by Dr. Boyce Watkins
This week, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan spoke to thousands on the annual “Savior’s Day” in Chicago. The storied leader, who is now 79-years old, talked about the state and direction of black America, and what must be done for the black community to prosper. Much of the conversation centered around investing, borrowing, lending, saving and all the other things that make a capitalist society tick.
Farrakhan also spoke about the elephant in the room, Barack Obama, in a way that was both honest and diplomatic:
“Even though one of our own has reached the highest pinnacle of the American political system, his presence has not, cannot and will not solve our problems,” Farrakhan said.
The minister spoke to the importance of economic self-sufficiency as a necessity for dealing with the dismal economic climate being faced by the African American community. The black unemployment rate is nearly double that of whites, and black family wealth has been absolutely obliterated by the recession. Nearly every other group has recovered from the recession, except for the black community. Corporations recovered within months and white unemployment isn’t all that bad, but black unemployment is atrocious, and black men are in the middle of a persistent version of the Great Depression.
Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (NOI) control a great deal of farmland in various parts of the country and have also served as a powerful model of economic empowerment. I doubt that the black unemployment rate has heavily impacted the NOI, since they are very good at making their own money. The freedom one feels when he/she is able to find their own resources is indescribable, and it’s easier to sleep at night when you’re not worried about trying to convince your oppressors to pay your bills.
I met with Minister Farrakhan two months ago in a private conversation that lasted for three hours. One of the themes that came up was the importance of embracing economic empowerment and access to resources as a way to short-circuit the violence occurring in Chicago. The young men killing each other in the street are not animals. Many of them simply need opportunities. A man who has nothing to live for quickly becomes a danger to us all.
Additionally, Farrakhan and I spoke about how even highly-educated African Americans (i.e. scholars like myself) find ourselves frustrated, abused, marginalized and controlled by institutions that were not designed with our best interests at heart. When I came to Syracuse University, my department hadn’t hired or promoted a black person in 100 years of operating history (perhaps they felt that every black person on earth was unqualified for the job). So, there I was, with no mentorship, no support, and a group of colleagues who were openly hostile and disrespectful toward my advocacy in the black community. I felt surrounded, frustrated and at risk of seeing my years of hard work go to waste.
The only salvation I had in the midst of such dire circumstances was to learn to start my own business. I invested nearly all of my money into things that would free me from the economic plantation. I built an entrepreneurial dream that would allow my academic talents to be harnessed and channeled toward my community, instead of allowing them to be hijacked and sold to the highest bidder. Once I achieved economic self-sufficiency, I began to know what it means to be truly free. That is also when I learned what it means to be a scholar.
My point here is that we need a REVOLUTION. This has to be a revolution of the mind as it pertains to what we do with the trillion-plus dollars in purchasing power controlled by the African American community. Every black person must learn how to start their own business as a matter of economic survival, even if you are not a full-time entrepreneur. Rather than teaching our children to be borrowers, spenders and consumers, we must teach them to become investors, savers and producers. This is the only way to overcome the massive black unemployment problem in America, and it is the only path to true spiritual freedom in a society where money will always be king.
The civil rights movement was political, with many of these gains being rolled back on a second’s notice. The next step of this movement must be almost entirely economic, where we both embrace the power of money, but also seek to understand how this power can be used to generate meaningful change. Wealth doesn’t exist so you can buy extra jewelry, new cars and silly material items (although some of that is OK). It exists so you can build communities, strengthen families and elevate future generations.
For those who don’t agree with everything Farrakhan says, I encourage you to remember that we all agree that we must provide for our families. Most of us also agree that something has got to change with regard to how we respond to black economic challenges. This month, Min. Farrakhan and I are going to gather for a public event at The University of Illinois at Chicago forum (Saturday, 3/30 at 5 pm CST) to further discuss these matters. Everyone is invited and it’s free to the public.
New paradigms must be embraced and we must begin to fully understand the power of economic literacy, financial empowerment and various forms of self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily walking away from integration….it only means that you’re renegotiating the terms.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition and author of the book, “Black American Money.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.