JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
WHEN THE American Economic Association (AEA), the professional body of academic economists in the United States of America, announces the winner of the John Bates Clark Medal each year, acknowledging the “American economist under the age of forty who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge”, the recipient is usually of white race and from privileged background. But in April this year, things were different.
The man who won the prize isn’t white, he’s black, and was bred up in the ghettos of Florida and Texas, poor. His name is Roland Gehrard Fryer, Jnr. – a professor of economics at Harvard University.
At least a week ago, I read a short article by The Economist about his life, I found Fryer’s story very inspiring. The article was published in the midst of chaos in Baltimore. It was a reminder that there are, African-Americans out there, who overcome serious hurdles to succeed in life. It made think profoundly. That I couldn’t wait to write a piece this week to encourage people to familiarize themselves with this blazingly smart human being.
Stephen J. Dubner of The New York Times wrote about Roland Fryer’s childhood and achievements in 2005. In spending time with him, he discovered that Fryer’s research interests were inspired by the challenges he faced as a teenager.
Roland’s origins are in Florida. He was born there, and his mother left him when he was very young. He had to go through the experience of growing up with a single parent, his father, who, according to Roland, was abusive to him, though his dad denies that.
When he was 4 years old, Roland and his father moved to Texas. He only visited his grandmother in Florida during summer holidays – where he was exposed to people who traded cocaine, and were later imprisoned and spent years in jail.
In Texas, his father’s behavior deteriorated –he drank heavily, beat women and was eventually convicted of sexual assault in 1993.
Growing up around this chaos, Roland’s behavior deteriorated too. Aged 13, he forged his birth certificate to get a job at McDonalds. While working there, he would steal from the cash register. He also sold counterfeit bags and marijuana in order to earn money. One night with a firearm, he almost shot a man he had got into a fight with.
Had Roland fired his gun that night, he would have gone to jail. And his brilliant mind would have never had a chance to contribute to the progress of the American society today.
He says that his life changed the night he was stopped by the police on the streets of Texas. They made him lie on the pavement, questioned him, thinking he was a crack dealer. He wasn’t. They sent him home.
The same night, his friends asked him to come along with them to commit burglary, he refused. His friends did commit burglary anyway, and they ended up in jail.
That night Roland decided to take another path in his life, a decent one. He stopped doing bad things and focused on his education. His life changed dramatically.
At the age of 18 he attended University of Texas on an athletic scholarship. This is where he discovered his intellectual brilliance that outpaced that of his mates. He became more and more enthusiastic about education and his achievements.
When he shared his enthusiasm with his father, here’s the response he got: “I don’t care how much education you get or how successful you become, because you will always be a nigger”.
Fast-forward to today, Roland Fryer is at another level – one many of his colleagues aspire to. Due to his dazzling intelligence, brilliant research skills, aged 27, he became an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University. At the age of 30, became the first African-American to win tenure as professor of economics at Harvard.
His research work is focused on racial inequality in America. He looks at why African-Americans rank at the bottom, be it in education or income. He’s trying to find where exactly African-Americans go wrong. It’s this work that earned him the John Bates Clark Medal. On top of this he’s won many awards.
Roland Fryer’s story is a very important story. It should be told everywhere we go. His childhood is experienced by many, perhaps most Black teenagers across America – who grow up in communities where criminality is high, with a single parent, and where education is of less significance.
Advocates of social justice always complain that the capitalist system has been rigged against Blacks, and that Blacks find it hard to succeed because of racism. They argue that government needs to do something. Really? Is this a problem that can be solved by government?
If the system has been rigged against Blacks and there’s racism, then how did people like Roland Fryer succeed? How do Asians and Nigerians who arrive in America as foreigners end up working for blue chip companies in that country?
Fryer’s story is my story in a sense, though I’m not in his league.
I grew up in an environment where education was of less significance – where at the age of 15, boys start smoking marijuana, or drop out of school. Teenage pregnancy was rife. Education was not part of culture.
At one point, I lost focus on education that I told myself when I finish school I’m going to get my security guard certificate, become a security guard, get a small a place to stay, get a woman and have kids with her. I had told myself that post-school education is not an option.
That changed in my last two years of schooling. My attitude changed, and I encountered teachers who preached the importance of education daily. In my matric, I told myself that I want to go to university and become something. I did.
Millions of young, mostly black, people in the United States and in South Africa face these challenges when they grow up. Of course the standards of living in these countries are very different – the U.S. is a developed nation while South Africa is developing and is poor.
What is very clear, is that nobody can make a positive change in these black communities except young people themselves. They have to make right choices about their lives.
It wasn’t government that transformed Roland Fryer’s life, it’s him who chose to stop doing bad things and pursued education. He discovered his talents and invested in them. You and I should do the same too.
Most of the troubles faced by black communities today don’t have much to do with racism or a capitalist system rigged against Blacks, they have to do with very bad mentality and bad lifestyle that is found in most black communities – education being neglected, the disintegration of families, loss of self-respect and criminality. I know, that’s where I grew up. And all these things may be changed. We can change them.
That’s not to say other cultures are perfect. No they are not. They also do face these challenges too, but looking at the data, you see that black communities are much worst.
I hope Roland Fryer will continue with his hard work in the United States. And that he will be an inspiration to young people, especially Blacks.
Your attitude can change so much in your life, regardless of your race. Government isn’t the solution to most problems we face today. Because no matter how much money it may throw in to the problem, in the name of addressing the injustices of the past, if people, of any color, don’t choose civilization, they will progress nowhere. Please, let’s make right choices. PM
© PHUMLANI M. MAJOZI