This Black Renaissance is the result of a real mind-set shift in America. There was (and often still is) a paucity of Black people in workplaces, particularly in more elite settings. This was commonly blamed on the so-called pipeline problem. Companies, universities and other institutions, the story went, would love to hire more Black people, but they just couldn’t find qualified ones. The pipeline was broken — the school system, their parents and other things were preventing Black people from gaining the high-level skills needed. In 2008, that narrative got even stronger. How could there be racial barriers to Black advancement? The nation had just elected a Black president.
But after the initial rise of Black Lives Matter and, even more so, after last year’s protests following the killing of George Floyd, it simply became untenable to have no or few Black people in most industries and professions. Non-Black employees joined with their Black colleagues to demand the hiring of more Black people. So companies and institutions stopped whining about supposedly bad pipelines and started looking beyond them. Businesses are recruiting Howard graduates like they long have Harvard graduates. News organizations are seeking out Black people in academia or law and publishing their work. The Democratic Party knew it would be sharply criticized if it ran two White candidates for the U.S. Senate races last year in Georgia, with its large Black population. So the party made sure Raphael Warnock was one of the candidates — even though he had never run for any office before.
Here’s the thing: None of these institutions are any worse off than before they abandoned their traditional pipelines. I think they are better off. What these institutions discovered, as education policy writer John Warner says, is that “talent is abundant.” There are tens of millions of Black people in America. There were always Black people who could do any job. There was never a pipeline problem.
Or rather, the pipeline was the problem. Many institutions were only really open to Barack Obamas or, well, Perry Bacons — Black people who have the Ivy League pedigree of the White Americans who dominate many organizations and who can present themselves in a way that puts many White people at ease. It’s true there probably aren’t enough Obamas to go around. But that is exactly the issue — we were screening out much Black talent because it didn’t look and sound enough like White talent.
Thankfully, that is changing. And while it is morally right and appropriate for institutions to finally focus on doing right by Black people, this shift toward inclusivity can help non-Black people, too. As McGhee explains in her excellent new book “The Sum of Us,” policies that negatively impact Black people usually end up hurting non-wealthy people of all races, including White ones. Conversely, the kinds of mind-set shifts in hiring and promotions being adopted to increase Black representation are also likely to benefit everyone else. An America in which businesses and other institutions cast a wider net would be better for Black people but also better for, say, White community college graduates or Latino graduates of state schools.
At its core, the notion that the pipeline did not deliver enough qualified Black people was rooted in the false idea of a scarcity of talent. And the implication that only a few Black people could cut it likewise implied that most people of any race couldn’t do so, either.
But in reality, if Ivy League colleges started admitting more low- and middle-income students from public high schools, if prestigious magazines started publishing more articles from graduates of state colleges, if universities started hiring more women and people of color in faculty positions, those institutions would be just as good, if not better. They would just be different. Warnock arrived on the political scene with a resume (Morehouse College, Union Theological Seminary, pastor) that was distinct from Obama’s (Columbia University, Harvard Law, law professor) but extremely impressive in its own right.
Our Black Renaissance shows the path to an American Renaissance. We should take it.