Achieving Black Economic Equity
A PURPOSE-BUILT CALL TO ACTION
Our Action Plan
Eliminating the economic barriers facing Black Americans will require bold, race-conscious solutions.
In this framework, we focus closely on the persistent challenges that many Black Americans experience throughout their education and working lives, starting as young teenagers first exploring job opportunities and continuing as adults seeking careers that can propel them to the middle class. Through research, analysis, interviews with Black learners and workers, and guidance from our advisory council of Black leaders, we have developed recommendations to promote the economic advancement of Black Americans today and in the ever-changing economy of the future.
Eliminating the economic barriers facing Black Americans will require bold, race-conscious solutions that touch every facet of U.S. society. The economic reality for Black Americans today is shaped by systemic racism that affects their lives long before they enter kindergarten, let alone prepare to move on to higher education, vocational training, and the labor market. That reality includes barriers in areas ranging from health care to housing, child care, and early childhood education. We stand with the dozens of strong actors that are working to address these challenges, from national advocacy groups and think tanks to local and regional service providers, as well as countless grassroots efforts across the country.
We are leveraging JFF’s nearly 40 years of education and workforce development expertise to dismantle the structural, systemic, and institutional barriers that have limited Black career advancement. We will augment this work through partnerships that address other multiple and interlocking issues that have cemented Black disadvantage in our society. Our allies will be stakeholders across the learn-and-work ecosystem and beyond—both longtime partners and new players, including employers, educators, training providers, policymakers, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, technology companies, and leaders of both national and local nonprofit organizations.
About This Call to Action
Black Americans today face a harsh economic reality—most are born at a disadvantage in the pursuit of economic equity and face nearly impossible odds to catch up. The structural racism that was created hundreds of years ago to reserve economic success for white people still permeates U.S. society and perpetuates deep and unacceptable inequities.
At JFF, as part of our mission to drive economic advancement for all, we have redoubled our commitment to achieving racial economic equity, with a particular focus on Black learners and workers. No longer can we settle for incremental change that fails to ease the systemic injustice that has persisted for generations. We seek to create a society where race is no longer a determinant of educational and economic outcomes. And we call on the entire learn-and-work ecosystem—as well as new partners from other sectors—to join with us and push toward equity for Black Americans.
For decades, JFF and other organizations have been working to advance equal opportunity in education and the workforce for people of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Despite some strides in Black educational attainment, these broad efforts haven’t gone far enough to improve economic outcomes for Black learners and workers. The evidence speaks for itself:
The Black unemployment rate has been twice as high as the white unemployment rate for 50 years across all education levels.
Black workers with in-demand skills and educational credentials can’t fully leverage them for economic advancement because of pervasive racism in the labor market.
The ongoing health and economic crises arising from the COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated these inequalities. And while protests over police violence against Black people following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 spurred unprecedented levels of corporate and philanthropic commitments of funding to address racial inequity—specifically for Black Americans—those pledges have so far yielded little. Most of the promised funding has still not been distributed or accounted for, and the total committed is significantly lower than prevailing estimates of what would be needed to truly address racial economic disparities at scale.
It is critical that JFF, our peer organizations, and potential new entrants to the field partner to guide new investments and pursue additional changes in policy and practice in our education and workforce systems to promote Black economic advancement. If we do not act decisively now to disrupt the status quo, these gaps will widen further over the decades to come, as our economy continues its shift toward digitalization and automation. We believe that, in addition to being a moral and ethical imperative, addressing racial inequities will yield widespread societal economic gains. Structural racism has had a significant negative impact on the overall U.S. economy, curtailing growth, output, and productivity, and stifling the ingenuity that leads to innovation and patents.
Research shows that the high-paying jobs of the future will require people to frequently learn new skills to keep up with the pace of technological change. High-paying jobs are also likely to be clustered in the digital economy, including in engineering, business, tech, and big data. Black people, currently sorely underrepresented in these fields, should be able to secure quality jobs in these high-growth industries, progress in their careers, and experience economic advancement, stability, and wealth at the same rates as their white peers.
Clearly, education has not been the “great equalizer” it was long purported to be. Traditional models of education and training are not up to the challenges facing Black learners and workers in our rapidly changing economy. So, if we cannot simply educate and train our way to racial economic equity, what can we do to promote Black economic advancement? We can’t give up on education and training; they remain powerful levers for social change. But we must pivot to also take direct aim at racial inequity in our education and workforce systems—and intensify our efforts outside our traditional spheres of influence—if we hope to make meaningful progress.
We don’t claim to have all the answers.
Rather, we hope to amplify the work of others who have come before us, identify new partners to help us expand our reach, and clarify what organizations interested in promoting racial economic equity can do to move closer to their goal of furthering investment, collaboration, and advocacy to create permanent space for Black learners and workers in our society and our economy. We are excited to continue learning about the ways we all can join together to make the greatest impact, and our recommendations will evolve as we refine our thinking.
Let's Get Started
Racial discrimination and bias have always been a challenge in the United States, and we have a long way to go before we begin to approach equity for Black Americans. Addressing this challenge is both a moral and economic imperative. Researchers estimate that ongoing racial discrimination has cost the United States about between $16 trillion and $23 trillion over the past 20 years. Given the trends we are seeing in our changing digital economy and labor market, this figure is likely to grow even higher if we do not intervene immediately—and more effectively.
The concept that a “rising tide lifts all boats” has proved false, and Black learners and workers deserve targeted, race-conscious interventions to overcome the opportunity deficit many of them face. The approaches suggested here are intended to do just that: promote racial equity and racial justice by leveling the playing field for Black Americans—not at the expense of anyone else, but to give all an equal starting point and an equal opportunity for advancement.
As noted in this report, education and training alone cannot eliminate the wealth gap; the country’s history of systemic racism has created inequities in housing and other wealth-building assets that cannot be addressed through income and opportunity alone. Our research and conversations, including guidance from our advisory council, elevated the approaches documented here as the highest-leverage opportunities to offset this deficit and create new opportunities for racial economic advancement in the future of work.
In addition to these approaches, our work to date has highlighted the need for additional research and data in these areas to ensure that we are correctly diagnosing problems and implementing the relevant solutions. We have also heard about the need for more collaboration and engagement between cross-sector stakeholders engaging in the work to accelerate and amplify impact. In all of our work going forward, we will aim to foreground data and opportunities for collaborative approaches.
The challenges of the past two years have made clear the need to reimagine the future of work, and rethink our collective understanding of Black opportunity in America.
We look forward to pursuing efforts to further define, promote, and implement these strategies. We welcome your feedback and partnership as we take these efforts forward.