The absence of black designers has been a topic of speculation for decades and likely will be for years to come. Even as black professionals begin to make progress towards breaking into "college-educated" disciplines of all kinds--design is an outlier. Sadly, not by that much. As it were, the white-collar working world is still very white.
In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the improvement in representation has been so slow it will take black professionals, who represent 10% of all "white-collar" occupations, 38 years to overcome the gap. Compared to fields like product and industrial design, in which black ranks linger around 1.6%--that's somehow the good news. When it comes to diversity, we understand (but do not endorse) the truism, "You win some, you lose some," but it's not unnatural to wonder why do black designers keep losing? The answer is--an abject failure, on many parts, to derail a feedback loop fueled by poverty.
Money is the Root of All Privilege
"Yes, there are a lot of different factors to why there are not a lot of black designers, and so I'm going to first start with the one that's more obvious to me is most of the black community is still kind of poor," -Tim Hykes/UX Designer
Tim Hykes is not wrong. In fact, he is so right that a close examination of the racial wealth gap is cringeworthy. With a net worth of $171,000 (2016), white families are almost ten times more prosperous than black families, who, on average, have $17,150 in net assets. This startling wealth gap started in the US well before emancipation--ostensibly the day the first enslaved black person set a chained foot on this country's shores. But even if we examine the trends since 1866--when the legal barriers to black property owners began to dissolve--that's over 150 years of questionable progress. At every turn, African American efforts for wealth equality have been hampered: The Tulsa Massacre, Jim Crow "Black Codes, the GI bill, even the so-called "Fair Labor Standards Act" in the New Deal. Yet, perhaps no one way has been as devastating to the rise of black professionals in design as segregated districting.
Bound by Design
"Non-white school districts get $23 billion less than white districts despite serving the same amount of students…For every student enrolled, the average nonwhite school district receives $2,226 less than a white school district." -Edbuild.org
From a 30,000 foot view, this points to the frightening reality that schools in the US are still segregated. A nicer way to say it is "racially concentrated." *The benchmark for racial concentration, in this case, is that three-quarters of students are white or nonwhite within an educational institution. Zoomed in to a community level, it shows the power redlining has on future wealth distribution. When districts are drawn and schools funded based on race, students of color are redlined out of white-collar jobs. By political design, black children become black laborers sent into the lower echelons of the workforce, not because that is where they aspire to be, but because that is what their schools are funded to produce. And black parents, black teachers, and black administrators know this, which is why when it comes time to allocate already scant college funds and occupation endorsements, "designer" is simply not practical enough to make the cut. Altruistic "efforts" to supplement art education and exposure in communities of color are just as impotent and can even be exploitative in some ways too.
The Philanthropic 2-Percenters
The philanthropic funding and grantmaking processes at large and for the arts are not immune to conscious or unconscious racial bias and inequity. Many startling statistics support this argument. However, for our purpose, the one that most stands out is:
"Just 2-percent of all cultural institutions receive nearly 60 percent of all contributed revenue, up approximately five percentage points over a decade." Helicon Collaborative Report 2017
It is essential to understand the definition of "cultural institution" in the context above. It's cultural with a big C, meaning all cultural institutions, meaning it includes Western European ones, like The Met. These behemoths are disproportionately funded and disproportionately white, causing sustainaibility issues for those that are not. To be fair, the Met's board of trustees is made up of 25% POC, ranking well in diversity for an institution of it's size and influence. But, NYC is over 50% people of color--the mirror is still broken.
Privilege and Pie Slicing
To Large arts organizations: It's time to recognize your historic privilege and the physics of pie slicing."
The presence of top-heavy arts funding to already privileged institutions reveals this--in a charitable space that presumably should be supplementing underfunded community arts, white people are once again taking the biggest bite of the pie. A bite so big, it's forcing the fractured subset of minority institutions to fight amongst themselves for scraps from the table. The big losers of this Darwinian struggle for funding tend to be black and Latino arts organizations. A recent study even suggests that cutting off funding to some struggling black and Latinx cultural arts programs may be the only path forward to save their stronger peers. According to the same study, even when the cultural institutions at the top feature minority exhibitions, however well-intentioned, it does more harm than good. It diverts attention, attendance, talent, and funding away from organizations of color.
Systemic Poverty and The Elusive Black Designer
The lack of arts funding and education publicly or privately has a slew of repercussions in communities of color. When children are not exposed to things, they cannot aspire to be them. Specific enculturation windows are missed, robbing young black minds of the chance to see themselves represented during certain developmental milestones. This hole in representation is present not just in the abstract but in the real world, too, in the form of mentors, sponsors, and role models. Even the children who are not inclined to enter into the industrial, product, web, or graphic design disciplines grow up to be skeptical parents. Unsure about supporting their children in becoming something they have practically never seen before--the elusive black designer. They are rightfully reticent to thrust their children into what they believe to be a rigged system with little reward. This is the feedback loop of poverty as it relates to black people in design: resource scarcity breeds resource insecurity which undermines support systems where black kids need them most--at home.
In our next blog of this series, we will look at why design industries, especially product and industrial, need markedly more black designers in their ranks. Not just to "do the right thing" but because diversity pays dividends.