4 ways to close America’s huge racial ‘opportunity gap’

The net worth of a typical Black family is only 10% of that of the typical white family, and the unemployment rate for Black Americans consistently has been double that of white Americans for four decades. These are just two of the outcomes resulting from long-standing systemic disadvantages that perpetuate an inequality of opportunity based on the color of one’s skin. 

This past month’s national dialogue on racial equality has brought many painful truths to the fore. Acknowledging these truths is important. Taking action to address them is essential. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the largest lobbying organization in the nation, representing businesses of all sizes across all sectors, touching every corner of our country. With that reach comes a responsibility to drive sustained action to eliminate systemic disadvantages. Convinced that our own previous efforts have been insufficient, we have committed to put the collective muscle of American business behind an urgent nationwide push for equality of opportunity.  

Two weeks ago, we convened more than 500 state and local chambers of commerce and business associations from across the country; business, government, academic, and civic leaders; and thousands of others for a National Summit on Equality of Opportunity. Informed by this dialogue, driven by data, and building upon years of advocacy, we are putting forward an action plan of policy solutions and best practices to help close opportunity gaps in four key areas: education, employment, entrepreneurship, and criminal justice reform.

First, addressing racial disparities in learning at every level of education is fundamental. 

All children deserve a strong K–12 foundation. Rather than making funding for schools a reflection of a community’s socioeconomic status, government should tie funding levels to student needs. Greater accountability and expanded choice would improve both school performance and student achievement.

Business and government should reexamine readiness assessments for all postsecondary paths—college, a certificate program, or a career. Additionally, our nation needs a way to recognize and accredit alternative pathways to careers and help people access and pay for these programs.

Second, closing opportunity gaps in employment can help reduce the Black unemployment rate, lift communities, and ensure that Black Americans are proportionately represented throughout our workforce.

The business community must prioritize diversity in the C-suite, on corporate boards, and in their talent pipelines, and the government can support these efforts. Employers should use data to analyze the diversity of their workforces and take necessary steps to improve performance. Business leaders also must expand their networks and create more pathways, including apprenticeships and mentorships for Black Americans.  

The federal government must ensure that funds across numerous programs reach persistently impoverished areas. The private sector should launch a broad, cross-sector campaign to promote impactful investment in these Opportunity Zones, and federal incentives should be expanded to promote local employment in low-income communities. 

Additionally, public-private partnerships to advance pay-for-performance job training programs should be expanded in areas with high unemployment. One example is the Chamber’s Talent Pipeline Management program linking job training to current and future jobs, which can be expanded to include more employers and help underserved communities. Coordinated efforts to make childcare more affordable and accessible would boost the impact of all these initiatives.

Next, tearing down barriers to entrepreneurship for Black Americans will help build wealth in families and communities, creating a virtuous cycle of new opportunity. 

Lack of access to capital is especially acute for Black entrepreneurs. Financial institutions, private equity firms, and venture capitalists all have a role to play in improving the flow of capital to Black innovators and businesses. Following the model of the successful 2012 JOBS Act, Congress should initiate a formal process through the SEC to develop recommendations for changes in existing law and regulations that would improve access to capital for Black-owned businesses.

The public and private sectors must work together to establish a streamlined and uniform process for certifying Black-owned businesses. Unnecessary state occupational licenses—often costly, time-consuming, and offering little benefit to consumers—should be eliminated. Congress also should increase support for the Minority Business Development Agency, enhancing government contracting opportunities, and the private sector should work closely with the agency to provide additional assistance to Black-owned businesses.

Utilizing a data-driven approach, the private sector also should establish best practices and resources to increase the participation of Black-owned enterprises in corporate supply chains. All of us can help by simply patronizing diverse businesses and promoting them within our communities. 

Finally, the criminal justice system must be reformed so that once someone pays his or her debt to society, they really have another chance for a better life. 

Federal law should be changed to allow prisoners to get an education through Pell Grants while serving time. This will improve rehabilitation, reentry, and post-prison job prospects. Federal and state governments should reform and more narrowly target licensing and hiring restrictions to provide a means to recognize rehabilitation. Let’s get rid of requirements for disclosure of past criminal convictions on initial job applications, which leads to otherwise qualified candidates being excluded from the hiring process.  

We also encourage businesses to see the opportunity in second-chance hiring and replicate best practices, such as those developed by the Society for Human Resource Management, so they can confidently hire employees with a criminal background. These and other policy solutions can help put people back in the workforce, not back in jail or on the margins of society.

Many leaders are asking if this moment is different—if the passion of this moment can be captured to create real change. We say yes. Yes, if leaders rally around these priorities. 

We call on a united business community to lead by example and put the pressure on elected officials to do their part. If we do that, this moment can be a true turning point for equality of opportunity for all. 

Suzanne P. Clark is president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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