Yesterday, four movers arrived at our new home to deliver items I had not seen since we placed them in storage some three years ago. Two of these delivery men were African American brothers. When one of them walked in he said, “I remember this house! I moved the people out of here a few weeks ago.” Then he gave me that subtle nod that black people exchange. Next he asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I was starting a new job as a professor of New Testament at one of the schools near here. Soon after this, his brother walked in and he told him that I was a professor and that I moved here to start a new job with my wife and kids. His brother then started to educate me on the glories of my new neighborhood and the local attractions within walking distance. They both said your kids are to love this place.
There were two conversations happening at once. One was the normal small talk that all strangers share, but beneath that I could tell that there was some black pride on display. I did not know exactly how to take that. I have always believed that all honest work was good work. I did not consider myself to be very different from them. I did not come from money and NT professors are not rich. But they seemed to see things differently.
As they began to move my stuff in, the younger brother complained, “these small boxes are heavy!” The other brother responded, “those boxes are full of books.The man is professor, fool! he needs those books!” I think that all older brothers talk recklessly to younger brothers.
Around midmorning, I brought them some coke and chips. They took a break and we sat down to talk. They asked me how old I was. It turns out that we were all about the same age. I was 36, He was 41, and his brother was 38. Then asked me how I had managed to become a professor at such a young age. I responded, that I was not that young. Most folks in my Ph.D. program were younger than me. I wanted to say more. I wanted to say that I grew up just like they did. I wanted to say that I knew about drugs, gangs, and rough high schools.
I wanted to shrink distance that they wanted to create between the three of us. But I sat there sipping Coke and listening to them talk about their kids. One of them told me that he had two good kids who had moved to the suburbs so that they could get away from the city schools. They were on vacation with their mom. This was the longest he had ever gone without seeing them, but he texted his son every day. It almost felt like he was trying to prove to me that he was a good father. He missed them. I said I missed my kids too. My kids were vacationing with their mom as well. In that moment, we were two dads talking about our kids and our hopes for their future. Then they went back to work and I went back to checking things off the list as they came out of the truck.
At one point, during a lull in the work, one of them came up and said, “It is good to see a young black man living in a place like this and working as a college professor.”
After a few hours, they had finished their work. I gave them all a tip and thanked them for the work that they had done. After they left, my interactions with the movers lingered. It was not the first time this had happened. When we moved from our house in Florida,a different set of black movers had come into a white neighborhood. Again the black movers had commented about my home and the beginning of my journey toward a Ph.D. But what does it all mean?
It reminded me that for our all progress there is still a class divide in America and many African Americans remain on the wrong side of that divide. That divide is so stark and lingering that moving a black man into a nice neighborhood was something of a shock.
But there is more. Those who have been lucky enough to make the long journey from poverty to the middle class can’t forget about those who were left behind. It is an established fact that education is a key factor in alleviating poverty. One study has shown:
that blacks with a four-year college degree now earn on average nearly double the income of blacks who have no better than a high school diploma. African Americans with a two-year associate’s degree improve their incomes by 41 percent over blacks with just a high school diploma. But blacks with a four-year college degree outperform blacks with a high school diploma by 93.4 percent. In 2004 blacks holding only a high school diploma had a median income of $18,657. The median income of blacks with a bachelor’s degree (but no graduate degree) was $36,086.
Therefore, if we want more minority doctors, lawyers, and professors, then expanding access to higher education is non-negotiable. This is why attending to systems matters. Tutoring and mentoring matters. I understand why we are having a national conversation about race and policing. It is needed. But if the policing problem were completely solved, we would still have a class and education problem. If you want to help our communities, then you and your local church should invest deeply in expanding the access to higher education for disadvantaged communities. Black education matters as well.