Solving Poverty: Poverty Is the New Racism

Racism use to be the worst thing that those outside America's corridors of power had to deal with. But today, racism is sorta like rain. Racism is either falling somewhere, or it's gathering. So we might as well get out an umbrella in a color we like, and start walking through it; because it's not going to change -- so we must.

In Dr. King's day the issue seemed to be one of love or hate, but today the issue is less about love or hate, and more about of what I would call "radical indifference." Today, folks don't even care enough about you to hate you.

I remember a young man, years ago, going on and on to me about how then President Reagan hated black folks. That he was a racist. I had to correct the young man. I told him that to the best of my knowledge, President Reagan didn't know any black folks (well), didn't grow up around any black folks, didn't have any real lifelong relationships with black folks, and there were no black folks in his immediate family. When he awoke in the morning, it's not that he hated black folks -- he wasn't even thinking about black folks. It was not love or hate, but simple indifference. With no real relationship with black and brown America, no rational link, and no reason to be compelled to really care, this situation doesn't so much suggest he was a good or a bad man, but rather a human one.

Today I look at what's going on in Greece, where 150 immigrants were recently attacked, and it becomes obvious that underneath the violence was a corroding economic tension. A country that was broke, and people who were quickly losing hope, and jobs too. They saw 'those immigrants' as a threat to them, their prosperity, their stability, and the future aspirations of both themselves and their families. The problem was economic. The problem, was poverty.

There is a difference between being broke and being poor. Being broke was economic, but being poor is a disabling frame of mind and a depressed condition of one's spirit. And we must vow to never, ever be poor again.

I look at inner-city and low-wealth communities across America, and I really don't see (today) racism, per se. I see target marketing by predators.

When you drive through these communities, and you see check cashers next to payday lenders next to title lenders, and rent-to-own stores next to liquor stores -- that's not racism either. That's target marketing too. Decent folds and bad capitalists and predators alike, all focused on and capitalizing on a 500 credit score community. A 500 credit score community, and 500 credit score individuals, have a certain personality, behavior and value set. 500 credit scores tend to drag along with them, low levels of hope and self-esteem, low levels of financial literacy and financial IQ, and low levels of education, and aspiration too. They become easy marks for those who see poverty as something to be taken advantage of, not potential to be nurtured. But life is how you see it, and what I see is opportunity; opportunity for all.

700 Credit Score Communities

What happens when you move credit scores from 500 to 670, or 700 even? Over time you move payday lenders, unscrupulous check cashers and title lenders, into credit unions and banks. Over time, liquor stores become convenient stores -- and supermarkets too.

When your credit score goes up, so does you sense of hope, your aspirations, and your expectations. I know a little about that, as I was homeless for six months of my life when I was 18, and had to work my way back from near bankruptcy, to a seat at the table of economic dignity. I know about this also, because of our work at Operation HOPE, as we have moved credit scores by an average of 120 points or better over 18 months of counseling, and changing lives in the process.

Today we have launched HOPE 700 Credit Score Communities at all of our HOPE Center locations across the nation, and we will focus on moving credit scores not just for our clients, but in and for the communities that surround our centers too. We are all in this together. Some see poverty in these low-wealth neighborhoods, but I see emerging markets waiting to be born.

Yes, racism and discrimination still exists, and the work of those who fight these evils are as necessary today as unfortunately, 40 plus years ago. That said, today, the problem that is standing in the door of future prosperity for you and your family, is less about race and the color line, and more about class and poverty. Or silver rights, in addition to civil rights.

What these communities need now are not just campaigns against social injustice, but campaigns that promote economic justice, and real opportunity too.

These communities need more than a protest against corrupt police officers, but rather rallies, marches and community leader press conferences for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). EITC is an earned cash reward from the federal government for working, and yet approximately 1 in 4 Americans who qualify for EITC (read $9-$10 billion annually) never even ask for it. $10 billion injected into poor and underserved neighborhoods throughout America, over a 3-5 year prior ($30-$50 billion), holds real transformational promise for not only the so-called poor -- but America herself too. We're all in this together.

At the end of the day, what these communities need most are jobs. Good jobs. And we need to get on about the business of creating them.

You don't see (minority) middle class and upper middle class families complaining endlessly about racism and discrimination. It is not because they are not experiencing any. It is because they are too busy outrunning either or both, with replacement dreams of their own making. Financial and economic success, and a good job, buys a whole lot of patience against garden variety ignorance. With money in your pocket, hope in your heart and opportunity filling your head, it;s easier to simply say "whatever," and move on.

As my friend Van Jones recently said about the growing wave of minority youth violence in parts of Chicago and other low-wealth communities like it, "nothing stops a bullet like a job."

I agree.

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. Mr. Bryant is a thought leader represented by the Bright Sight Group for public speaking. Mr. Bryant serves on the board of directors of Ares Commercial Real Estate Corporation (NYSE: ACRE), a specialty finance company that is managed by an affiliate of Ares Management LLC, a global alternative asset manager with approximately $59 billion in committed capital under management as of December 31, 2012.