The cost of blocked opportunity

Almost a half century later, we understand the loss all of us sustained by denying opportunity to a few.
As a result of segregation, the members of the Decatur Negro High School football team had few opportunities, athletic or otherwise. The post-graduation options of even the best players were essentially limited to a semi-professional team, the Decatur Rough Riders. From 1960 to 1966 the Rough Riders had a 66-2 record. The players got paid — $3 — for one of those 68 games.
We rightly focus on the unfairness to the black players. They were deprived of measuring their talents against white players. They were almost completely blocked from playing on college teams or in a professional league.
The loss, though, was not just theirs. Many fans who would have enjoyed watching the dazzling moves of Leo Gray or the impossible receptions of Madison Romine never had the chance. College and professional teams that might have been excellent with players whose talent was honed at Decatur Negro High School had to instead settle for being mediocre.
We all would have been better off if they could have tried out for the big leagues. Their lost opportunity was a loss to the sport.
While we finally understand that all of us were victims of segregation, we have been slow to apply the lesson to economics.
In 2009, one-fourth of American households had zero or negative net worth. After three more years of high unemployment, the number is probably higher now. In Alabama, 42 percent of non-white households had zero or negative net worth in 2009.
In an economic system that reserves its greatest rewards for those willing to risk capital, that means one-fourth of our players can’t even try out for the team. They have no capital to risk. They struggle to obtain housing, health care and food. Starting a business or attending college is, for most, unimaginable.
We routinely debate the morality of such a system. Is it fair that some are deprived of almost any opportunity for success by virtue of the financial status of their parents?
The other question, though, is also compelling. How much worse off are we, as a society, because we are deprived of the talent and energy of so many? What would America look like if all children had the chance to excel, without the ever-present fear of going without food, without shelter or without needed medical care?
One lesson of the Rough Riders is that all of us are worse off when we block some from opportunity.

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Filed under Capitalism, Poverty, Race

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