Career advancement still tough for many local African-Americans


By Adam Hunt |

Success has never come easy for Kai Walker.

As an African-American, the 47-year-old financial advisor is very much a minority in the banking industry.

“We have around 200 employees in my division and I am the only one who is black,” said Walker, who handles investment portfolios for Merrill Lynch in Jacksonville. “There are certainly still many barriers to African-Americans climbing the corporate ladder, especially in finance.”

According to figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last year, just 4.6 percent of the country’s certified financial advisors were black. And from tellers to CEO’s, there were only around 18,000 black employees in the U.S. banking industry in 2011.

Walker highlights a combination of factors that make it harder for blacks to succeed in a sector dominated by middle-class whites.

“In my experience there just isn’t the same kind of network of contacts for blacks in business,” said Walker. “Achieving success in finance is very much about personal connections and they were difficult for me to make at the start of my career when I was less experienced.”

Without a bulging contacts book to list, what is the key to success?

Walker thinks the answer for African-Americans is education. “Educational qualifications are one thing that employers can’t ignore,” he said. “I worked hard at college and graduate school because I knew it would help me get my foot in the door regardless of my race.”

Nationally, statistics support the claim that fewer blacks reach higher education and therefore don’t have a chance to crack industries that demand at least a bachelor’s degree. Census data from 2010 revealed that only 19.7 percent of African-Americans had bachelor’s or advanced degrees, compared to 32.6 percent of whites.

Furthermore, exactly twice the amount of blacks failed to graduate from high school than whites.

St. Augustine resident Dr. Melvin Barber grew up in unforgiving surroundings for blacks in North Carolina during the 1960s.

“Even after segregation was abolished it was still a tough time for blacks in the South,” said the Flagler College associate professor of sociology. “Fortunately for me, I came from a family that valued education and going to college was the norm when for many others it wasn’t even an option.

“I think my parents knew that getting an education would help my siblings and I to progress. My mother always said I had to be twice as good as a white person to succeed so that always inspired me.”

Nowadays, Barber thinks blacks have more opportunities to succeed in education. But some of the traditional barriers still remain. “I think as society has slowly become more accepting of minorities blacks have realized that they too can achieve success if they go after it with enough hard work.”

Barber also highlights the increasing number of African-Americans involved in collegiate athletics, particularly those who may not have otherwise been able to afford higher education.

“The fact that scholarships are available for these kids makes it easier for them to combine their skills in sports with getting an education,” he said. “They see a direct link between their hard work and the success it brings when it might have been seen as a futile effort before. “And as they start to set their sights higher than traditional working-class jobs, that mindset will slowly be passed on to others.”

Aside from the rapid rise to fame and fortune experienced by a relatively small number of African-Americans in sports and the arts, President Barack Obama’s success in politics has been unprecedented.

At the local level, African-Americans are far from a common sight in government.

St. Augustine City Commissioner Errol Jones is one of the few to have overcome the barriers.

“We (African-Americans) are almost non-existent in terms of the local decision-making process,” he said. “In a city like St. Augustine with such an important cultural heritage for blacks, I find that to be very disturbing.”

Like Walker and Barber, Jones credits much of his success to education.

The 69-year-old holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Florida A&M University and a master’s degree in social work from Adelphi University. “I knew that few opportunities would be handed to me so I saw education as a good way to show people what I was capable of,” he said.

Jones also focuses on the emergence of black role models as a starting point for children.

“African-American role models were few and far between in the past,” he said.

“It makes it easier to at least begin to set goals for yourself when you see others reaching theirs.”

But the success stories still belie the fact that times appear to be getting tougher for blacks chasing the American Dream.

According to a study conducted by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University in 2010, the wealth gap between whites and blacks has increased by an average of $75,000 per household since 1984.

In most cases, middle-income whites are now better off than high-income African-Americans.

“The figures show that even African-Americans who work hard at school and secure well-paying jobs are unlikely to reach the same level of wealth as their white peers,” said Barber. “It can be very difficult to foster a positive attitude in black communities when the chances of accumulating wealth are so low.”

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