A stubborn issue being addressed around the country: the economic plight of black Americans. They are the poorest US racial group, less economically secure, and more dependent on government aid. Today we’re off to Rochester New York, a city with a large African American population where companies stepped up 50 years ago with a forward-thinking jobs plan. A half century later, we found some surprising insights on what happened to the best of intentions, and why more money isn’t the answer. Our cover story is: Black to the Future.
Kerwin Jackson is a go-getter who started working at age 12.
Kerwin Jackson: You need to be on time. You need to be willing to do what needs to be done then and there. You can't say, "That's not my job."
He’s worked his way to head of shipping at Panther Graphics a black-owned business in Rochester, New York. Taelor Jackson, no relation to Kerwin, is the owner’s daughter and a company vice-president.
Taelor Jackson: We offer quality high products, high quality services, and we can compete on a national level. Yes, we're black owned. Yes, we love being that, but we're also so much more.
But such success stories are surprisingly uncommon in a city that’s 40% African American. Rochester has been home to giant companies like Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, Xerox and Wegman’s. Yet one recent analysis calls it the worst place in the country for blacks to live.
Sharyl (On-camera): Decades ago here in Rochester there was a major push by big companies to diversify and create opportunities for the large number of black residents. But there’s widespread recognition now that it didn’t produce the long term results people hoped for and there may be lessons learned for the future here and in other cities.
The flashpoint for change were riots that broke out in 1964. Police were accused of being too forceful with a drunken, disorderly black man who resisted arrest. Bystanders hurled rocks and bricks at police. 15-hundred National Guard troops were called in to quell three days of looting and fires. There were hundreds of injuries and arrests.
In the aftermath, Rochester’s major companies launched a push to address the economic plight of the expanding black, poor population.
Robert Duffy: One of the local business leaders, I think it was Xerox at the time, started opening up doors, Kodak opened doors. I don't think doors were opened before to men and women of color in Rochester in some of the bigger companies.
Robert Duffy has been Rochester’s police chief, mayor, and New York’s lieutenant governor. Today he heads the local Chamber of Commerce.
Sharyl: So elaborate on that just a tad: The companies at the time said, "We have a problem, we want to help be part of the solution?”
Duffy: It was, I believe, the CEO or chairman of Xerox drove right down into the middle of the riots where he met with some of the ministers and doors opened. So clearly, there were issues that you can't deny where there were walls and barriers at one point, and I'm not saying things changed dramatically after that, but at least it began to change.
Sharyl: Were you at one time, one of the highest ranking black employees at Kodak?
Dennis Bassett: Yes I was.
Dennis Bassett was working his way up at Kodak back then, as the company set a goal of filling more jobs with African Americans.
Sharyl: After they did an initiative to bring on board more minority workers, do you know what they reached in terms of percentage or ratio?
Bassett: You now what? That's interesting. And as high up as I was in the organization, I never knew that data. Data kept very close to the vest.
Bassett: Kept very close to the vest.
Nobody denies doors opened. And there was a sense of optimism. But 50 years later life is still dismal for much of Rochester’s black community. And for that matter, others across the nation.
Today, blacks are the U.S. racial group most dependent on government aid.
40% qualify for welfare compared to 21% of Hispanics, 18% of Asian-Americans, and 17% of whites.
More than one in five blacks are living in poverty, triple the rate of whites.
In Rochester, it’s even worse. More than one third of blacks are poor.
Bassett: But you know something? It is 2022, and we're asking the same questions in 2022 that we asked in 1970. We're having the same bottlenecks of how to get people of color, African Americans, in the job force in 2022 that we asked in 1970.
Looking back, Bassett says the best of intentions didn’t always come with follow through.
Bassett: I know the years that I worked at Kodak, I rose through the ranks and had an opportunity to be assistant to a Senior Vice President at Kodak, Frank Strong, who was very actively and positive on trying to bring African Americans into the organization. But I think the one thing that caused the programs not to gain the kind of traction that it should have gained is that you've got to sell it to the first line managers. There’s a lot of obstacles in looking at a pool of applicants and saying if I've never— and I bet you there's a lot of people in middle management— never sit in a classroom with an African American, I'm going to give that person a chance. That's a big leap.
Sharyl: But that was in the 1970s.
Sharyl: Do you think today is vastly different in terms of how management would think, and who's there when looking at the job pool?
Bassett: Another good question. And I would hope so. I know in corporate America, people want people around them that they're comfortable with. And I don't think that's any different than any walk of life.
Many also blame Rochester’s failing schools, among the worst-performing in the nation despite a billion dollar renovation begun 7 years ago.
Duffy: We have a school system that has graduated anywhere between 38%, when I was mayor at one point up to maybe 50 or 60%. And a local community college will tell you that 100% of those graduates have to go through remedial education courses before they're ready to take college courses.
Sharyl: How can that be?
Duffy: Well, it's not based on money because it's funded tremendously. One of the highest per capita funding mechanisms across New York state and the country. I'm going to say it's probably per capita, upward north of $30,000 per student. You look at generations of high school dropouts, you cannot get a job and make a $100,000 today, if you dropped out in 10th grade.
Which helps explain why so many people here are unemployed while the Chamber of Commerce has 6,000 job openings listed.
Duffy: And there's a thing called the benefits cliff. If somebody's on public assistance and we've had this happen many times, maybe with a couple kids in childcare subsidies, they might be getting around $52,000 a year.
Sharyl: To not work and just get benefits?
Duffy: To not work. You can't work, you are on social services, public assistance.
Duffy: Our new mayor coming in, he's a city kid grew up here, Mayor Evans, I think brings hope that a lot of things he gets and understands he'll help elevate some of those systems.
In fact, there are a lot of folks in Rochester who seem to be pinning hope on Mayor Malik Evans, who took the job January 1st.
Sharyl: What are the lessons learned here in Rochester that might apply to other cities that are looking to do the same thing?
Mayor Malik Evans: You can't give someone a $50,000 loan and if they have no skills, expect them to be able to be successful.
Sharyl: A lot of people say private companies have a role; government has a role.
Evans: Yeah. I think private companies actually have a bigger role than government. But the power that we do have is the convening power. And that's the role the government can play the convening power to get people in rooms like this, to say, what can we do to work together to do that? That is I think one of the key ingredients that was missing before and something that I think a role government can play now.
When it comes to figuring out how Rochester ended up largely back where it started, 50 years later, the answer turns out to be that a lot more is needed beyond offering jobs on paper.
Duffy: Don’t keep putting money in bad systems. Bad systems will ruin good people. And I think education, economic development preparation, you have to take a step back and start looking, what has worked and what hasn't worked. And I think that aligning all those different systems is important. And right now they're not aligned, I think they're not. And if we don't fix these things now, we'll have the same conversation. Maybe somebody else, 10 years down the road, will have these same conversations. Because this movie has played out here for a long time.
Back at Panther Graphics, Jackson— who’s 23—is training to take over the family business.
Sharyl: What would you say on the national level?
Taelor Jackson: I think it's time to get creative. Yes, it may be failing school system. Yes, it may be a failing housing environment, but why? And I think that's where we're failing ourselves, is not trying to find the why, but always looking at just on the surface level.
Sharyl: What do you see in 10 years for this city?
Jackson: So 10 years from now, I do see Rochester on the right path. I always go back to education I think that's we're failing our students education right now and they're the future. So, I think investing into that, 10 years from now, Rochester should be on its way back up.
Sharyl (on-camera): There are still many programs going in Rochester to help. Four local minority owned businesses just completed a six-month training program by Goldman Sachs to help them set up more efficient and profitable systems at work.