From the Lecturer: Bringing Silver Rights to the Underserved

Guest Column by John Hope Bryant

Preface: In the face of America’s 239th birthday this Fourth of July, I can’t help but reflect on the oppressive nature of racism and why the Silver Rights Movement is the silver bullet.

But first, let me say: Racism just doesn’t matter.

Racism just doesn’t matter anymore. Yes, I said it. And I meant it, too.

But “doesn’t matter,” is different from “doesn’t exist.”

Am I saying that racism doesn’t exist anymore?

Am I saying that racism and discrimination are no longer terminal cancers on society?

Or that racism and discrimination have somehow been miraculously eradicated from society?

Or maybe that somehow mankind has succeeded in getting out of its own collective way, and has instead been reborn anew — unfailingly fair, reasoned, and compassionate?

What I am saying though, is when you get yourself right, most all other problems begin to solve themselves.

In the Civil Rights Movement, our leaders dealt with issues of race and the color line, and the mostly legal barriers that kept us from a measure of justice and dignity. But in the Silver Rights Movement we must find new ways to address issues of class and poverty in America. We need a new strategy and a fresh new approach to achieving justice and dignity for ourselves and our community, because what we have been doing for the last 40 some-odd years, respectfully stated, simply has not worked. What we need to do is to learn a new game — to integrate the money, just like we integrated the lunch counter. Ambassador Andrew Young once told me, “Capitalism, with no true access to capital, is nothing more than a sophisticated form of slavery.”

The Oppressor’s Tool

For African-Americans, the enslaved, indentured servant and Jim Crow experience in America is still an open wound. There has been no substantive acknowledgment, no real apology, and no real closure, and for many in my community it still hurts.

To this day, racism and discrimination seem to impact and affect almost every facet of life for the average African-American in this country.

The twin cancers of racism and discrimination caused, allowed and even condoned the unforgivable injustice of the Holocaust. Germany and many of its otherwise well-meaning people (egged on by its not-so-well meaning Nazis population) — driven to near desperation by the economic calamity that followed World War I — managed to find a way to blame an entire country’s woes on a single minority group, the Jews, which at the time represented less than 2 percent of the entire German population.

It could be said that simple oppression is the weapon of choice against society’s underclass, or its poor in spirit. Making matters even worse, as we enter the 21st century, the nature, look and very structure of oppression is changing. 

The Way Forward

The new movement, the Silver Rights Movement, offers a different perspective on the battle. It means changing the way somebody sees what’s happening in their world — our world — so that we are ultimately creating fundamental change through a change in fundamental perspective. A paradigm shift. My job in inner cities is to ensure that Hispanic and black people see themselves and see their communities in a positive light. My job in mainstream and corporate America is to ensure that they not only see their responsibilities, but opportunities.

Here at Operation Hope, it’s a change in the way we see our jobs and our roles in the nonprofit world. We do not want to be some nonprofit charity toward which people take a paternalistic view. We want to be an excellence-driven corporation that happens to be a nonprofit as well, operating on par with other corporate leaders, and treated and respected as equals. That way, we can negotiate as equals, and with a lot of hard work, ultimately deliver the goods. Somebody needs to be at the table negotiating with mainstream America, and we at Operation Hope are part of that somebody.

It’s a different kind of a battle today. You can’t picket this thing into reality. It’s much more amorphous, because the kind of work the Silver Rights Movement requires rarely makes for good photo ops, the kind of good visuals that the media thrives on. It’s much more subtle to affect a bank’s lending policy, or the decision-making process of a supermarket chain or a “big box” chain store like a Walmart, when they’re considering whether or not to build in the inner city. It’s not flashy, and it doesn’t necessarily attract mass public attention — at first. To paraphrase a popular catchphrase from the civil rights era — the whole world isn’t watching.

Furthermore, our only problem with capitalism is that not enough of our people have enough of it. That is why Dr. King said in 1968, with the birth of the Poor People’s Campaign, “you cannot legislate goodness, or pass a law to force someone to like or respect you. … [that] the only way to social justice in a capitalist country is economic parity.” Amen. And that is why Operation Hope has been focused, ever since the Rodney King riots of 1992, on the power of empowering our community; converting check cashing customers into banking customers, renters into homeowners, small business dreamers into small business owners, minimum wage workers into living wage workers, and the economically uneducated into the economically empowered.

Moving our people up and out of poverty. From the poverty rolls to the payrolls, and hopefully the tax rolls too.

But at the end of the day, I am not trying to convince individuals, corporations and our government to invest in inner cities because it’s the right thing to do, even though it is that in spades. Rather, it’s the only thing to do, if we want to create true future American prosperity, and if we want to grow this great American economy of ours even further.

Happy birthday, America — let’s go.

John Hope Bryant is founder, chairman and CEO of Operation Hope and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. He is a member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Youth for President Barack Obama.