The New Nation's list of influential black people is intended to "[dispel] the recently trumpeted belief that there is a dearth of African Caribbean role models."
Good. Role models are important. They are not just PR flummery. They matter, because conventional economic thinking is woefully inadequate.
This thinking is that people acquire human capital, and this gets transformed into wages.
This leaves two questions unanswered.
One is: how exactly do people get human capital? We usually think it's about innate ability and school quality. But this is only part of the story. It's also about individual students' perceptions of what's feasible, and what the pay-offs to learning are.
On both counts, role models help. My own experience shows how. When I was 17, I never thought about going to university; none of my family, neighbours or friends' family had ever been. It was only when a teacher told me that Oxford would have me that I thought about going. I needed a role model to show what I could do. Why shouldn't young men need one today?
The second gap in the conventional account is: how does human capital get transformed into wages? It's only by individuals working out what jobs they can do with their skills. Again, role models point the way. And again, my experience shows the point. When I was at university, I didn't know what job to do: the only graduates I'd ever met were teachers. Then I saw a City economist (Bill Martin) on TV. "Hey" I thought. "I can do that. I know how many beans make five." The rest was easy.
These two failings in conventional economics have a common theme. It's (again) all to do with knowledge.
The fact is that individuals must know what they want to study before acquiring human capital, must know that studying is worth the effort, and must know how to convert that studying into wages.
Neoclassical economics assumes people have this knowledge. They don't. Role models help by providing it.
I suspect an overlooked reason why people follow in their fathers' footsteps is this knowledge effect, rather than the inheritance of "talent" (an over-rated notion). Here's one data-point of corroboration - Stuart Broad. Had he inherited his dad's bowling ability, he'd never have gotten near to playing for England, and still less for God's own county. Instead, what his dad provided was a love of cricket and evidence one could make a good living from it. That's what role models do.