Front line of the March, August 24, 2013. (Courier Photo/J.L. Martello)
The scene on the Washington Mall this past Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, was surreal. Tens of thousands came to commemorate a historic moment in American history, 50 years ago, when a nonviolent protest brought together two separate and unequal American societies in a clash of cultures. And, as if time had stood still against the backdrop of another non-violent protest, separate and unequal cultures clashed again this past weekend in Washington D.C.
But this time, these seemingly opposing forces would not emerge as Black and White, rather, 20th century versus 21st century, old versus new … obsolescence versus opportunity.
The venerable Washington Post captured the scenes on the Mall, and in real time shared them with the world, literally. Today, the Post’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, America’s largest publishing marketplace, expects nothing less. Iconic photos of revered Civil Rights leaders, Congressman John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III graced the galleries of the Post mere moments after being taken. The day of remembrance would look back and, ironically, forget to look forward in the manner Dr. Martin Luther King envisioned.
Fifty years after King delivered a speech that would sear the soul of America, the same Negro to whom he referred in 1963 is still living on an island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity … now 150 years after slavery. However, in the 21st century his residence is temporary … if he chooses to collaborate with others who wish to leave the island.
Many have already left, albeit against the tide of naysayers, a still hostile society, and fragmented and disconnected education and community channels with rusted infrastructure. Still, many find a way off the island. But what if we commemorated the March on Washington by building bridges today that stand as functional monuments connecting millions remaining on the island to 21st century opportunities?
Turning Dreams into Goals
Inspiration is near. One need only peer off in the short distance from the Washington Mall to a large white house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where America’s first Technology President resides. And he happens to also be America’s first Black president.
King could never have dreamed or imagined that a Black child born in his day would someday:
• Create the nation’s first position of Chief Technology Officer,
• Promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) as an educational foundation,
• Institute a special White House initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans,
• Bolster funding for the White House Initiative on HBCU,
• Pull together HBCU leadership and establish visionary goals and outcomes for student achievement,
• Accelerate the nation’s entrepreneurial startup culture through Startup America,
• Disrupt the archaic Securities and Exchange Commission investment laws and outdated criteria by signing into law the JOBS Act of 2012
• Introduce new policy and opportunities for entrepreneurs to access much-needed capital via crowdfunding platforms,
• Initiate a new wave of manufacturing jobs through the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership,
• Ignite a fire of excitement around inclusive economic frameworks by introducing the White House Tech Inclusion Initiative
• Introduce broad healthcare reform to expand opportunities for coverage of tens of millions of Americans who otherwise would not have access to healthcare
Sadly, as the speakers at this past weekend’s March on Washington addressed the crowd, they forgot to highlight the achievements of the living legacy still making history at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. While they viewed the landscape of America through the lens of the challenges that five decades have yet to sufficiently reduce, they failed to perceive the extraordinary advances President Barack Obama has made, and continues to make, which is opening unprecedented doors of opportunity for Black Americans today.
Hope and Change
The tens of thousands of protesters on the Mall might have put down their signs of protest, momentarily set aside their complaints and left with renewed energy invigorated by a message of hope, knowing that change had come and there were real concrete steps they could take to capitalize upon new opportunities. After all, none who protest do so for the sake of being noisy, but rather to call for solutions to problems and pathways toward progress.
The commemoration this past weekend might have turned into momentous celebration, perhaps enough to attract a busy president out to join them on the Mall, if the crowd was informed about significant opportunities that we, as a people who have endured much hostility, have now to change the future for our children and grandchildren. Indeed, the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders accomplished heroic feats that produced a foundation upon which my generation could build a future. But no one taught us about the new economic game. No one instilled in us the understanding that technology and the knowledge-based innovation economy were inseparable. Instead, we were taught to get good grades, go to college and get a job. Such advice is not quite a 21st century insightful blueprint for success.
Today, just beyond one decade into the 21st century, we live in unprecedented times where an entrepreneur can bring an idea to fruition in a fraction of the time it took a few decades ago, then scale a company and disrupt an industry … all within a couple of years.
We live in an era when caring people of modest means can pool their resources and invest in the talents within their midst to hoist him and her upon their collective shoulders and help them achieve their dreams, which ultimately creates job opportunities for others to pursue their dreams as well. We live in an era of exponential opportunity and impact. King never had it so good.
Yet, today all of our 1.9 million businesses combined produce less than 1 percent of GDP.
In every metro region in the nation, we produce a paltry percentage of the gross regional product (GRP).
Our net job creation is zero.
We still suffer from double the unemployment rate of white Americans annually.
Our net worth has plummeted over the past five decades.
We have little generational wealth and far too many of us who become rich rapidly become poor again.
Obstacle = Us
However, when we look at our assets and the value we create despite broken families, communities and systems, there’s enormous hope. But we must believe enough to invest in ourselves before we can expect others to do so. At the end of the day, we know one thing to be true: No one is coming to save us from economic degradation and the looming prospect of becoming permanent residents on that island Dr. King spoke of, as second-class citizens in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. We need to ask ourselves some tough questions:
What’s stopping Black Americans today from demanding the type of education our children need to compete in a knowledge-based, tech-driven, globally competitive innovation economy?
What’s stopping older Civil Rights era Black Americans today from learning how to compete as job producers versus recycling the obsolete mantra that seeks solely to find a living wage job that someone else produced?
What’s stopping Black Americans from competing in today’s 21st century innovation economy? The economic game has fundamentally changed from King’s day. And his Dream can be realized upon the mountaintop of inclusive competitiveness.
What’s stopping Black Americans from adopting the 21st century economic vision of inclusive competitiveness when a Black man sits in the unique position of Vice President of Inclusive Competitiveness at NorTech, a tech-based economic development powerhouse covering 21 counties in the perpetually political battleground state of Ohio?
What’s stopping Black Americans from investing in Black entrepreneurs, when the fastest growing landscape of entrepreneurs in America is among Blacks (at more than three times the national average)?
What’s stopping Black America from becoming high-growth tech entrepreneurs and job producers in addition to competitive job seekers?
What’s stopping Black America from changing the economic narrative pervasive in our communities from an obsolete 20th century construct to a 21st century visionary inclusive economic framework?
What’s stopping Black Americans from embracing King’s Dream and bringing it to fruition by actively supporting the living legacy in the White House who is moving political mountains and asking for our active support?
What’s stopping Black Americans from immediately doing exactly what President Obama requested on July 19? He specifically stated we need to convene business leaders, elected officials, clergy, entertainers and athletes and discuss ways that we can establish pipelines of productivity for our African American males, many of whom are lost, confused and angry because we haven’t taught them how to play this new economic game and compete in the 21st century.
Past, Present, Future
Some may say the mountain that needs to move is deeply rooted in American institutions of power and influence that continue to perpetuate problems based on bias and discriminatory practices inherent in racism, however subtle or overt. My argument isn’t against the legitimate complaints that manifest in mass protests. I argue we cannot, ought not, seek solely to move others and ignore the movement we can make ourselves.
We don’t have to choose to look solely forward or back. We can do both. We must do both. We must learn from the past and remain cognizant of ever-evolving landscapes today that empower us to leap ahead and position ourselves and our children upon firm foundations to build increased net worth and generational wealth.
Certainly, there’s a lot of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to which we must attend. And that work must continue. But we must not forget to actively pursue our dreams, support others in their pursuits and learn the games being played so we can also play, compete and win.
Dr. King would be proud of the new legacy personified by President Obama. What’s stopping us from getting off the sidelines and into the game with him? Like 20th century technology, excuses are obsolete.
Mike Green is a New York Times Leadership Academy Fellow and award-winning journalist. He is a columnist for the Governing Institute, co-founder of The America21 Project, founder of the ScaleUp Campaign and founder of Saving America’s Black Boys National Campaign. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @amikegreen2.