Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Common Problem of Being a 1st Generation Black Professional

In America, a college education has long been established as one of the gateways to the "American Dream."   From a young age we are told that if we go to school, work hard, and get good grades then it will all pay off someday.  But for many minorities who are the first in their family to go to school, there's an asterisk next to that mantra.  Studies show that of all graduating Black high school seniors, approximately 56% enroll in college.  Of that 56%, 49% (approximately half) of them are the first person in their family to attend college.  Ever.  While you're pondering that statistic, consider this: out of all the Black college freshmen enrolled around the country, 70% of them still lack the money to cover tuition and the cost of attendance even after receiving grants and scholarships.  Of those 70% who fall short, most of them take out student loans to cover the difference.  Given these facts, it is not difficult to see how this creates a problem for many first generation Black professionals.

Take the story of one of my best friends for example.  We'll call him Sam.  Sam is a doctor who recently graduated from his medical school residency.1  Like many residency graduates, he came out making a nice 6-figure salary.  However, Sam (who, BTW, is Black) is the first in his family to not only graduate from med school, but he is the first in his family to graduate from college. Period.  Unlike many of his med school classmates who received financial assistance from their 4th or 5th (or 6th?) generation college, and in some cases, med school-educated parents (some parents even paid for the entire cost of attendance), Sam graduated with over $200,000 of student loan debt.  That's how he's starting his professional life.

Similarly, those same classmates (who also happen to come from families that have had the luxury of owning property for several generations) were able to call upon their parents once again after graduation for that first down payment on a new home.  My friend Sam?  He rents.  But that's not even the most troubling part of this story.  The real kicker is this: not only is Sam's family unable to support him as he starts out on his own in the game of life, but in a most counter-intuitive Twilight Zone-type reversal of family roles, now Sam has to support his family.

This type of a scenario would ordinarily seem bizarre if only it weren't so common for so many young minority professionals in America.

A few years ago, I recall overhearing one of my Latino law school classmates speaking on the phone with her father about family affairs.  I was tuned out for the most part but I distinctly remember her saying something about how she would give the family some money as soon as she received her first paycheck from the very prestigious law firm that she was interning for that summer.  The reason why this stands out in my memory to this day is because earlier that same day I had a conversation with one of my White classmates who, as it turns out, has a father who is a very distinguished judge.  The juxtaposition of that stark contrast made me wonder how two people at the same point in their lives receiving the same education from the same school could have such completely different realities.  One was talking about planning a nice spring break trip to Europe, the other was talking about paying for her parents' car note to avoid repossession. 

Again, I've come to find that these stories are more common than not among minority professionals.  It seems that just about every minority professional I know struggles to get ahead because they're constantly sending money back home to pay for mom's mortgage, or pay for dad's rent, or pay for their little brother's summer class, or their aunt's medical bills or their uncle's late credit card payment.  These stories are, by and large, the exact opposite of what many of us hear from our White friends at work.  This is not to paint with a broad brush to imply that every White professional lives on easy street, but the frequency of sending money back home vs. money being sent from home is significantly different between White professionals and Black professionals.  This should also not be misconstrued as a post taking a swipe at White professionals.  Indeed, I submit that they're doing it how it should be done. As a parent, you're supposed to help your kids.  Unfortunately, for many Black and other minority professionals, we're simply living in a reality where it's the other way around.

I would venture to guess that in most cases the need for financial help is genuine, but in some cases family members are guilty of taking advantage of the family's first Black professional.   One recent Black med school graduate told me about a conversation with her mom where her mom literally said to her (paraphrasing) "you need to hurry up and graduate so we can go down to Bergdorfs and get me a coat."  And in case you were wondering, the mom was dead serious.  We've seen this kind of scenario play out time and time again.  Remember how LeBron James' mom went out and bought a brand new Hummer before he even signed his contract with the Cavaliers? 2 Indeed, many first generation Black professionals find themselves inundated by family members (many of whom they may have never even met before) who coincidentally find themselves in a financial crisis that just so happens to land on the 1st and 15th of each month.  Which brings us to the million dollar question - as the only professional in the family, at what point do you put your foot down and say "no."

If you are a first generation Black professional in this country, chances are you've had to wrestle with this question before.  There is no easy answer.  I've been practicing law for roughly 5 years and for each of those 5 years I've had to help my family out financially for one thing or another.  I used to struggle with the concept of when to say "no" until I lost my job in 2008 during the "height" of the recession.  My Manhattan rent at the time for a 1 bedroom was close to $2,000/month and it became clear to me very quickly that my family, bless their hearts, literally could not afford to help me out.  I was on my own.  So I learned a valuable lesson about overextending yourself financially to help your family; you should try to help your family whenever you can but make sure you have enough left at the end of the day to keep the lights on.  Nevertheless, for many first generation Black professionals, the answer to the common problem facing all of us may not be so clear. 

1. If you are a young Black professional, can you relate to this problem? How do you deal with it?
2. If you are a young professional of ANY background, can you relate to this problem?  How do you deal with it?
3. Taking a step back, why does this problem seem more prevalent in the Black/Latino community than in the White community?
4. Does this phenomenon in 2011 help make the case for the continued need for some form of affirmative action?

1 - If you're not familiar with the med school process, a residency (which can last anywhere from 3 to 6 years) is the period of time after med school where doctors have to learn their craft working extremely long hours for very little pay.  Even though they are licensed medical doctors, they don't start making the big bucks until after their residency is completed.

2 - Yes, I know it was allegedly a "gift" for LeBron, but that's not the point.  The point is, she had no business buying a Hummer on her income alone and completely took advantage of her son's then-future earnings to buy it.
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