Years ago, the grandfather of Time Warner Chair Dick Parsons worked as head groundskeeper for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Two generations later, his grandson served as the New York governor's lawyer and counsel.
"Why wasn't I working in the gardens? What changed?" Parsons asked during a speech he gave at the National Urban League's 2006 annual conference in Atlanta last month. "Well, the answer is — the world changed. I have no doubt that I have no more ability or get-up-and-go or ingenuity than my grandfather or, in fact, my father, I just had greater opportunities to put that ... to work on a leveled playing field."
When Parsons said he stands on shoulders, he meant it. We all do. The foundation laid by our predecessors has enabled us to attain a certain level of success. However, we must resist resting on those laurels because we have so much further to go.
While we've achieved three of the four stages of development — enslavement, emancipation and enfranchisement — we still have one more — empowerment — to tackle if we hope to narrow the divide that separates Whites from minorities in the United States.
The longer our community waits to narrow the gap the more difficult it will be, Parsons warned.
"We are being buffeted in this marketplace, which is the richest and most diverse and most competitive in the world, with people from all over the globe coming here to seize opportunity," the Time Warner chair said. "The job is only going to get tougher the farther down the road we go. We've got to get down that road and get down that road fast."
He cites three keys to accelerating the process: First, improved public education; second greater access to capital and; third a stronger culture of achievement.
"Education is the sine qua non," Parsons said. "It is the thing without which nothing good happens."
While minority-owned small businesses have gained ground in the past decade, their access to capital could stand to be improved. Corporate America could play a stronger role in not only beefing up its direct use of minority firms but also use by its major vendors and contractors.
Fortune 500 companies in 2005 alone did $90 billion in business with minority-owned enterprises, according to Parsons.
The final strategy to expediting the empowerment phases is creating a culture of achievement that demands nothing less than greatness. Too frequently African Americans have labored under a tyranny of low expectations — not only from the majority community but our own. Parsons had no choice but to succeed because that is what was expected of him. He was expected to go to school and be a good student. He was expected to graduate from college. He was expected to succeed. That is something that needs to be instilled in our entire community.
"We have to talk about the creation of a set of expectations and a culture of achievement. We must make sure that it's not the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about," Parsons said. "If we wait for someone to do it for us, we're going to be waiting a while."
Accelerating the empowerment phase of development will pave the way for more African Americans like Parsons to emerge from our community in our future.
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO, National Urban League.