THE BLOG

African American Success Factors

05/28/2015 09:06 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

There are many factors that shape what success looks like for African Americans. To begin with, education is a significant factor that dictates who has opportunities. Economic progress plays a huge part in defining the possibilities of what one can do with their education. However, the one factor that is more complex than those two is motivation. Motivation is an immeasurable indicator that doesn't have the same tangible components and makes for significant arguments against the African American community as well as for it.

There's a rich educational tradition in many areas throughout the United States in African American communities. Some of the country's most important African American communities within cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta have had a major impact on our culture as a whole. These cities have continuously seen individuals achieve high levels of success across many fields including academia, entertainment, sports, science, and art. While there are exceptional individuals who achieve at the highest possible levels, these cities also see large swaths of their African American population fall below the poverty line as well as historically attaining lower levels of basic educational fundamentals like reading comprehension.

Education is a key indicator of any community's development and progress, but it has specific implications in African American communities. It dictates economic development and access to other privileges like nutrition, finance management, and career advancement. As important as education is and everyone understands its value, it continues to have a negative impact on African Americans for a number of reasons, but two factors, the educational system and safety, secede all others. 1. Our educational system makes it difficult to improve our schools. As cities struggle and states cut educational budgets, the African American community is hardest hit because of lower incomes and public school districts consistently being unable to make the grade in predominantly African American neighborhoods. 2. What's more important than teachers and quality of the educational system itself is the ability of our children to find enough stability to even concentrate while at school. Statistics show that a child's ability to learn is directly related to their need to be or not be in survival mode in order to learn. Generally speaking, African American students have highly traumatized lives due to a history of violence, hunger, poverty and family situations that have persisted over the last four hundred years. The idea that our youth can achieve under these conditions is questionable and dismissive of the differences in what's happening in the African American community as compared to other communities.

As we proclaim the American Dream, there's an aura that you can get out of difficult situations because you want to. The truth is many of these young people are unable to achieve the type of success being characterized for them because they are simply too hungry, too scared, too cold, and too traumatized even on their best days. There are a select few who can achieve academic success in light of their situation, but the majority of our youth aren't failing because they aren't smart. They are failing because we have been unable to provide their basic need, safety. They are failing because they have to remain in survival mode just to get to school and it continues throughout the day. Do you think that anyone wants to be poor and see their family suffer, generation after generation?

When they can't get beyond their direct living environment, how does the economic progress that the United States has experienced since the end of World War II help them? It doesn't. The progress of the United States over the last seventy five years actually plays against them because we make them believe that they are supposed to achieve in spite of their situation in large part because racism isn't as overt and in their faces. We "make believe" that all men are indeed created equal in everyone's eyes. We ask them to achieve higher standards while the general condition of this generation is economically no better or in many cases worse than their parent's. It seems that the cost of civil rights is the false assumption that institutional and overt racism are no longer factors for education, opportunity and success for African Americans. The United States was critical of South Africa for years for policies of apartheid. However, behind closed doors and often directly in wide open spaces, the United States is still guilty of behaviors that are hypocritical to the stances taken against South Africa.

The point is the progress that we want to profess available to every citizen can be limited by ongoing old fashioned apartheid right here in the United States. When you visit San Francisco, you are given the blatant truth of what it means to live in a society that is exclusive while preaching inclusiveness. San Francisco has one of the world's highest cost of living and is truly a racially diverse city. However, you only need to go into any of the new tech company's offices to find that the number of African Americans who work for these companies is dismally low. There are areas of San Francisco like the Filmore neighborhood that were predominantly African American in the 1960s, but now through "redevelopment" and "rezoning" those areas have been changed forever. Gentrification is real and oppressive to the African American community time and time again. How and why would an area that is developed, need redevelopment when the families are thriving, their neighborhoods are succeeding and businesses are growing? If that isn't enough, the African American community is pushed further and further out of the city in part due to declining year-over-year incomes (when adjusted for inflation). The progress appears to be minimal for the African American community because of specific policies in place that limit who gets the benefits of the country's growth.

While there are thousands of successful African Americans, they are not representative of the at-large community. Capitalism has flawed accounting principals that present the minimal success of a few as reality for everyone. Is it possible to succeed as an African American in the United States? Absolutely. I'm not saying that it isn't possible or that anyone should give up. However, the reality is, the odds are closer related to gambling where the house always wins (or usually wins) than the false reality the media and corporate America profess. Yes, some of the players will make a boat load of money, but more often than not, there's no chance of beating the house.

The first British citizens to settle in the United States were not slaves. They weren't the poorest citizens who just happened to find their way here. The first British families were not forced to live for some two hundred years as uneducated field hands and servants. They didn't have a history of life threatening circumstances on a daily basis that taught them to hate themselves, devastate their language, and take on someone else's identity. The original identity theft was perpetrated by slave owners bringing Africans to the United States. The British came here by choice with a purpose to settle and develop. I recently read an article that tried to compare other ethnicities' success in the U.S. to African American's failures. In my opinion, the plight of those who have "willingly" come to the U.S. can never be compared to any African American's journey.

1. Immigrants and other ethnicities come here in many cases on their own. There may be difficult situations that have forced them to leave their native lands, but they have chosen the United States as their best opportunity. African Americans came here as slaves without the choice. They were slaves longer than they've been free in this country, and if you count up until civil rights, they were slaves for more than 80% of the existence of the US as a country through 2015. "Freedom" is now only working towards fifty years. The kind of "freedom" that is taught in school where you can vote and participate in the direction of a country's future. Keep in mind Apartheid ended just about twenty years ago in South Africa. The U.S. did not pioneer freedom and we're still not there regardless of whether or not we proclaim to be.
2. They have a plan and reason to come here. As African Americans, the plan was for them to suffer eternally as slaves to build a nation. Fortunately, a few people decided that wasn't right. Though the majority continued as long as they could legally.
3. They have a family life that has persisted for hundreds of years and they know how to support their families. African American families were split, killed, and pillaged for hundreds of years to a point where there is not recognition of where one actually came from and there's no way of completely tracing back one's heritage through a lineage of slavery. Even if one could, the damage that slavery did by splitting families and creating an atmosphere of distrust has been cemented like the Hoover dam.
4. For many immigrants, English is their second language. So, why do they succeed? English is also the second language at best for many African Americans because our forefathers were not native English speakers, and slaves were not taught English to communicate. They were taught to take orders. What does that have to do with it? Well, when you have lost your own language and you learn a second language without any reference points and then pass that language down generations, it doesn't translate the same as English from someone who actually speaks the language properly and natively. So, the ESL student has advantages in terms of referencing language to learn a language.

I could probably go on about the differences between minority education, but I think you should understand that the African American's life in the U.S. is not simple.

That leads to motivation. Motivation to change ones condition seems like it would be enough to push people to do more and change their lives, right? Wouldn't you do everything in your power to change your life if you were living in poverty or had a family history of abuse or if your children were hungry? Easier said than done. The previously mentioned education system and lack of economic progress are two of the factors keeping well-intentioned motivated people from making changes in their respective lives. The educational limitations that are enforced on these areas keep many from progressing economically. The lack of progress means that there are people in desperate situations on a daily basis. If you're literally fighting for survival for yourself, how and where do you find the space, energy and time to devote to your family and even yourself to concentrate on doing the right things to improve your condition? You don't in many instances. And yes, every individual is responsible and accountable for their actions.

Motivation is a really difficult factor to judge. Do you think that someone is stealing bread because they aren't motivated? Is it possible that someone who is motivated could make a life altering mistake in the heat of the moment? Marshawn Lynch made a statement, "Try coming where I came from, and then having more money than your family has ever had. See what mistakes you make." The criticism that is so quickly relegated to even successful young African Americans can be unfair without giving a real look into their lives prior to their "success." Motivation alone is not a factor that will break the cycle of poverty and oppression. Motivation is an individual's trait that can propel an individual. As individuals, we can create circumstances for ourselves and singularly change our world. However, changing the world one person at a time has proven to be as hopeless as finding weapons of mass destruction. It really is a community and societal obligation to change the world. Individuals change themselves, but communities change the culture.

The African American community has been damaged to an extent that if Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and Sojourner Truth came back to see what now exists, they wouldn't recognize it. I'm not in favor of going back to "how things used to be" because that wasn't ideal either, but I am in favor of finding a way to bring the community together to go forward. The African American community needs to become the American community. However, institutional racism says that we need to define these communities, place limitations on them, prove that they aren't worthy and put them down, but common sense says that we need to merge them all and build them up as one. For as long as we are defined by the color of our skin, we are unable to be equal. The constructs of race cannot dictate the progress that we make as people unless we continue to recognize those constructs as truth. We need every American to stand up for each other regardless of their skin color. As much as we want to claim that individuals are successful, success is not due to any single individual. Success is a by-product of the support and community in which one lives.