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‘We can thrive, create and innovate’: James Jackson III on the opportunities for Black Utahns

 James Jackson III was born and raised in Utah and is the founder of the Utah Black Chamber and author of the new book ‘Black Utah.’
courtesy James Jackson III
James Jackson III was born and raised in Utah and is the founder of the Utah Black Chamber and author of the new book ‘Black Utah.’

Like many desirable places out West, the last census found that Utah is one of the fastest-growing states in the country. People flock here in search of towering mountains and the thriving job market. Still, it’s not as appealing to many African Americans, who often encounter extra barriers. On average, Black households earn just over half of what white households earn in Utah. And despite a community that has grown more than 36% in the past decade, African Americans make up just over 1% of the state’s overall population.

But James Jackson III sees tremendous opportunities in the state for everyone, and that’s part of why he founded the Utah Black Chamber. Jackson also published a book this year, Black Utah, that tells the stories of business and community leaders forging new paths in Utah. Jackson joined Pamela McCall to talk about sculpting a more equitable state.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: What was it like to be born in and grow up in Utah — a predominantly white state?

James Jackson: I didn't realize how unique of an experience it was until I was much older and got to know people from out of state who grew up in a much more diverse community, because I thought it was just the way it was. Not a lot of black people. I was usually the only one in the class. I always found safety when in my home church because it gave me an opportunity to release. It's a thing we term code-switching. Whenever you go to school, you adapt to a certain way. But when I'm home or I'm at church or with my family, then I can just release and be all me, my goofy plain self. But I know when I walk out that door, I'm cognizant of the different approach I have to take. How am I dressed? I don't put the hood up on my hoodie. I don't want to look a certain way that may attract any type of negative perception when I'm walking through a certain store or whatnot. So we know we're not representing just James Jackson. We're representing the black community when we're out and about.

PM: And how do you feel that you're viewed right now in Utah? 

JJ: I don't look at what outsiders feel about us. I look at how I would like our community represented — strong, confident, professional, can adapt to any circumstance. We can thrive. We can create. We can innovate.

PM: How can we close the large gap between what Black and white households earn?

JJ: Several different ways. Financial literacy definitely needs to take place. And then real estate within the white community is one of the reasons why there is that welfare -- because there has been real estate that's been transferred from generation to generation. With the black community, we're constantly starting over and trying to acquire more real estate. And three is just trying to identify and remove the barriers that exist within corporations and employers, even unconsciously. There are companies that are striving for a more diverse culture, but they're not recognizing the barriers or unconscious biases that exist within their companies. And so we want to be able to help them identify those and also reduce those barriers. So when we're applying for jobs, they're not looking at the name of the person or looking at the picture of that person, but they look at the qualifications, look at the experience.

PM: James, with the wage disparity that we've discussed and the work hurdles, why would you encourage more African Americans to come to Utah?

JJ: There are still tremendous opportunities here. We have so many changemakers, so many pioneers here that have laid out the path. And when we invite people in, more and more people can get educated, more exposure, more visibility to reconnect and change Utah for the better as becoming a more diverse and welcoming state and eliminate the revolving door of the Black individuals coming in and out of Utah. They come in, aren't able to identify or connect, and they go right back out.

PM: You created the Utah Black Chamber. What has it done for your community?

JJ: We're approaching 300 members right now, and about a third of them are black-owned businesses. We've seen a lot more businesses start and a lot more businesses grow here. We've seen a lot more black professionals feel more connected here and established when they connect to the Black Chamber, helping companies to diversify their talent, become more educated about the black experience and just the diverse experience.

PM: Do you foresee a day when there will no longer be a need for a Black Chamber of Commerce, that everyone will be in one Chamber of Commerce? 

JJ: That's the goal, right? The overarching goal of a Black Chamber is to build that bridge. To get people to understand the black community, to get them to stand up to barriers, to understand the needs that exist for people of color. But the goal is to work ourselves out of business. I don't know when that will be coming, but I do feel that it is a realistic goal.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
Leah is the Morning Edition associate producer at KUER.
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