Know your silver rights

John_bryant_color_09172006_ranuu85_1In many ways, the leaders of the civil rights movement had it easier than new era leaders of what I call the silver rights movement of today.

Easier only because the enemy was obvious, the pain immediate.

You knew, instantly, who was a good guy and who was bad. Who was for you and who was not. They let you know.

They generally had a hood on, typically white, red and black stitching, flowing design, you know the style, right? And the problem was obvious, too. Who could stand the indignity of a black man not being able to sit next to a white man at a lunch counter? Or black children being denied the right to a quality education because they could not attend an integrated school with better funding from the state? The distinction was easy, and the moral decision to be made as well.

What is harder to discern today is what I call the “silent killer” associated with the first silver right of the 21st century: financial literacy or, better stated, financial illiteracy.

I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, this work, the work we are doing here at Operation HOPE, of moving individuals from check-cashing customers to banking customers, from renters to owners, from small-business dreamers to small-business owners, this is the work that he would be doing. Of integrating the dollar, and not just the lunch counter, quoting my hero, mentor and our global HOPE spokesman, Andrew Young, the senior aide to the late Dr. King. Of ensuring that free enterprise and capitalism, which have worked so well in doing something that communism could not — creating a middle class — also were made to work for poor people.

This is my mission in life. Of getting those in mainstream communities to begin to look at low-wealth communities differently, and those in low-wealth communities to begin to look at themselves differently. In short, poverty.

But this is not easy poverty. I am talking lost hope and the cynicism that follows. I am talking about kids who are more poor than broke, dropping out of high school at an alarming rate with no real hope for the future.

Kids who unfortunately may think that a drug dealer is a financial planner, precisely because they have never met a financial planner. Kids who think that a CD is what you play on your stereo, an ATM means “all the money” and a check is a form of credit. This is scary, and it is prevalent, too.

When I was growing up, the good kids were the majority and there were two or three bad kids you had to shut up. Now it is just the opposite.

Some of my friends look at the transformation going on in places like Harlem, where places no one wanted 10 years ago are now being purchased by mainstream investors for $1 million or more, and say that is racism. Well, this is not racism, ladies and gentlemen. This is capitalism — and black folks need to get with it.

In short, black America is no less brilliant, talented or ambitious that any other group in America — be they black, white, red or brown — but we were never oriented positively toward capitalism and the free enterprise system. Our first exposure to capitalism and free enterprise was not us doing the trading with others, but us being traded by others. Not a good start.

What we need to do now is to take our lives back, and financial literacy, education, discipline and personal responsibility can do that. Education is the ultimate poverty eradication tool, and with education, with or without a strong family at home, we can slowly build our self-esteem.

You have to be savvy to survive poor in America, so we are not talking about dumb people. We are talking about extremely bright and capable individuals who simply want a hand up, not a handout.

The silent killer today is financial illiteracy, and millions are impacted by its disease. But we can do something about it, and the result will be new banking customers, new homeowners, new small-business owners and entrepreneurs, and more taxpayers too. In this sea, all boats do rise.

John Hope Bryant is founder of Operation HOPE in Los Angeles. For more information, go to www.operationhope.org or call 1-(888) 388-4673.

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