Ed. Note: This post is part of the Celebrating Black History Month series, which highlights African Americans from across the Administration whose work contributes to the President's goals for winning the future.
As United States Trade Representative, I am a member of President Obama's Cabinet and serve as the President's principal trade advisor, negotiator and spokesperson on trade issues. In this role, I have led the office in developing trade policies that are proactive, responsible, and more responsive to American families' interests – recognizing that trade can be a job-creating pillar of economic recovery in the United States and around the world.
My story begins in the south –the segregated south, to be specific. I was born in 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in Austin, Texas – an otherwise progressive city, but still a city that was segregated and lived by the rules of Jim Crow. When I was born, my parents were denied their right to vote. Like so many other black families throughout the south at the time, they were faced with literacy tests for “colored people.”
Nonetheless, my mother and father made sure that my brother and sister and I attended church, recited our Bible verses, studied hard and made good grades, because they knew that education would be essential to our success. Thanks to my parents’ efforts to ensure I had educational opportunities, I was able to attend college, to obtain a law degree, to launch and build a successful legal career, and eventually, to have the privilege of serving as Texas Secretary of State, under Governor Ann Richards, in the same state that once forced my mother and father to endure a literacy test.
I went on to become the first African-American mayor of the City of Dallas, Texas. I was elected twice with support from communities of every size, shape, and color. And today I am the first African-American United States Trade Representative, appointed to serve in the Cabinet of the first African-American President of the United States. To say the least, I feel extraordinarily blessed.
This month, as we reflect on how far we have come, the best way to honor the leaders who sacrificed to get us here is to redouble our efforts to do more with what we have today. We should focus on the power of families, and consider what each of us can do as parents, neighbors, teachers, mentors, and friends to help support and enrich our youth. Right now we can control our own destinies if we seize the opportunity to educate our children better and prepare them more fully for the jobs of the 21st century.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama told Americans that the future is ours to win – but only if we rise to the challenge. Because countries like China and India have started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies in an effort to get a head start on the next big thing. So if Americans are to compete for and win the jobs and industries of the future, we need to out-smart, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.
This international challenge is especially significant for the African-American community, because in educational attainment we are not even keeping pace with our peers in the United States. African-American students trail not only almost every other developed nation abroad, but they also badly trail their white classmates here at home. That achievement gap is widening the income gap between black and white Americans, and between rich and poor.
Everywhere I’ve had the privilege to travel as U.S. Trade Representative, I’ve seen first-hand families in places like Africa and Asia and India making extraordinary sacrifices so they can invest in their children’s future and give them a better life through education. They are reading, writing, and speaking English at the earliest possible age in addition to one or more of their native languages. They are studying science and math and engineering. And now they have access to all of the world’s information at the click of a mouse.
Yet I have confidence that we can rise to meet all of these challenges and win the future as President Obama has challenged us to do. In all of my travels people I’ve met still regard the United States as an absolute beacon for the universal aspirations of the human spirit. We are a symbol of freedom and liberty around the world. At the same time, I truly believe ‘Made in America’ is still the most powerful brand in the world, and the United States remains the best place in the world to do business, by far. President Obama and I believe America’s best days are ahead of us, and that’s why we are moving forward, working hard every day to open new markets, increase exports, and ensure a level playing field for American producers to sell “Made in America” goods and services around the world in support of jobs here at home.
Ambassador Ron Kirk is the United States Trade Representative.