My father is an African-American male who grew up in Northern Florida in the 1940s and 1950s. He was raised not far from where Trayvon Martin was killed. This was at a time when the South engaged in Jim Crow laws where it was legal to segregate Black human beings.
My dad experienced first-hand what I’ve only read about in textbooks like being forced to drink from the “colored only” water fountain. He also didn’t know his father, so on top of growing up in this incredibly racist environment, he was also a product of a “single-parent household” before that term ever really existed
Although my father was always a stellar student and valedictorian of his high school class, a future in medicine wasn’t a possibility because he simply couldn’t afford to go to medical school. Instead he went to Florida A&M University, a historically Black college/university, and eventually transferred to Bethune Cookman College in order to be closer to home. Since a career in medicine was off the table, he decided to major in Biology and earn a master’s degree in Zoology and subsequently a Ph.D. degree in Genetics. He eventually found his way to medical school, but it took a more circuitous, cost-efficient manner.
My dad could have benefitted from a donor like Robert Smith, the world’s richest Black man, who recently gifted the 2019 Morehouse College graduating class by eliminating the student loan debt of the entire class. These young men listened to a successful Black entrepreneur explain how he hoped this gesture would enable them to pursue career paths to become passionate problem solvers rather than be forced to take any job just to help pay off their loans.
These young men are unshackled from the burdens of having to go straight into the work force. Instead, some of them can receive additional education and training giving them the time to work hard towards whatever it is they want to do.
There is, however, still one issue that has yet to be addressed—this donation does not guarantee future wealth for any of these students.
Researchers have long looked at the impact on race and wealth. In a fascinating New York Times article, researchers from Harvard and Stanford, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, found that Black boys raised in wealthy families and in well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than do white boys of similar backgrounds. Furthermore, Black boys who grow up wealthy are statistically more likely to become poor than they are to remain wealthy, as adults.
This only adds a bigger spotlight onto Smith’s gift. Relieving student debt goes a long way in unburdening college graduates, especially as debt has increased over the years and takes longer to payoff. Student debt is a real problem, saddling our future young men and women with bills that can take years to pay off, and alter young lives in the process. Some presidential candidates have even highlighted student debt as a campaign issue in the upcoming presidential primaries.
Although removing the specter of debt is enticing and impactful to say the least, there is still systematic racism that needs to be tackled. The Robert Smiths of the world cannot do it alone, although arguably what he did was an incredible start. Paying off debt is likely an important step in addressing some of the racial inequalities that continue to permeate our world, but we have to remember, to any Black man who much has been given, much is still expected.
The data highlighted in the study on Black boys and wealth illustrates that escaping the poverty trap for us is not an easy thing and there is no perfect solution. When the researchers tried to find where Black boys from poor neighborhoods succeeded, there were essentially none. Despite their findings, many of us know that there are some poor black communities that clearly do well. The seminal issue is we need to do all we can to create more of them.
My father played a key role in my success. He is the inspiration for what I do. I decided to become a pediatric hematologist because I love taking care of children who have blood disorders. My passion started when I was a youngster working on science fair projects. My dad would carve time out of his busy schedule to help me. He and I would sometimes argue about what went where, but in the end, my project often landed in the top spot.
Interestingly enough, it was while working on these projects that my dad and I would talk about his experiences and how he came to do the kind of work that he did. Now, I can see that he was setting the table for me to pick up where he had to leave off.
My father, my first Black male role model, was my inspiration to become a physician and he is why I do what I do today. As a geneticist, my father was interested in sickle cell disease, its inheritance and how it affects African-Americans and people of African descent. He eventually became the executive director of the sickle cell center in Miami-Dade County and served as a liaison between the community and the local medical school. That’s right, he made it to medical school, but not as a student. He was teaching there as one of the deans.
Growing up in a middle-class family, medical school wasn’t exactly affordable when I graduated in the 1990s either. After all, it takes some resources to apply for the privilege of becoming a doctor, and subsequently you have to decide that going in to debt is a part of the journey. I was able to apply and get into Stanford University, do a pediatrics residency at the University of Miami and a sub-specialty fellowship at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I’ve had a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to take care of and heal sick children. I have my father to thank for that and my hope is that I inspire my loved ones and patients similarly.
As Father’s Day approaches tomorrow, I hope we all take some time to honor our fathers (and father figures) remembering the concept of paying it forward. These men who have given time and resources deserve to be recognized. Robert Smith could have chosen to put his money elsewhere, but in the end, he is serving as a Black male, role model and helping those who come after him, much like any man who truly understands fatherhood would do.
Kyle Mack, is a Black father, a physician and a Public Voices Fellow with TheOpEd project at Northwestern University.