BOSTON — Microsoft founder Bill Gates told the National Urban League that a child’s success should not depend on the race or income of parents and that poverty cannot be an excuse for a poor education.
Gates said shifting the emphasis to education helps in the battle against poverty.
“Let me acknowledge that I don’t understand in a personal way the challenges that poverty creates for families, and schools and teachers,” the billionaire said at the civil rights group’s recent annual convention. “I don’t ever want to minimize it. Poverty is a terrible obstacle. But we can’t let it be an excuse.”
Gates, who now runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, cited his foundation’s work with charter schools as an example.
“We know you can have a good school in a poor neighborhood, so let’s end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education. I say it’s more the other way around: improving education is the best way to solve poverty,” said Gates.
After speaking, Gates joined Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, whom Bill Gates playfully called his “cousin,” for a conversation on education. “He’s the Harvard professor,” said Bill Gates. “I’m the Harvard drop-out.”
But Henry Louis Gates praised Bill Gates and compared him to industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who also gave away much of his wealth to humanitarian causes. Henry Louis Gates said the Microsoft founder purposely seeks to help communities with large Latino and black populations.
“Not only is Bill Gates a cousin, ladies and gentlemen, Bill Gates is a brother,” he said.
Though the forum was about education, many could not refrain from talking about the economy and what seemed at the time as a possible default by the federal government. Urban League officials had warned that failure by Congress to prevent default risked putting black and Latino families further behind economically. (Congress passed a measure allowing for the raising of the debt ceiling on Tuesday, hours before the deadline.)
New York City’s Rev. Al Sharpton said advocates needed to change the conversation about the debt ceiling and get political leaders to talk more about job-creation in minority communities.
“The issue is jobs, jobs, jobs and quality education in our community,” Sharpton said to applause.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson of Chicago told The Associated Press that the debt crisis was a “manufactured crisis” by political leaders.
“The debt ceiling will be raised. The issue is [that] the floor is being lowered,” said Jackson, alluding to new reports that middle class and poor blacks and Latino families have been hit hard by the recession. “The floor is dropping and there are cracks in that floor.”