimes be code for “white” educational environments for my black girls to thrive in so that they have access and economic opportunities like their affluent peers. All of this comes at a cost. And for too long, we’ve just assumed it was a price we had to pay, our fee for entrance into economic success. I’m working to create the space for my girls to define their own economic success, but that becomes more and more difficult the older they get because of the exploding messaging about what it means to be successful in general.

It’s one of the reasons why my wife and I have started talking candidly with our daughters about our own definition of success, and how it’s evolved over time as we’ve grown. Central to that conversation is an understanding of what we’re willing to pay to achieve anything.

So here are a few questions I’ve started asking myself as I pursue my own carefully defined definition of success, rooted in what I most value.

☐ What does success look like for me, my family, and my relationships?

☐ What’s the cost to my mental, emotional, and physical health?

☐ How will this impact my time, energy, and resources?

I don’t want to look up a decade or two from now to find myself still grinding in a rat race that I never even consciously chose. After all, it’s clear that the game is rigged anyway. I might as well learn to play on my own terms.



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