Note: These are my prepared remarks from my presentation to the 16th annual Clarion Community Martin Luther King Day Celebration, hosted at Clarion University on January 26, 2012.
One of the more compelling human interest stories of 1975 is the tale of Japanese second lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer in the Japanese Imperial Army who surrendered to his commanding officer after he was persuaded that the war was over. The only problem is that the war he was fighting, World War II, had ended nearly 30 years earlier. Lt. Onoda had been hiding out in the jungles of the Philippines, destroying crops, engaging in shootouts with the local police and actually killing 30 Filipinos, fighting a war that had ended long ago.
We are now in the second decade of the 21st century and we are commemorating the birth of a man of peace, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Let there be no doubt, however, that he was also a warrior, battling the foes of liberty and equality with weapons of non-violence, grace and dignity. Each time we come together to acknowledge this man’s greatness, however, I think it is instructive to ask ourselves where we are in the ongoing quest to be equal heirs with all Americans in enjoying the blessings of liberty.
As a former intelligence officer myself, I survey the American landscape, past and present, and questions arise in my mind. Are we fighting yesterday’s battles? Is there another front we’re neglecting? Are we fighting with modern weapons and tactics or, to use a popular phrase, are we bringing knives to a gun fight?
These questions came to mind as I read a recent report, The State of the African American Consumer, commissioned by the Nielsen Research Group and the National Newspaper Publishers Association, representing over 200 black community newspaper across the country. According to this report, the black community in the United States will have a cumulative buying power of $1.1 trillion - that’s trillion with a “T” - by 2015, just three years from now. If black Americans were an independent nation, we would be the 16th wealthiest nation in the world, ahead of nations like Switzerland and Saudi Arabia, which we normally think of as wealthy. By way of comparison, the combined buying power of the entire African continent is estimated at $1.7 trillion.
The same report states that the number of black households earning $75,000 or more increased by 64 percent between 2000 and 2009, a rate 12 percent higher than the overall population in that same time frame. Educational attainment at all levels is up, and black women are outpacing black men in obtaining college degrees, so we men have to step it up a bit!
I have a copy of the report for anyone who wants to peruse it, and it’s available online as a free download. I encourage you to read it because it will alter your thinking about the state of black America today. I don’t want to diminish the problems we still face with fatherless homes, unacceptably high dropout rates from high school among young black men, and all the pathologies that result from single-parent households and a lack of education.
What this report did for me, however, is focus my attention on a key question: What are we doing with this considerable buying power, and what should we be doing with it?
I said earlier that Dr. King was a peaceful warrior and, like a skilled and seasoned commander, he knew which strategies, tactics and weapons worked, and which ones didn’t, and he evolved his battle plan to meet changing conditions. One always walks on shaky ground when attempting to predict what the great leaders of the past would do if they were alive today, but I think Dr. King would have seen the opportunity in some of the statistics I cited previously, and would have encouraged us to pursue those opportunities with the same vigor and purpose that we pursued our legal rights those many decades ago.
From my vantage point, it appears to me that many of our leaders are fighting a battle that has already been won, and that is the battle for legal recognition of our rights as American citizens. We should remain vigilant, to be sure, since freedom is not something that, once won, maintains itself. I submit to you, however, that when it comes to the civil rights movement, we won, and America won as well because, as it has always done throughout its history, it has continued to measure itself against its own creed as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, and has corrected itself while still maintaining its integrity as a nation. It is why I love America, and why I was proud to serve in the armed forces to defend her, not because she is great, but because she strives to be good.
The next battlefield for the young people of today is not legal, but economic in nature. That is where the $1.1 trillion in buying power comes in. The report I cited has several statistics about what black Americans buy, what they watch and what services they use, all geared toward guiding the marketplace to sell to the black community. That’s all well and good, because we all like having more “stuff.” What are we doing, however, to grow that $1.1 trillion and use it to benefit our communities and, in so doing, benefit our nation as a whole? As black financial expert Shay Olivarria says, “The only color that matters today is green.” It’s good to have it, but it’s even better to grow it, and it can grow because it is limited only by the ingenuity and sweat equity we’re willing to invest in it.
Before I go into what I like to call my “Three E’s,” which I tout as the keys to ascendancy in an opportunity society, keys which will work for all Americans, let me caution you that the founders of this nation never imagined free enterprise without virtue at its core. Pursuing wealth is a virtuous endeavor because of the positive characteristics it engenders in us - creativity, discipline, industry, perseverance and self-sufficiency, to name a few. The heart of free enterprise is to do something for someone else - to provide a good or service that someone else wants or needs, and to do so better than anyone else.
It is virtue that also leads us to be generous with our wealth, and Americans, even in these tough times, are still the most charitable people on the planet. You are entitled to the fruits of your honest labor, but it is virtue that compels you to care for those who cannot care for themselves. You can’t outsource compassion to anyone else or any other institution, either. Giving is a personal and voluntary act, and I encourage it as strongly as I encourage you to build up generational wealth for yourselves and your families.
So what are the Three E’s? They are education, economic literacy, and entrepreneurship. It’s always wise to learn from the success of others, and the successes of immigrant groups that come to America can generally be attributed to their educational attainment, their understanding of personal financial management, and their willingness to engage in the risks and rewards of a capitalistic society.
Most of us would agree that we need to expand educational opportunities for our children, and that is more critical in the 21st century than at any time in the past. We are an information-driven culture, and that requires a different skill set than the manufacturing society of our past, which accommodated low-skill, high-wage work. That requires schools to step up to meet the challenges of this new world, and parents to demand more on behalf of their children. The dropout rate from high school of young black males in particular exceeds 50 percent, and we cannot afford to lose another generation to the despair and hopelessness of being unemployable because they didn’t finish school. We need solutions, and we need them today.
Some of you may know that this is National School Choice Week and, if you visit their website at www.schoolchoiceweek.com, you will find a wealth of information on how parents can be given greater control over their children’s education. Even President Obama has embraced education options to give parents and children more say in their educational destinies. I encourage the next generation of leaders to continue the momentum in this area, and not only will charter schools, private schools, online schools, home schools and other programs offer increased options for parents and children, the lessons learned from these initiatives will make public schools better, too.
It’s one thing to learn the skills and accumulate the knowledge to be successful, but what do we do once we start drawing a paycheck? One of the reasons our $1.1 trillion of consumer buying power hasn’t resulted in expanded wealth in the black community is that we spend it and never set enough aside for a rainy day, or to accrue interest. This isn’t unique to the black community; Americans as a whole are economically illiterate when it comes to their personal finances, and we have one of the lowest savings rates in the world. Our wealth, if we have any, is often tied up in our homes if we own them, and that is why when the housing bubble burst, it had a devastating impact on middle-class wealth in general, and black wealth in particular. Once again, being armed with the right knowledge is key.
One of the expanding trends I’ve witnessed, and in which I’ve personally participated, is the offering of personal finance classes through our local churches. These classes are part of a wave of life skills training being offered by churches across the country so that people may have their practical needs met, with biblical wisdom as the foundation. Topics like emergency savings, paying down debt, budgeting, investing, and retirement are addressed, and these classes are always popular, and always full.
Our next generation of leaders need to encourage our churches to latch on to this trend and offer this kind of training in all our communities. If you’re not comfortable with a church sponsoring such training, then start something at a community center or through any one of a number of civic organizations. The better people are at managing their money, the more money we will have available in our communities with which to do great things. We have $1.1 trillion in seed capital, and through economic literacy, we can make more, and do more for ourselves and others.
No discussion on wealth creation is complete without entrepreneurship, the willingness to become part of the ownership society. It’s good to have a quality education, the knowledge of sound personal financial management and, hopefully, a good job to put all of it into practice. But what if jobs are hard to come by, or you lose your job?
It can happen to anyone. I know because it happened to me. Right up until five years ago, I was on a steadily upward professional trajectory. I was a senior executive with experience in the public sector, private sector, non-profit sector and the military, and I had a track record of professional success and salary increases with every job I took. Then the bottom fell out.
I was laid off three times in three years, and during one stretch was unemployed for more than a year. At one point, I stopped showing up in the government unemployment figures because, like hundreds of thousands of others, I gave up on looking for work, and even while I was looking, unemployment insurance wasn’t making ends meet. But I didn’t give up on working.
I started my own consulting firm and began hiring myself out to other businesses. I decided to create my own job. While I never reached the level of my previous professional income, I did enough to keep my family afloat, and the contacts I made through my firm eventually led me to the work I do today as an associate dean and assistant professor of government with Liberty University.
While we are stimulating the economy with our purchases, we are building up a lot of businesses that we don’t own. At some level, that’s OK - economies of scale lead us to big-box stores and large businesses where we can get the most for our money. But how many of you realize that the most net new jobs, the most private sector jobs, and the most exports to other countries, are generated by small businesses, the ones you see in your community as you go about your daily activities? That is the level at which entrepreneurship is thriving, and that is the next great battlefield for us in an opportunity society. Ownership is wealth, and it’s yours to pass on to your children and grandchildren and, in the black community, it’s not a new thing.
Have you ever heard the story of Bridget “Biddy” Mason? Biddy Mason was one of the slaves of a convert to the faith of Mormonism, but this slaveowner rejected the church’s suggestion that he free his slaves. He settled in California, which became a free state in the Compromise of 1850, and he soon realized that he needed to leave if he intended to keep his slaves. His slaves also realized they could gain their freedom, and they attempted to escape. The slaveowner caught up with them, but local law enforcement caught up with him before he could leave the state, and the end result was that Biddy Mason secured her freedom. But what was an illiterate black woman in her late 30s going to do to survive?
She went to work as a nurse and a midwife, saved her money carefully, purchased some land, and ran a small business. Before long, she had amassed a small fortune of $300,000, a princely sum for that day, and she used her money not only to grow her business and her land holdings, but also to care for the poor and downtrodden in her city, a small town called Los Angeles. She was so loved for her charity work that she became known as Auntie Mason or Grandma Mason. She founded an elementary school for black children, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, and a traveler’s aid center, and she fed and sheltered the poor and visited prisoners as well. She was a pillar of the community, and even spoke fluent Spanish, endearing her to the locals even more. Hers is a story that should uplift us, and give us hope, because our advantages in the 21st century are so much greater than hers.
My grandfather had only a sixth grade education, but he learned everything there is to learn about building and maintaining a house, and while working full time at a petrochemical plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana, he purchased and restored homes, and rented them out to others. People could always identify a Melvin Lubin home by the teal colored paint he used for all of them! He worked hard, but he lived well. He was always impeccably dressed for church on Sunday, and he always had a nice car - he loved his Cadillacs! Because he worked with his hands, he never quite believed that you could make a good life for yourself with just “book learnin’,” as he called it. He always encouraged me in my educational pursuits, however, and near the end of his life, he had a chance to see that his eldest grandson could make a living and build a life for his family.
It is in his spirit that I offer to you the Three E’s, built on a foundation of virtue, as the path forward in the quest for the American dream. And let us not wait for or depend upon the benevolence of others to move forward. This room is filled with intelligent, energetic leaders of tomorrow who I hope and pray are too impatient to wait.
I have a saying which I didn’t think was mine, but I’ve not been able to attribute it to anyone else, so I may have come up with it - who knows? It goes like this: “If I put my plate on the table and wait for others to fill it, it may never happen. I'm going to use everything I know to fix my own meal. After all, no one but God cares more about me than me.”
Let me conclude with some wisdom I have shared in the past from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, in the struggle for civil rights, took charge and moved our society forward, not waiting for it to give us what we felt we deserved. He said:
Nobody else can do this for us. No document can do this for us. No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation can do this for us, no Kennesonian or Johnsonian civil rights bill can do this for us. If the Negro is to be free, he must move down into the inner resources of his own soul and sign with the pen and ink of self-assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. Don’t let anybody take your manhood.
“Don’t let anybody take your manhood.” Those are empowering words, but we must follow them with care. We’re not talking about the false bravado of the street that compels us to lash out at the slightest provocation so as not to be disrespected. Our manhood, or our personhood, to use a more expansive term, is what lifts us beyond instinct, beyond emotions, and beyond our circumstances to a place where we have been given control. You can’t control your circumstances or the feelings, words or actions of others toward you, but you CAN control your response to them.
Few people in recent history have demonstrated this more than Dr. King. When confronted with fire hoses, police dogs and angry mobs, he responded with non-violence. He responded to crude death threats with words of inestimable beauty and eloquence. He responded to blackmail with perseverance, convinced that his cause was just and would prevail over even his personal failings. He was a man – flawed to be sure, but in pursuing the great work of his life, his ability to discipline himself to respond as he should, rather than as the world and his sinful nature of instinct and emotion tempted him, made him a man.
We each have a great work to do – in our homes, in our communities, in our nation, in our world. That great work, however, must start within ourselves. No one else will do it for us. No one else is responsible for our responses to the world around us but us.