As I write this, new government reports are proclaiming that with the economy growing 7.2 percent in the quarter ending Sept. 30, the longest hiring slump in 60 years may be over. While we are a long way from a return to the boom years of the 1990s, it appears America's economy may have turned a corner and that there is hope for better times ahead. But will that hope become a reality for all Americans?
We are certainly in a period of change, possibly one of those great moments in history, and a fundamental one for African- and Caribbean-Americans. Never have the data about our community been so good...or so bad. A substantial minority of us is doing well. Black CEOs have finally begun to take their rightful place at the top of corporate America. A growing black middle class continues to enjoy prosperity. Our inner cities are showing impressive gains, with residents earning more, poverty decreasing and home ownership on the rise. The Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a national, not-for-profit organization founded in 1994 by Harvard Business School Professor Michael E. Porter, even proclaimed the inner city's $85 billion retail market "America's last retail frontier."
Thirty years ago, Harlem became symbolic of all that was wrong with American cities. Today, practically every newspaper and magazine in the world has proclaimed the Second Renaissance of Harlem. And this trend is happening in our neighborhoods all over the country. There is much to suggest that our communities are primed and ready to take full advantage of a resumption in economic growth. Unfortunately, there is also much data to suggest that a substantial majority of us may miss the coming opportunities, including the opportunity to share in the wealth we create. Here are a few stats that worry me: While the national unemployment rate was 6.0 percent for the month of October, it was 11.5 percent among African-Americans; nationally, 10.2 percent of Americans live at or below the poverty line, but the rate is 24.1 percent among African-Americans; the median income of African-American families at the end of 2002 was only 64 percent of that of white Americans, at $29,000 versus $45,000; 48 percent of Black families own their own homes, compared to 68 percent of white families; 60 percent of Black families have no financial assets!
What's wrong with this picture? Plenty. While the economy may be improving for some, are we, as a community, fully ready to take advantage of it so that we can find jobs on par with the rest of America, so that what we earn in our communities stays there, so that we can buy homes, build wealth, give our children better opportunities than we have? I'm worried about the limited ability of Black people and Black institutions to benefit from the huge potential of our communities, just when that potential is becoming reality. Financial empowerment is the key to financial freedom and the key to being able to shape our future, our institutions and our community. Like it or not, capitalism in America is here to stay, and I submit to you that it is the duty of those of us "in the know" to share our knowledge with our brothers and sisters. It's nothing new. The gap between the promise of equal access and the reality of equality is bridged through education.
Earning more money is irrelevant if you're spending it all. If you aren't saving money and investing it for your own security, including your retirement, college for the kids or home ownership, how will your personal and our collective interests in retaining local ownership of our communities be served? If you aren't donating to your college, your church, the cultural institutions you love, how will we as a people preserve what is unique about our experience in America? At Carver Bank in New York, we've adopted the new tag line, "Building Wealth, Block By Block," to send a message that Carver stands ready to work with our customers to provide them with some of the tools of financial empowerment so they can make the most of current and future opportunities.
What should you do? First, spend and invest what you can in your community. Second, make financial literacy a priority for you and especially for the children in your life. Try BankingOnOurFuture.org, which is sponsored by Operation Hope Inc., a nonprofit organization that is taking this urgent message across our nation. Talk it up in school, church, the hairdresser and barbershop. The renaissance in our inner cities and in many of our lives proves that we have the power to meet the challenge of the next stage of the civil rights movement. So take up the challenge of financial literacy at home, and kiss your money hello.
By Deborah C. Wright