"The issue today is not love over hate, as it was during the civil rights movement of the 1960's. In many ways, some could say that Dr. King had it better, in the sense that individuals let him know precisely where they stood; making it plain that they loved and backed him, or they hated and rejected him. …Today, increasingly, people do not care enough about you to hate you. I call this radical indifference. When someone does not care enought about you, to hate you."
A few years back, a young black man approached me, knowing that I had a minor relationship with the late and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, saying "hey John, that man — former President Reagan — he was a racist man…." I had to reject what this young man had to say, while embracing the young man and his pain, and understandable frustrations. To this man, President Reagan didn't care about him and his plight, and thus, he simply 'must be' a racist. I had a different take on the problem. I also saw a possible opportunity within this same problem, and decided to try to enroll this young man up in my vision, for what 'could be.'
I explained to the young man that I knew then President Reagan, though admittedly not that well. Enough to say I respectd him. I was a young man myself, like the one I was speaking with, when I was acquainted with this Administration. I explained that Reagan and I were actually born on the same day, and as such, I especially appreciated his ability to inspire, even while many listening to him might actually disagree with what he was talking 'about.'
I went on to say that I thought that then President Reagan was basicallty 'a nice man.' I don't think that anyone becomes President of the United States of America, wakes up the next morning and then says to himself, "now, how can I screw up America and hurt her people?" They may screw up, and they may make incredibly damaging decisions and mistakes, but we have to beleive that they do basically mean well. If we don't, if we stop trusting the basic intent of our national leaders, then well all bets are off anyway.
I went on to explain that I was not at all crazy about most of Reagan's social policy framework for the least of these God's children (and there was no real economic policy framework to even be insulted by). I explained that in most cases I simply respectfully disagreed with the Administration. I learned long ago from my pastor, friend and spiritual father, Reverend Dr. Cecil "Chip" Murray, "you can disagree, without being disagreeable."
Dr. Murray continued with my education and mentoring lesson, "…John, you must learn to talk without being offensive, and listen without being defensive, and most of all, learn to leave even your aversary with their dignity. Because if you don't, they will spend the rest of their lives working to make you miserable."
Finding a way to leave even your adversary with their dignity, actually makes good common sense as well as moral and spiritual sense. If you want to live, operate and prosper in this world, it's the only make-sense way to operate. Dignity – extending it even when you don't have too – has to become what my friend Bill George calls your "True North."
I passed on these lessons of wisdom from Dr. Cecil Murray to me, to this young man. He listened, but he still did not understand what point I was trying to make about our former president, and more to his point, why he was not in fact a poster child for racism. He did not understand my point, because I had not yet made it. And here it is; with then President Reagan, as it related to black and brown and poor and underserved people, the core issue was neither love nor hate. It was a bad case of radical Indifference. Quite possibly without malice or ill intent.
I went on to explain to the young man, drawing a mental picture that both he and I could see and 'mark up' at the same time, that "Reagan didn't know any black people. …He wasn't raised around any black people. …He wasn't — to my knowledge — related to any black people. …His wife was not a sister, as we would say in the community. Nor were any of his closest friends nor advisors. Very simply, President Reagan did not hate black people. He was not even THINKING about black people."
We were the furthest thing from his mind.
At the end of the day it was not an issue of love nor hate, but rather radical indifference. Respectfully stated, he simply didn't care enough about us to hate us. We had no substantive relationship with him, and nothing of any consequence happens in this world without relationship. At worse, Reagan and his team were fueled and motivated by fear and ignorance; a topic I dedicated an entire now bestselling business leadership book too. It's called LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass).
A more cynical soul would rather say that "whatever" was former President Reagan's view of the matter. I am not that one. Other faults and shortcomings aside, I do not think that Reagan was of the group that actively radiated indifference, and then demonstrated its structural norms through the way they lived their lives. A private life structure that screams of…
Privately funded lives, with zero social engagement or social responsibility outside of their circle.
Private, highly excluding schools.
Private detached roads.
Private gated communities.
Private security (I am not talking about the home alarm system sort either).
Private philanthropy defined as whatever their family and kids want or need, only.
And on occassion, even the odd and completely self-contained private island.
Message: society is no longer my problem. I got mine, and you better go get yours.
After Reagan, I got to know President George H.W. Bush, the father, who no douobt in my mind was and remains a 'good man.' I also got to know the Republican I loved the most, the late, great HUD Secretary Jack Kemp. Jack Kemp actually went to Africa before me, proclaiming to the world, "we are all African." Loved that man. The world misses his brand of "we're all in this together" leadership.
And then came President Bill Clinton, whose centrist policies for all and empowering policies for the poor
and the underserved I actually loved the most. I was such a Clinton booster that I continue to work closely with former President Clinton today, speaking even at his CGI America meeting on June 8th, 2012, in Chicago. I am honored to call former President William Jefferson Clinton my good friend today.
President Bush, his Administration and I also didn't agree on much along policy lines, particularly with regard to his and their social policy for the least of these God's children, but I cannot argue with this one fact; he remains the President who did the most to help Africa. Yes, President George W. Bush, the son to be specific. Check the record for yourself. This is not the mark of an "uncaring man."
During the Bush Administration some of my friends would deridedly ask of me, "John, why was I hanging around that man," and my response was simple; beyond the fact that he was in fact a kind and decent man whom I got along with — he was the President of the United States of America. Quoting my late friend and mentor Dr. Dorothy I. Height, chairwoman-emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, "remember John, there is only one president at a time."
Leaders who happen to also be produly African-American, should have a relationship with each and every leader at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and not just the ones we happen to somehow prefer. Else I remind you — everyone else in the world with any juice, power of influence does.
In his final year in office I saw an opening with then President Bush, and I boldly took it.
Early on I built a relationship, showed proper respect to the office and the man, and I even gave the man in the office the benefit of the doubt. I commended him when he got it right, just as I respectfully disagreed and officially criticized him when I thought he got it wrong (mostly, I did the latter in private). It took a while, but this approach ultimately paid dividends for my real agenda — the empowerment of the poor and the underserved of our nation.
In April, 2007, I received a call from the White House that the President wanted to see me. I will save the details for another writing, but the short version is that my agenda finally had a shot at becoming federal law. I went to the White House for a historic meeting in the Roosevelt Room which included most every member of his Cabinet, including the President.
I outlined my vision for "financial literacy as the new civil rights agenda, and the first silver rights empowerment tool, of this generation." Boldly, the president actually said 'yes' to me. He said yes so quickly that I thought I had actually won something in that moment. Little did I know that the challenges had only begun. Nothing good comes easy. The following is one of the best examples I can give you of 'love as work,' and Love Leadership too.
What I thought would then be done overnight, actually dragged on for close to a year.
Late in 2007, following one of these marathon White House work sessions on financial literacy policy in Washington, D.C., I remember meeting with my personal hero and the global spokesman for Operation HOPE, civil rights icon Ambassador Andrew Young. He asked me how the meeting went, and I snapped back reactively and emotionally, without thinking first, "…it was probably just a photo opp (opportunity)." Ambassador Young snapped back so quickly at me that I could have caught a case of whip lash. As usual, he was 100 miles ahead of me and in a new and advanced township of thought. Starting with the desired end in mind he told me, "John, be skeptical, but don't be cynical, because when you are cynical you are actually without hope. The most dangerous person in the world, is a person without hope."
He went on to explain to me that civil rights policy in the 1960's would never have made it into law if he and Dr. King had focused on whether they 'liked' a particular president or his Administration. They had to love them instead, even when they did not like them, if they were going to get anything done for poor people. In the end, it was not the charismatic and sensitive Kennedy Administration that passed sweeping civil rights legislation, but a rough and tumble man that everyone actually counted out — President Lyndon Johnson. A man not known at all at the time to be a friend to blacks, women or Jews.
"You don't know what friends you will need in life, so make friends everywhere," Young encouraged me.
But it was Ambassador Young final point that was his most powerful, and underscored why he was the most valuable strategist and advisor to Dr. King during the civil rights movement. Andrew Young said to me, "John, assume that the President is a good man with bad counsel, and you go in there and give that man good counsel…and then wait for the political opportunity to make him look good. Remember John, it is not about you, it is about the people. Poor people."
With that, I marched back over to the White House for what must have been 60 or 90 days more of often long and frustrating meetings. They may have been indifferent when we started, but they were genuinely listening when I finished. I took it as my job to make my agenda relevant to theirs, and to not take anything personal along the way. It wasn't about me.
On January 18th, 2008, I received a key call from the White House. "John, can you come to the White House next week? The President is going to sign an Executive Order, establishing financial literacy as U.S. federal policy." And in a moment, and with the snap of a photo and a quick dash of the president's pen, the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy was born and everything was different in America. I still have that pen.
For the first time, financial literacy was the official policy of the U.S. federal government. Many other changes, inspired by many other incredible leaders both in and outside of government, both before and sense this day, also helped to advance this ball — but I recall this story for one reason. I gave then President Bush a chance, and
he gave me one back. Radical indifference, goes both ways I found out.
Today I proudly and passionately serve U.S. President Barack Obama on his U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability, where I also serve as chairman of the Subcommittee on the Underserved and Community Empowerment.
I deeply respect President Obama's many attempts to reach across the aisle, even when he and they radically disagreed. He has found a way to always hold on to his dignity, and to disagree without making their disagreement the centerpiece of what comes next, or worse what stands between our nation, her people, and real progress. Of course, President Obama is a politician and we are deep in the political season of an election year — and so understandably he fights to win. That's the way he is built and one of the reasons he has made it this far in his life. But President Obama doesn't just want to win, he wants America to win too, and this distinction is all the distinction in the world. We can disagree on tactics and approach, and even priorities, but intent does matters.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch so to speak, what the rest of us must remember — the 299.9 million-plus Americans not running for President of the United States — is that we must actually learn to live together, every day.
We must find a way to co-exist as workers,co-workers, owners, customers, vendors, families, friends and neighbors. Even as individuals with widely opposing views and opinions.
We can not afford this new backwards approach to life, centered around our individual and collective 'radical indifferences.' We must care for each other, for this is the only way we survive the global drama playing out right now around the world. It is the only way we come out on the other side as winners in life, and history too.
Remember well the story of Rome. They succeeded when Rome was about 'we,' and subsequently experiencing crushing failure after failure, when their 'about we' simply became 'about me.'
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools…"
Enough said. Let's go.
John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass) the only African-American bestselling business author in America, and is chairman of the Subcommittee for the Under-Served and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S. He is also a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Young Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum.