When billionaire Robert E. Smith decided to pay off the student loans of the graduating class of 2019 at Morehouse College, he suggested that others follow his lead.
“Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community,” Smith declared in his commencement speech.
But is there even enough black private wealth in the United States to pay off all black student loan debt?
As a scholar in social transformation and African American studies, I’m intrigued by this question. It provides an opportunity to examine black wealth, higher education and the possibilities for alleviating debt, which in turn opens the door to new economic opportunities.
That’s a lot of money, and he’s done it before. Before his gift to Morehouse, Smith donated $50 million to Cornell University, his alma mater, in part to support African American and female students at Cornell University’s College of Engineering.
Other black celebrities have also stepped up to fund education. Powerhouse couple Beyonce and Jay Z gave more than $1 million in scholarships to students who lived in cities they were touring in 2018.
Rapper Nicki Minaj gave 37 “Student of the Game” scholarships. LeBron James, through his foundation, promised to pay for 2,300 students to attend the University of Akron – at an estimated price tag of $100 million. Oprah Winfrey has donated more than $400 million to educational causes.
Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, described how charitable organizations had “a keen sense of the responsibility” to secure economic and educational resources, “lifting as we climb” up the ladder of social mobility. This ethic of giving was also present among the early black economic elite such as Thomy Lafon, Madame C.J. Walker and James Forten.
But how much of it goes to higher education? African Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum report donating 17% to education – both K-12 and post-secondary institutions and scholarship funds. That adds up to about $1.8 billion donated annually.
Among black high net worth households – those with a net worth of more than $1 million (not counting the value of their primary home) or with an annual household income of $200,000 – 49% report giving to higher education. This is significant since across all racial groups, the share of dollars donated by high net worth individuals to higher education was only 4%.
Black student loan debt
Student loan debt in the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2019, making it the second-highest consumer debt category behind mortgage debt. Over 44 million borrowers owe roughly $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.
Looking at 2016 data, 86.4% of blacks completing a bachelor’s degree had some form of student loan debt, and the average amount borrowed was $34,010. If we multiply the total number of blacks that graduated with some form of debt – roughly 168,000 – by the average amount borrowed per individual, the average cumulative debt for this one graduating class was roughly $5.7 billion. This includes graduates from all colleges – public as well as private – but not community colleges.
Of course, looking at it at the most basic level, the collective wealth among America’s black billionaires – which totals $13.4 billion with the recent addition of Jay-Z – can easily subsidize the debt of a single graduating class.
And while a more sophisticated calculation is undoubtedly warranted, a rough estimate shows that the $5.7 billion in black student debt could be covered by America’s black millionaire households if each one chose to devote $6,500 toward eliminating the overall debt.
Of course, the debt load for black students goes far beyond one graduating class. The majority of blacks in the labor force that hold a bachelor’s degree or higher have some form of student loan debt. This means that the figures for the entire black population with outstanding student loan debt across generations are significantly higher than $5.7 billion.
Robert Smith’s gift to the class of 2019 at Morehouse provoked an interesting discussion about whether black philanthropy can alleviate black student loan debt. However, one-off philanthropic efforts that help a small group of beneficiaries can’t compete with the kind of large-scale change needed to alter the course of an entire community.
Which made it surprising to us that plans for a public elementary school in Akron, Ohio that four-time NBA MVP LeBron launched in 2018, to help students who are struggling to stay on track academically, largely ignored how important race is in educational attainment.
While we can appreciate the NBA great using his star power and considerable wealth to open a school for children in his hometown who are struggling academically, much like LeBron once was himself, we levy this criticism from our vantage point as scholars and students who study race in education. One of us – Kevin O’Neal Cokley – is an education scholar who has studied and written a book about the psychological and environmental factors that impact black student achievement. Two of us – Nolan Krueger and Marlon L. Bailey – are doctoral students in an educational psychology department.
Before we explain why we believe the I Promise School should deal with race more boldly and more explicitly, let us first identify the areas where we believe the school is getting things right.
Instead of relying on suspensions and expulsions, which tend to disproportionately impact black children, the I Promise School relies on what the school’s leaders refer to as the five “habits of promise.” Those are: problem-solving, perspective, partnership, perseverance and perpetual learning. This is especially important given how school suspensions and expulsions lead to higher dropout rates.
Values and supports families
One of the things that stands out most about the school is its “I Promise Family Plan.” This plan offers a range of supports and resources for students and families. The resources include a food pantry, a barbershop and hair salon, and help for parents to improve English comprehension and earn their GED.
Especially noteworthy is the school’s treatment of fathers. Instead of assuming that fathers are not involved in the lives of their kids, the I Promise School has a Father’s Walk Day in which fathers are formally welcomed to the school.
The school also features a seven-week summer session focused on STEM designed to help prevent the “summer slide” – that is, the loss of learning students suffer during summer vacation.
Questions about race
Despite the many things to like about the I Promise School, we question whether and to what extent the school deals directly with issues of race. Scholars such as Richard Milner suggest that schools must confront both poverty and race in the classroom in order to create optimal learning.
Educators with a critical understanding of how race and poverty manifest in the classroom might rely less on an one-size-fits-all curriculum and instead ground learning in an understanding of the lived experiences of their students.
Since the I Promise School has students from diverse backgrounds, some might ask why we think the I Promise School should confront race and poverty.
It is true that students are selected for the school based on their test scores and how behind they are in reading, not on race or any other demographic characteristic. However, the reality is the I Promise School is located in Akron, where the student population is disproportionately black – 46.1% – compared to 13.8% of national K-12 enrollment. Furthermore, Ohio has a staggering “achievement” gap between black and white students, with only 37% of black children in Ohio reading at grade level compared with 70% of white children.
The I Promise School’s 20-page master plan document does not focus on issues of race or race-equity despite research that shows some of the most vexing issues facing students – such as disparities in graduation rate, literacy and higher education admissions – are linked to race and poverty.
Prominent educational scholars such as Tyrone Howard have asserted
that when educators ignore race or adopt colorblind approaches, they fail to realize that avoiding the topic denies students an essential part of their being. This in turn only increases the likelihood of race becoming an explosive topic.
One critical factor to consider is the racial composition of the school’s staff, administrators and, in particular, teachers. Research suggests that students do better when their teachers look like them and can relate to their experiences. For example, it has been shown that black children are assessed more harshly for disruptive behavior when their teacher is white as opposed to black. Research has also shown that exposure to just one black teacher between grades 3 and 5 reduces the rate of dropout for black male high-schoolers.
Based on the school’s staff directory, the I Promise School appears to be lacking in teacher diversity – something we believe that the school should be more mindful of in the future.
Will the school defy the odds?
To be clear, we are celebrating LeBron James for fulfilling his dream and creating the I Promise School. He deserves praise for caring enough to give back to the community where he grew up.
The I Promise School could be a big “win” for students and LeBron James, a man who has dedicated countless hours and millions of dollars toward positively impacting Akron’s youth. We believe if the I Promise School incorporates social justice and the primacy of race into its approach, it could be transformational for its students. If, however, the school fails to address issues of race and equity in its design, the school likely won’t spur the generational change that proponents of the school envision.
Editor’s note: Officials affiliated with the I Promise Academy declined to comment directly for this story but cautioned against judging a school based strictly on publicly available documents.
UrbanFaith.com earned honors in three categories at the 2012 Evangelical Press Association Convention in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The convention was hosted at the Focus on the Family campus, May 9-11.
UF won fourth place in the General Article (medium length) category in the Higher Goals Contest for the submission “Is LeBron the NBA’s Samson?” by Jelani Greenidge. We also won a fourth-place award in the Devotional category for the article “Forgiving Kim Jong-Il” by Helen Lee.
Finally, UrbanFaith earned the top honor in the Awards of Excellence for General Digital Media. This is the EPA’s highest award for general websites. Here’s what the judge had to say about us: “This site simply stands out. Its story selection, writing, and focus on being current gives it the edge over all the other entries.”
The Evangelical Press Association is a professional organization of some 300 Christian magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and content-rich websites in North America. The annual convention in May brings together evangelical journalists, writers, and other media-related professionals for a time of training, networking and encouragement. Each year at the convention awards are given out in various categories.
UrbanFaith is grateful to the EPA for these honors, and we look forward to faithfully pursuing another year of journalistic excellence.
Fans of the wacky musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords recognize one of their signature hits, a song called “Business Time.”
Despite being very silly, “Business Time” is not for kids.
It’s about an amorous husband trying to get his wife in the mood. The song (and accompanying video) is funny because of the contrast between the sensuous musical subject matter and the decidedly unsexy, ordinary domestic activities surrounding it. Doing the laundry, separating the recycling … these are not activities normally depicted as foreplay in our modern culture.
Yet, many married women attest to the fact that with the right attitude, many of these can, in fact, set the mood quite nicely.
Which is another example of how many times the truth can be counter-intuitive.
But if you learn from it and take advantage, you can reap dividends.
How the sausage is made
In the same way, I’m hoping that there are young NBA fans who have been paying close attention to the league during this latest work stoppage.
See, some people think the lockout is a time for basketball fans to tune out and enjoy something else. And I’m sure a lot of us (myself included) could definitely stand to do less watching of physical activity, and more doing of it.
But for young ballplayers who aspire to greatness in the NBA or elsewhere, now is the best time to pay attention to the NBA. If I were 16 and could shoot from distance, I would be digging into as much coverage of the lockout as I could.
It might not be as fun or interesting as the game itself. But there’s the game … and then, there’s the game behind the game.
See, there’s a reason why when LeBron James was discussing his free agent plans in 2010, he kept referring to his team, and he wasn’t talking about his NBA coworkers in Cleveland. He was talking about his management team. He was talking about the team that helps him take care of his business. He was talking about business time … those things that happen behind the scenes that allow him to be the basketball-playing global icon he aspires to be.
And that’s one thing that LeBron deserves credit for. Whereas a lot of young ballers focus only on their game and pay accountants and managers to handle the rest, LeBron has been very hands-on regarding his image and his business matters. He understands that he’s not just managing a basketball career but a business career. And unlike a quick first step, business acumen can last well into one’s later years.
Professional basketball has always been a business, and it’s a testament to the power of flashy marketing that fans aren’t aware of this truth more often. But in a work stoppage, the business of the game is on center stage.
But now Labor Day, an oft-quoted negotiating deadline, has come and gone, the NBA preseason has been effectively canceled, and the traditional start of the regular season is fast approaching. Both the labor and ownership representatives must feel a sense of urgency to get a deal done in order to save the season. In the same way, young aspiring business professionals should also have a sense of urgency in understanding how this particular sausage gets made, before it gets swept back under the rug of marketing hype that will accompany the NBA’s inevitable return.
(Did I just sweep the sausage under the rug? Pardon my mixed metaphor.)
Central to the negotiations are questions about revenue sharing, player contracts, salary caps, age restrictions, and many other related issues. Getting a handle on these things can sharpen a young person’s business acumen.
And this kind of sharpening is crucial, because a good business sense is an essential for overall success in any field. Whether it’s basketball or basket-weaving, in order to be the best you have to learn not only the craft itself, but the way to turn that craft into a solid business. Many of the most successful figures are not necessarily the most talented, but the hardest working in their field.
Taking our talents beyond South Beach
Good business sense is essential in the kingdom of God, according to many of Jesus’ parables regarding the managing of money.
One of the more commonly preached is often referred to as the parable of the talents, which helps us to understand that the word “talent” was not always a reference to skill or aptitude, but actually meant a sum of money to be invested. Most NBA-caliber players intuitively understand that their talents, invested properly, can yield a great harvest over time. And many Christians today understand the principle that being faithful with a little can translate to being entrusted later with much.
But Jesus’ parable is not just about maximizing return, but also about taking to heart the urgency required in honoring the master. You also see this in the parable of the unjust steward, which is quite the head-scratcher compared to the other one. But in both cases, one of the resounding themes is the urgency with which the stewards act in response to the oversight of the master. Even though the unjust steward was shady in the way he brokered his freedom, his master was so impressed with the ingenuity that arose from his desperation.
What can we learn from these parables?
That the God of the Bible is both infinitely just and inexplicably merciful. And that for everyone, NBA players and middle managers alike, living in a reconciled manner with Him is not only the key to salvation and a life full of shalom, but if that weren’t enough … it also makes good business sense.
So when (or if) the NBA returns to arenas and TV sets across the nation, let’s rejoice. But while it’s still in lockout mode, let’s get our notebooks out.
Because, y’know, business time doesn’t last forever.
IRONY OF DEFEAT: LeBron James leaves the court after his Miami Heat's disappointing loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the deciding game of the NBA Finals. (Newscom photo)
In sports, as in life, there are often small ironies that signify larger truths. And In the celebrated NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks, there was plenty of irony to go around.
For the uninitiated, the 2011 Finals, the league’s showcase playoff series, was a rematch of the 2006 series, which Miami won in convincing fashion by taking Game 6 on the road in Dallas. This year, Dallas won in convincing fashion by taking Game 6 on the road in Miami. The two biggest stars from that series, Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas and Dwyane Wade of Miami, were again pitted against one another, and both of them put together another string of impressive performances. Whereas Wade had been the bigger star in 2006, Nowitzki’s star shone brighter in 2011.
But Miami had been heavily favored going in, because of last year’s offseason signing of megastar LeBron James, widely considered the best player in the NBA. The Heat’s “Big Three” of James, Wade, and power forward Chris Bosh was supposed to trump the Mavericks’ lone star Nowitzki in both talent and star power. Conventional thinking in the NBA says that when the stakes are highest, the margin between winning and losing is usually measured by great players imposing their will over good players.
Yet, the overwhelming story of the series, aside from the rich sense of redemption and quality team basketball shown by the Mavericks, was the virtual disappearance of the Heat’s supposedly best player, LeBron James. In the fourth quarters of close games, when his team needed him most, LeBron played his worst basketball. When the situation demanded greatness, he was hardly adequate.
As Kevin Bacon said in A Few Good Men, these are the facts, and they are indisputable.
The Misnomer of “The Decision”
With this latest loss, LeBron James has become the most criticized and scrutinized player not only in professional basketball, but in all of American sports. The waves of criticism and scrutiny James receives on a daily basis have, with this loss, been amplified into an exponential tsunami.
And most of the vitriol is tied to his decision last summer to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join forces with Wade and Bosh in Miami, a process that resulted in a one-hour television special on ESPN entitled The Decision. It was a calculated attempt at warmth and authenticity that instead came off looking vain, self-promoting, and ungracious. While popular opinion was split about whether or not he should have stayed in Cleveland, almost everyone agrees that it wasn’t so much the fact that he left, but the way that he left that rubbed people the wrong way.
So perhaps the greatest irony here (besides Bill Simmons’ nugget about LeBron’s primary agent and marketing partner being named Maverick Carter) is this:
Despite the jeers he’s received over The Decision, LeBron James’ current predicament is not the result of one particular decision, but rather of many decisions over time.
Our decisions, over time, become our character. And LeBron’s biggest point of weakness is not in his strategy or physicality, but in his character. He has exhibited a significant deficit in the areas of self-awareness and humility. And if he wants to take his game to the next level, in addition to working on his post moves and shooting, he needs to make investments into his character.
If he were a believer in Christ, he might want to try looking in the Bible.
In particular, he might look at the story of Samson.
Chosen One, Choosing Badly
Samson was an absolute beast of a man. We see in Judges 13-16 that he was blessed with not only incredible physical strength and stature, but he also possessed considerable cunning, a combination that made him quite attractive to the opposite sex. And the circumstances surrounding his birth, combined with the ease with which he defeated legions of foes, were evidence that his physical prowess was sprinkled with divine favor. He was, quite literally, the chosen one.
Despite these obvious advantages, Samson had a problem: He did not make good decisions. He continually reacted in impulsive ways that resulted in unforeseen consequences, and often failed to learn from those consequences. He allowed the attention and adulation of others to distort his thinking and cloud his judgment. In so doing, he repeatedly put himself at risk by compromising the principles and directives that were put in place to protect him.
These are many of the same responses we’ve seen from LeBron James. When he and teammate Dwyane Wade were caught mocking their flu-stricken opponent Nowitzki by mimicking his cough, it seemed like the cocky taunt of a frontrunner—inexplicable considering they had just been beaten in Game 4. And after the series concluded, James’ postgame comments were anything but gracious. When asked how he should respond to people who rooted for his team to fail, he contrasts his celebrity with what he assumes to be his haters’ pitiful, miserable plebeian existence. His whole comeback amounted to, “I’m LeBron James, and you’re not.”
We Are All Witnesses
The truth is, LeBron isn’t the first NBA player whose struggles with insecurity affected his public perception. Many have preceded him, and many will follow.
As a Trail Blazers fan during their last great playoff runs in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I was a fan of swingman Bonzi Wells of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
So I was grateful to run across this account of Wells’ new post-NBA life as an AAU coach, where he admits being humbled by many of his previous missteps. Even a knucklehead like Bonzi, given enough time and enough hard knocks, can finally get it. It’s nice to see people change for the better.
For Samson, it took losing his eyes and being paraded in front of his enemies before he had enough humility to call out to God in desperation. The Bible doesn’t explicitly say this, but I bet that Samson did some serious soul-searching after the Philistines had taken him hostage. And when he prayed to God for the strength for one final act, Samson wasn’t driven only by a blood vendetta, but by a sense of holy honor to avenge those who had dishonored the Lord.
(So it’s not turning the other cheek, but we’re talking about the Old Testament here. Work with me.)
Signs of Hope
I think I speak for most casual NBA fans when I say that’s what we all want for LeBron—for the young man to finally get it. When facing defeat, to humbly admit his shortcomings, and vow to do better if given a chance.
That is the kind of humility on display that team officials crave from their star players, and the kind of example we all can learn from. I know that if I had to endure the same level of scrutiny and criticism that LeBron endures every day, I would have a much harder time taking the high road all the time.
But if there’s one thing LeBron can learn from Samson, it’s that it’s never too late to be humbled. If he can learn how to operate with humility, and the early indications are that he’s making a little progress, it won’t be long before he’ll be rising up in big moments instead of shrinking back. Instead of being the most hated athlete, he’ll be among the most celebrated. After all, everyone loves a good comeback story.
And just like Samson, he’ll be able to finally leave the stage a winner.
I just hope he doesn’t do it against my Trail Blazers, because then I’ll have to start hating him all over again.