Opportunity Matters: An Invitation for Dialogue

Hayling Price is an RC and joint degree candidate with the Harvard Kennedy School.

All lives have value.

This shouldn’t be a particularly radical statement for most students at Harvard Business School, but lately I’ve been reminded that it’s an assertion we can’t take for granted.

Our nation’s conscience has been rocked by a series of decisions in which grand juries declined to indict officers who could have stood trial for killing unarmed black men. Some have argued that justice hasn’t been served, while others suggest we don’t have legal grounds for criminal charges. Whether or not the case facts provide justification for prosecution, the aftermath of these decisions has forced our country to take a hard look in the mirror.

As I’ve engaged with classmates since these polarizing debates and civil unrest have emerged, and even though I’m identifiable as African American, I’ve noticed that some are surprised by just how close to home these events hit me. I’ve shared that on a fundamental level, the only substantive difference I see between myself and the victims of these tragedies is the level of opportunity we’ve all had access to. I’m no legal scholar and can’t claim to have any insights on crime-scene evidence, but I do know that the root causes of the episodes and the responses they’ve provoked have implications for us all.

As I’ve discovered my family’s history over the years, I’ve learned the story of resilient individuals persevering in a country that has systematically restricted their access to opportunity. Hard working, capable members of my family tree faced inferior school options, lacked access to capital and received unequal protection under the law because of their race.

Based on these experiences and the generations of injustices they have witnessed, I understand how members of our community have little reason to place their faith in the American legal system. While we should be proud of our society’s evolution over the past decades, everyone living in this country should remain vigilant against the lingering challenges that are impeding our national progress. There’s simply too much at stake for us to look away.

Throughout my life I’ve worked hard and played by the rules, but that hasn’t prevented me from experiencing several humiliating moments at the hands of police. On several occasions, I’ve been the recipient of aggression by law enforcement officials indiscriminately asserting I “fit the description” of a suspect at large. These were not random incidents with complex details that could be contested in a courtroom. They were experiences that are indicative of a recognizable pattern disproportionately impacting black males. Indeed, countless regional and national studies indicate that black youth are far less likely to commit a nonviolent offense than they are to be arrested for one. Still, reports of unarmed members of this population dying at the hands of police continue with chilling regularity.

With my cultural history and personal experiences in mind, I can’t help but see images of myself when I view news chronicling the lives of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. Their deaths were not simply a function of poor choices they made. Beyond the question of policing, the circumstances that led to their fatal encounters were the results of limited prospects in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

I recognize that I am the beneficiary of extraordinary circumstances, beginning with opportunities afforded to my parents and their progenitors. They took advantage of the educational and employment prospects they gained access to over the years; they were able to provide me with the financial support and social capital that ultimately landed me in a Harvard classroom. No doubt, they’ve worked extraordinarily hard to achieve our version of the American Dream— but this outcome wasn’t purely a function their own determination. Again, the fact remains that the only thing separating me from most living at the margins of our society is a stark opportunity gap.
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This dilemma poses a particularly important challenge for students at a school designed to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” While responsible policing practices are critical, these tragedies are the byproducts of a public education system and labor market that are failing us. Across the teams, organizations, and industries we may eventually influence, we will encounter critical decision points that could define the life chances for people on the cusp of economic mobility.

As stewards of key institutions, we cannot afford to look the other way while another generation misses out on their fighting chance. If we fail to be mindful of how we shape capital flows through under-served communities, we will be complicit in perpetuating structural barriers to opportunity. The conditions would inevitable lead to more tragic outcomes.

No matter what line of work we find ourselves in, our collective thought patterns and efforts can have a material impact on the landscape of economic opportunity in America. Challenges will inevitably persist, but if we remain committed to a shared vision of justice, I’m hopeful that our children will inherit a world where they don’t have to question what their lives are worth.

To engage with the members of the HBS community on this issue, join us in Spangler Lawn next Wednesday at 6:00pm for a moment of solidarity.