The recent pledge by Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates to spend $1 billion over the next 20 years for minority scholarships sounds great. But the news also reminded me of another not-so-cool story about Gates and the wealth gap between blacks and whites in America.
It was published last year in the New York-based Journal of Blacks in Higher Education with a headline that read, "Bill Gates Has More Securities Wealth Than Do All Black American Households Combined."
These two stories leave me with mixed feelings about Bill and his big bucks.
On one hand, Gates's financial gesture is incredibly generous. Tens of thousands more minorities will get a chance to go to college than would have otherwise.
William H. Gray III, president of the United Negro College Fund, ought to be applauded for helping Gates understand that the problem of educational access is often not lack of aspirations or lack of talent "but just money."
On the other hand, the fact that one white man can possess more securities wealth than all 33 million African Americans combined suggests something so wrong that it's going to take much more than a billion dollars' worth of schooling opportunities to fix it.
Based on calculations made by the Journal, using figures culled from the Standard & Poors Index, Gates's wealth from securities, stocks and bonds was about $58 billion in 1998. Black wealth from stocks and bonds was calculated at about $11 billion.
"Black incomes are about 60 percent of whites, but the wealth gap between the races is enormous," said Theodore Cross, editor of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education and author of the 1969 book "Black Capitalism."
In another book, "Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality," authors Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro note that the continuation of systemic barriers--such as limited access to capital, redlining practices and the making of the urban ghetto--has impaired the ability of many blacks to accumulate wealth and find a better life.
I hope that Gates's goodwill does not overshadow this disturbing economic reality.
His plan calls for sending at least 1,000 high school seniors a year to the colleges of their choice. And he has vowed to extend the money to those students who plan on pursuing advanced degrees in fields such as math, science and education.
Great. Maybe the first black Bill Gates will be among them.
But consider this: Blacks have been graduating from college in significant numbers for many years, at least 10,000 from the nation's 25 top business schools during the past 25 years. And yet, the number of black CEOs and others who have share ownership or stock-option rights, especially in big-money-making high-tech companies, is almost nonexistent.
Blacks have had no role to play in the creation and ownership of any Internet-related companies. And that's where the big bucks are. Most high-tech companies have no blacks on their boards of directors.
"Affirmative action practices of traditional American corporations have not even touched the consciousness of the high-tech entrepreneurs," Cross said.
According to Oliver and Shapiro, the average white blue-collar worker has been able to accumulate more wealth than the average black professional, in part because of this nation's legacy of racism.
"Clearly, there are many reasons why black people have little access to the network society where much of the new wealth is now lodged," Cross said. "But a big factor is that almost nobody makes loans or provides venture capital to black business start-ups."
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 65.9 percent of all small business loan applications made by African Americans are turned down. This is compared with a denial rate of 26.9 percent of small business loan applications made by whites.
This is unconscionable.
But the question is, shouldn't African Americans be doing more than just complaining?
The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures on American wealth showed that only 614,000 black households, or 5.6 percent, owned stocks or mutual fund shares. So who is preventing us from investing our money?
Certainly nobody is stopping us from spending like crazy.
A 1996 issue of Black Enterprise magazine reported that blacks spend $19.6 billion a year on clothes and $10.8 billion a year on cars and trucks, some of the fastest depreciating items you can buy. Only $3.1 billion goes for education.
African Americans spend nearly $3.2 billion a year just on booze and other beverages. Even in some of the poorest black neighborhoods in urban areas across the country, especially in Washington, residents manage to spend as much as $3 million a month just on fast food.
All we'd have to do to match Gates's historic scholarship fund is give up one drink and a chicken box or Big Mac a week, then pass the savings on to the United Negro College Fund.
Will we do it? Don't hold your breath.
Even as we thank Bill Gates for helping to send our kids to college, we'd do well to ask ourselves what kind of education will it take for us to start doing for ourselves.