By Victor Ochieng
Discussions are centered on whether Black lives really matter in America and why the people who swear to protect these lives end up as the killers.
However, as these conversations continue, the Black community shouldn’t forget to address the issue of unemployment and lack of business ownership that are equally serious threats to Black survival.
We saw the killing of Alton Sterling and Eric Garner by white police officers and we’ve seen how, in several cases, the police officers involved in the killings are let off scot free. Sterling and Garner were ex-offenders who utilized their informal entrepreneurial abilities to fend for their families and evade the discriminative job market.
Many ex-offenders, aware of the exclusionary formal job market, opt for entrepreneurship.
“Ex-offenders re-entering communities face a host of problems, a major one being barriers to employment because of their criminal records,” says Carmen Solomon-Fears, specialist in social policy at the Congressional Research Service. She added, “Most employers now conduct background checks, with the result that people are often denied employment or even fired from jobs because of their criminal records.”
Inadequate mechanisms to see ex-offenders reabsorbed in the formal job infrastructure push this lot to seek other ways of earning income. Sterling, for example, had to sell CDs to fend for five children. On the other hand, Garner was selling single cigarettes to support six.
These are just but a few of the jobs ex-offenders are forced to rely on to earn a living.
“Many people who are officially jobless are nonetheless involved in informal kinds of work activity, ranging from unpaid housework to work in the informal or illegal economies that draw income,” according to William Julius Wilson, professor of social policy who doubles up as director of Harvard University’s Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program.
With no mechanisms to absorb ex-offenders and the fact that Black folks are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, such informal opportunities are a necessity. The Black community also has to put in a lot of work, understanding that for every dollar a white man earns, a Black man earns between 64-72 cents on average.
“It’s no wonder black people start businesses at five times the rate of any other race,” said Kezia Williams, founding director of Black upStart. “We are fed up with paying a societal debt, when we know it was black hands that invested in the wealth building of this country absent financial return. Our labor should have yielded a black American surplus, not at a deficit we are paying to this day.”
There should be a mechanism within the Black community to absorb ex-convicts back into the system. This can be done through trainings, mentorship programs, among other entrepreneurship initiatives.
An online entrepreneurship training platform called Defy Ventures has transformed many individuals with criminal backgrounds.
“Defy recognizes that many former drug dealers and gang leaders can become successful, legal entrepreneurs,” reads the initiative’s website. “We transform the hustle of our formerly incarcerated Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs) by offering intensive leadership development, Shark Tank– style business plan competitions, executive mentoring, financial investment, and startup incubation.”
The results have been amazing with the first 800 to complete the program in Texas reporting only 5% recidivism. So far, 80 businesses have been opened as a result of the program.
If more efforts are invested into such, there is no doubt that African-Americans will grow to become economic powerhouse.