The strength and resiliency of African American and Latino communities have been assets in their march toward equitable opportunities in the American South. However, for far too long, African American and Latino families have experienced the consequences of policy decisions that have limited their opportunity to build economically strong, well-resourced communities.
African Americans and Latinos face significant barriers to pursuing postsecondary education and training, including discrimination and limited access to financial resources. The American South cannot compete in the global economy of the future without an intentional approach that addresses the unique obstacles faced by African Americans and Latinos, who together represent more than a third of Southerners.
Most jobs in the South require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. Across the South, there is a critical shortage of workers trained for this “middle-skill” level. Moreover, African Americans and Latinos are facing limited, if any, access to opportunities to secure degrees or credentials, and therefore, diminished access to good jobs.
A recent report — Building a Skilled Workforce for a Stronger Southern Economy, authored by the National Skills Coalition and the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and St. Louis — finds that if the South wants to close this “skills gap,” fully realize the economic potential of local businesses and workers, and compete in the global economy it must address the barriers that keep all people from succeeding in a skilled economy.
Doing this would require setting aside the disillusioned, ineffective southern economic strategy that has largely competed economically on cheap land, low-wage labor and lower taxes.
For 109 years, the NAACP has worked to ensure the equal rights for all people and to eliminate race-based discrimination. As executive director of the Mississippi NAACP, I am proud of how our local branches show up in communities every day to advocate for civil rights, justice and equitable opportunity. Every day more and more influential organizations are joining our efforts to close gaps in educational attainment and employment for our region and our nation to succeed.
As others join us in the struggle for social and economic justice, we must all recognize that the inequities in educational outcomes and employment opportunity are not random. These inequitable outcomes are grounded in a history of discrimination, labor exploitation, first free and then cheap labor, and the underinvestment in African American communities. Much of these structural inequities continue to be reinforced through public policy that limits investments that support healthy, vibrant communities of color, including the disinvestment in public schools, community colleges and university systems. The underinvestment in the public education system from preschool through college further widens the gap in education and economic indicators among southern African Americans and whites.
Even while people of color navigate systems that do not fully support their social and economic advancement, they continue to work to obtain their version of the American dream. This dream is rooted in employment opportunities aimed at building wealth and creating opportunities for future generations.
For example, Moore Community House in Biloxi operates Women in Construction (WINC), a Registered Apprenticeship job training program that prepares women for nontraditional career pathways that meet the needs of their families as well as the demands for skilled workers in construction and advanced manufacturing. Since the first class in 2008, WINC has trained more than 450 women and has a job placement rate above 70 percent.
This program also addresses complex economic issues at the nexus of race and gender by creating better employment opportunity for women of color. African American women working in Mississippi only make 56 cents for every dollar earned by a white male. These disparities experienced by African American women in our state did not just occur, and they continue to be reinforced through the explicit and implicit actions of systems and institutions that are inherently inequitable.
As we remain steadfast and committed to equality, we must not forget that in the struggle for civil rights, economic opportunity also sits at the table of justice. As southern states aim to be more competitive in the global market, adopting workforce development policies that include an intentional approach to equity is vitally important in the movement for economic justice. Overcoming the historical and inherent injustices of public policy requires a renewed, deliberate vigor focused on equity and inclusion.
The South remains a place where efforts to create a more just and equitable society for all our citizen continues. A workforce development policy aimed at equity and inclusion is a step all southern states must take and endeavor to transition into practice.
Corey Wiggins is executive director of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP.