How The Permanent Achievement Gap Keeps Blacks At The Bottom

January 31, 2011  |  

Economists have long argued that competitive markets serve as the best mechanism for producing optimal outcomes:  channeling capital to production that yields the highest return, setting prices to prevent under- or over-production, and appropriately rewarding the smartest and most productive for their labor.  Clearly this is an ideal that has not existed for some time now in the United States.

Today, a young or aged person can have a brilliant idea for a new product, but the odds are stacked against her to bringing that idea to birth and benefiting accordingly.

If she is not an engineer, she may have difficulty with the design and, ultimately, with protecting her intellectual property.  This assumes that the cost of obtaining a patent attorney to file for a patent is not prohibitive.

Even if she is successful in obtaining a patent, what are her prospects for raising enough capital to make a prototype that can be marketed?  And even if the product is produced and marketed, there is absolutely no chance that she will have an opportunity to see the reach of her product extend far because the proverbial “multinational corporation” will swoop down and “make [her] an offer that [she] cannot refuse.”

This is not to say that innovators and entrepreneurs reap no benefits from their labor.  Far from it!  However, it is increasingly difficult to grow a Ford Motor Company or a Microsoft Corporation.  The odds are stacked against someone who has such a dream.

For Black Americans, such prospects are essentially nil.  Even though Black Americans have shown a great proclivity to find solutions to problems through inventions, there is little known of great Black innovators.  They were not bountifully enriched by their 18th, 19th, or 20th century inventions.  Why should we expect otherwise during the 21st Century?

This brings us to our important point.  There is no end to the discussion concerning the Black-White academic achievement gap—especially in the physical sciences.  Rationally, we should ask, “Why does the gap exist and persist?”  The logical answer is that there is abundant evidence that Black actors, athletes, and musicians can become rich.  There is little evidence that a Black inventor can achieve fame and fortune.

Black youth are wise and rational actors.  Their eyes are open.  They know what they see.  Therefore, until we have rich and famous Black innovators other than in the entertainment world, we should not expect to see Black scientists solving the world’s problems.

The sad fact is that even White inventors today can rarely claim the wealth and success of top Black athletes and entertainers, so there is little motivation for Black youth to travel the physical science route.

The problem with this outcome is that, without the knowledge and inclination to innovate, Black Americans will always be in a work trap trying to earn enough to purchase newly invented products—and never benefiting, albeit modestly, from their own inventions and production.  In addition, an absence of Black innovator-entrepreneurs means that the Black unemployment rate will always be higher than it would otherwise be.

Therefore, not only should we expect a continuation of the Black-White academic achievement gap in the physical sciences, but we should also expect to see Blacks remaining at the bottom of the consumption-production-wealth pyramid.
Dr. B.B. Robinson is an economist and director of, a resource for economic concepts, issues and policies affecting African-Americans.

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