The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Covenant #8: Accessing Good Jobs, Wealth, and Economic Prosperity

Well, who can disagree with that?  My own standards for healing the damage in the black community would be:
equivalent lifespans
equivalent incarceration rates
equivalent inherited wealth.

I chose these because they imply a vast amount of change on every level, from the personal to the social to the level of international commerce.  Money is an incredibly valuable indication of a person’s developed and perceived worth. It speaks to the value one places on self, the degree of developed skills, the level of energy and focus, the ability to recruit teams of partners and mentors, the ability to negotiate and leverage, the ability to invest and preserve wealth once it is attained, the ability to pass it on safely to future generations.

When I began collaborating with Larry Niven twenty-five years ago, I had my first real look at tone of the wealthiest families in Southern California. Oh, I’d known upper-middle class black families.  My mother made sure of that.  They were doctors, dentists, and lawyers who worked very hard and took excellent care of their families.

But WEALTHY families are different.  They look at money in entirely different ways.  The subtle differences in definition, the attitudes toward accumulating it and passing it from generation to generation.  In casual conversations, Larry would talk about things his father taught him, experiences his father arranged for him, the way his family protected wealth, the things they bought, the way they passed it on to their descendants.

Man, it was different.  TOTALLY different from what I grew up around, or what I heard poor people, black or white, speaking of.  The upper-middle  class blacks, especially those who had been born poor, felt as if they were on the right track, but had trouble passing their attitudes on to their children, who seemed more interested in spending than saving.

As I began researching wealth-building techniques, books like THE RICHEST MAN IN BABYLON and THINK AND GROW RICH, I saw connections to what I learned around Larry, and began to see hints of the behavior patterns in every wealthy person, white or black, I knew, or could observe, or could read about.

Simply put, rich people think about money very differently.  Rich people who used to be poor behaved differently concerning work, investment, education, etc. FROM EARLY IN THEIR CAREERS.  They endured jeering and criticism from their peers, and then, after decades of grueling work and discipline, if they managed to make it to wealth, their former peers accuse them of “being lucky.”  Oh, my God, it is so frustrating.

The secrets are there.  Poor people do not know them, and don’t believe it’s possible.  Yes, obviously it is DRASTICALLY more difficult to pull yourself up from poverty. The average person born into a given social tissue remains right there.  Inertia is a monster.  But it is POSSIBLE. It takes incredible focus, dedication, willingness to sacrifice, and above all, the right knowledge of what money is, and how to attain and preserve it.  This is simply not information that exists widely in the black community, and when wealthy black folks go back to try to teach it, I have heard them express horrific frustration: few want to hear what they say, even fewer are willing to sacrifice their present pleasure in exchange for future security.

If this is to  change, it will take the efforts of countless thousands of successful people—preferably black people who HAVE been poor and worked their way out.  Well to do white people have much to contribute here, but please understand how easy it is for a black person to look at you and say to themselves (or out loud!):  “Yeah, that worked for you because you’re white…” or worse, the well-meaning white person makes assumptions about the way the world works based on their own experience, not realizing that there really IS a difference between the way a white loan officer sees a black applicant and a white applicant.

A black mentor can help you get over that hurdle more reliably.  His experience is closer to your own.
The unemployment rate and wage disparities for blacks and whites is well understood.  But income doesn’t tell the whole tale.  Net worth is a better indicator.  Net worth is basically the value of all your assets once you have subtracted liabilities.  And it is here that the gap widens drastically.  Black Americans have a median net worth of about $6,000, compared to $88,000 for whites.  While 13 percent of the nation, they are only 1.2 percent of the total net worth.

A number of factors influence this rather sobering statistic.  Historical factors include the reality of inherited wealth: the surplus worth of the labor stolen from our ancestors at below market value was, quite simply, invested in the whites who owned them.  Who passed that to their children in the form of money, education, and property.  Wealth, and the knowledge of how to preserve it, was passed from generation to generation, just as poverty is.

Ever watched a family with a serious obesity problem?  In the Northwest, there were LOTS of them, Often they were logging families, used to heavy labor for generations.  As the economy shifted toward office work, the same eating and exercise patterns (granddad didn’t need exercise!  His work gave him all the exercise a human being could need!) translated into excess girth. The family eats and eats, and widens, and everything feels “normal” to them.  Behavior patterns are passed from parent to child to grandchild, with devastating impact.

The exact same thing happens in poor families.  Behavior patterns, belief patterns, negative emotional anchors…

Open and maintain a savings account, no matter what your family income.
Encourage yoru children to save.
Create neighborhood job club to share information.
Shop at black-owned businesses.
Make sure that schools teach children about checking and savings accounts.

Invest in the black community.
Monitor and prevent predatory lending.
Establish tax-free homeownership savings accounts.

There is more, of course.  Again, I encourage you to seek out the book COVENANT WITH BLACK AMERICA and to go to to learn more.

There are doubtless things that different people will disagree with.  For instance, the meaning and worth of a minimum wage is a point of contention for Left and Right.  I won’t get into that discussion.  And clearly, there are issues of politics and  national policy.  My focus is, and has always has been, individual action—that’s just my own nature, not a statement of what others should do.


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