At this very moment, in a big city or small town in America, a young Black person is sitting at the kitchen table. This young person could be male or female—it doesn’t matter which—but we’ll call her Alyssa. It’s early summer, and the sun is shining. Alyssa is happy because she’s just graduated from community college with an associate degree in marketing. She has her sights set on a four-year degree, and maybe even a master’s—but those plans are far in the future. Right now, Alyssa has a practical problem: To help support herself and her family, she needs to find a job.
Thanks to her training, she knows about marketing. If you had a new product to sell, Alyssa could put together a social media campaign in no time. But as Alyssa sits at her kitchen table, looking at her laptop, she’s bewildered. She knows how to sell a product, but she doesn’t know how to sell herself. Oh sure, she has a resume—it’s thin, but it’s a start!—and she knows how to post it on the online job platforms. But the competition is fierce, and it’s hard to peer “behind the curtain” and know your chances at any particular company. To add to the challenge she feels, she’s aware that racism exists in corporate America; and as a young Black person, how could she know which employers not only say they are “equal opportunity” but actually welcome minority applicants?
For example, Alyssa knows that according to the 2014 Diversity Report published by Google, the global internet company revealed that 70% of the overall Google staff were men, and that 61% were white. Asians made up 30%, Hispanics 3%, and blacks just 2% of the total staff.
Well, at least they’re honest enough to admit it, thought Alyssa. But what does that mean? Should I even bother to apply there?
Alyssa thinks about the stories she’s heard about people having “connections” and “networks” of friends, relatives, or classmates, and about how having such relationships is the best way to get a job and climb the ladder of success. She’s heard about the “old boy network” (which really means “white man network”) and how, over the years, whites have helped each other up the ladder of success through their networks of fraternities, alumni associations, private clubs, and inter-generational relationships.
Could there be such a thing for me? she wonders. She thinks about whom she might know who could help her find which ladder to climb. Her professor at school? Her mother? Her relatives? With a sigh, she scrolls through the job postings on her laptop. They all look indistinguishable from each other.
The Value of Social Capital
The challenge facing Alyssa is not a lack of training or job skills. She has her associate degree and some work experience from her local summer job as a clerk in a sunglasses store. She’s more than qualified for many entry-level jobs available to a person who is 20 years old and has two years of college. Her problem is her lack of social capital.
What is social capital?
Social capital is the sum total of an individual’s personal connections to people, organizations, and institutions in the local economy. Robust social capital provides the individual with critical labor market information and a support system that advocates for their career success. For example, a white student who graduates from a top university is likely to have a potent supply of social capital in the form of family, college, and club relationships. They are more likely to have a mentor or family connection say, “Congratulations on your college degree! I’m going to make a phone call for you. My friend is looking for someone to join his company. I think I can help you.”
To change the life of a young person, sometimes it takes only one phone call, one introduction, or one friendly reference. Having these connections can make launching a career much easier than if the young person is socially isolated and either has no connections or doesn’t recognize them.
While a person of any age, race, or ethnicity can lack social capital, the problem is particularly acute among educated Black youth. Optimistically, we call this underserved group “opportunity youth,” because they have tremendous untapped potential. Like Alyssa, millions of Black young people have the education and job skills needed by America’s workforce. They have the training and the desire to contribute to American productivity. The only thing they lack is social capital—and the knowledge of how to use it.
The Playing Field Is Not Level
It should be easy to empathize with Alyssa and the estimated 4.3 million other Black young people who want to participate in the vibrant promise of the American job market but who are unemployed. Unfortunately, too many adults—particularly those who enjoy successful careers—can be heard to say, “What’s the problem? It’s a free country. If they want a job, they should start applying!”
If the world were perfect and the playing field level for everyone, that might be a valid response. The problem is that the world is far from perfect and, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the playing field of corporate America is not level—it’s still tilted against Black Americans. As the Center for American Progress has revealed, there’s plenty of evidence showing that more than 50 years after the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, racial discrimination in employment and wages remains widespread. Studies show that hiring discrimination against Black people has not declined, and that regardless of educational attainment, gender, or labor market conditions, white job applicants are much more likely to be offered interviews than Black and Latinx applicants. More than half of Black Americans, one-third of Native Americans, one quarter of Asian Americans, and more than one-fifth of all Latinos report they’ve experienced racial discrimination in hiring, compensation, and promotion considerations.
The Way Forward
In order to correct these injustices and make the American Dream accessible to every citizen, it’s imperative that we level the playing field to ensure equal access to all. If having social connections with gatekeepers is a tremendous benefit to any class of job seekers, then we owe it to ourselves to help young people of color to recognize, develop, and leverage those opportunities.
 Danyelle Solomon, Connor Maxwell, and Abril Castro. “Systematic Inequality and Economic Opportunity.” https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/08/07/472910/systematic-inequality-economic-opportunity/
Edward DeJesus is the President and Founder of Social Capital Builders. www.socialcapitalbuilders.com
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