Thursday, May 7, 2015

Jumpstarting the Jersey Economy through Greater Black Business and Professional Inclusion

(Keynote presentation made to the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, The State of Black New Jersey Conference, April 16, 2015) 

When most of you learned that your keynote speaker was a Philadelphia businessperson, I suspect that you may have been curious… and, maybe, a little disappointed.

It was probably fair to be curious as to how a person born in North Central Philadelphia and educated at a Catholic grade school and a Jesuit Prep School, in Philadelphia, could possibly shed any light on today’s broad topic – The “State of Black New Jersey.” It was also probably difficult to comprehend how this would all work when you were informed that that same person then went on to graduate from St. Joseph’s University, and Temple University, to work at the old First Pennsylvania Bank and, then, to launch his own branding and marketing firm – all in Philadelphia.

Because I understand that a few of you may still be harboring such feelings, I thought it might make sense, at the outset, to share with you just a few of my personal “New Jersey connections.” You’ve heard the term “street cred?” Well, I thought you should know a bit about my “New Jersey State Cred,” before I begin my few remarks on this afternoon’s critically important topic.

Let me begin by sharing with you that I come from a very close family whose members, in the main, lived in two places---Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Harlem, New Aunt Marie lived at 135th and Lennox Avenue and my grandmother's sisters, Aunt Ruth and Aunt Edith, lived at 157th and St. Nicholas.

My grandmother was an employee of what eventually became known as Amtrak. It was called the Pennsylvania Railroad, back then, of course. My grandmother didn’t have a great deal of formal education, nor any university degree, at all.  In fact, she was very much a blue collar worker, at 30th Street Station, in West Philadelphia, where she ran the elevators, and swept and mopped that huge terminal floor, every day.

As part of her compensation for that inglorious occupation, she was given a “pass,” by the train company, which entitled her to travel free, and to take her young grandson, along, for the same price, to destinations relatively close to Philadelphia.

Hence, as a very young boy, I spent a lot of time on those old trains, gazing out the windows as the locomotives whizzed through the state of New Jersey.  I still remember most of the station stops – Trenton, Elizabeth, Perth Amboy, Princeton Junction, New Brunswick, and Newark.

I remember being especially interested in the Trenton Station and having the opportunity to see, each way, during the trip, the huge lighted sign on the side of the “Lower Free Bridge,” as the train approached the city. That was the sign that informed us that “Trenton Makes and the World Takes.”
That was absolutely my first indication that there was a manufacturing economy in the state of New Jersey, or anywhere else.

I hate to admit it, but it always made me wonder exactly what it was that Trenton was making. My grandmother couldn’t answer the question, but, even as a seven-year-old, I got the impression that there were people in that City of Trenton who were working SOMEWHERE, making SOMETHING, that the rest of the world wanted to buy. I was impressed by Trenton.

Who knew, back when I was reading the sign about Trenton making stuff, that, between 1990 and 2014, N.J. would lose nearly 284,000 manufacturing jobs. As you know, the hope for replacement of those jobs is in the area of technology-based, “advanced manufacturing,” which employs 120,000 and has contributed $17 billion to the NJ economy in 2010, alone. But I digress…

Once I received my bachelor’s degree, I wound up, again, in New Jersey. This time, I wasn’t sight-seeing and reading signs from train windows. This time, I volunteered to defend the lives of every citizen of this state when, I joined the New Jersey National Guard’s 112th Headquarters Artillery Battery, in Cherry Hill. I protected you and your families in that role for six years, serving as a fire direction computer for heavy artillery. It was challenging. I hope you appreciated the hard work I did in that capacity for the residents of the Garden State, even though I was, and still am, a lifelong Philadelphian.

Several years later, I was back in New Jersey. This time, I had been recruited to serve as a member of the board of the Claridge Casino Hotel, from 1995-2000, right before its acquisition by Bally’s. During that period, I learned a great deal about the casino industry and about the people of Atlantic City. At the same time, the state’s Casino Control Commission also learned a great deal about ME because, as a potential board member, I had to submit to a thorough, personal investigation, as a prelude to licensing. It was one of the longest, most arduous processes I’ve ever experienced. Let me say this about the NJ Casino Commission vetting process: Once you emerge successfully from that, being approved to serve as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court should be a breeze.

Still on the subject of New Jersey credentials, did I mention that I have a brother named Morris, who moved to Paterson NJ, years ago, to serve as school psychologist at East Side High School?

Did I also mention that I currently live on Penns Landing, on the PA side of the Delaware River, and that from my front window, I look across the river and keep an eye on the “activities” in Camden, every single day? Did I mention that? 

I hope that you’re now feeling a great deal more comfortable with my role, this afternoon.
With all of that as background, let’s move to today’s theme: “The State of Black New Jersey” and a discussion of how we can collectively foster relations among the private and public sectors and black businesses, to enhance New Jersey’s economic effectiveness.

What struck me as I thought about the business case for including African Americans more effectively in the New Jersey economy was this: The State of New Jersey seems to have significant untapped economic power available in the 1.3 million black residents who comprise about 14.7 percent of its statewide population.

Within that population, there are 60,300 black-owned businesses. While we’re digesting that information, we should know that, over the period of the last published Economic Census, ending in 2007, employment at black-owned firms increased by 22 percent, and black businesses across the U.S. employed 921,000 people, with an aggregate payroll of $23.9 billion.

This potential job-creation asset clearly should not be ignored within the state of New Jersey, wherein the unemployment rate, as of February 2015, was 90 basis points worse than the overall U.S. jobless rate, and represented the 19th worst state unemployment rate in the country. That kind of potential also shouldn't be overlooked in a state with just the 36th-best home ownership rate. 

Although the Garden State's numbers are aggregated to describe a single, statewide economy, there really are two very distinct economies within the state, itself--one, whose participants tend to be predominantly white, suburban, highly educated and exceptionally well-compensated; the other, comprised of residents of the state’s largest cities, who tend to be overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, who have relatively low economic achievement and whose high poverty and crime rates are nationally significant.

For example, while New Jersey's population, as a whole, is 14.7 percent black, the black population in the 10 largest cities is much higher, at 34 percent. While 17.7 percent of all New Jersey residents are Hispanic, the Latino population in those same 10 largest cities is 45.4 percent. On the other hand, while Asians are 8.3 percent of the state's residents, they’re just 5 percent of the population in the 10 largest cities; and while whites are 59.3 percent of the overall state population, they’re just 16.1 percent of the population in the 10 largest urban communities.

It’s clear that, in New Jersey, either whites and Asians are precluded from living in the large municipalities, or that blacks and Hispanics are excluded from living in the surrounding suburbs. Somehow, in the main, blacks and whites, simply don’t live near one another. In fact, 34.3 percent of the state’s 1.3 million blacks live in just 10 of the state’s 565 municipalities. That, I would offer, makes it relatively more difficult to do business together.

On its face, those circumstances take on the appearance of economically driven residential segregation. It's painfully clear that, in order to jumpstart their economy through more effective and inclusionary policies, Jerseyites will have to begin to talk more to each other, to develop a greater understanding of one another and, finally, to take meaningful steps toward doing business together. The simple lack of proximity, however, will be an issue.

While we’re discussing the upside to economic inclusion, those who might be concerned about public safety and crime in black and diverse communities, should give some thought to Blake Taylor’s 2006 study on Poverty and Crime. Among the report’s findings were evidence that a one percent increase in poverty leads to a 2.16 percent increase in total crime; that homicides are disproportionately concentrated in areas of poverty, and, finally, that: “The offer to relocate families from high to very-low poverty neighborhoods, i.e., census tracts with poverty rates below 10 percent, reduces juvenile arrests for violent offenses on the order of 30 to 50 percent of the arrest rate.”

In that regard, it should be of great interest to us, today, that nine of New Jersey's 10 largest cities have poverty rates that are substantially, embarrassingly, higher than that 10 percent threshold. Most notable are cities such as Camden, Passaic, Paterson and Newark, where the poverty rates are 39.8, 30.3, 29.1 and 29.1, respectively.

So, it would seem that the mandate to improve the economy in New Jersey's urban areas goes far beyond any outdated concepts of affirmative action or equal opportunity. This is not some charitable, morally "right thing to do" exercise. No, this is "enlightened self-interest" for an economy whose population, statewide, is now, about 44 percent comprised of people of color. Beyond the obvious economic benefits that would accrue to the State, this is also a strategy for reducing crime, creating aspirations, saving lives and improving the quality of life.

The recommended approach is much the same as how European immigrants were eventually absorbed into the mainstream economy, 70 years ago, leading to better jobs, improved business opportunities, reductions in crime rates in their neighborhoods and, eventually, access to improved housing, in leafy suburban communities.

However, to get to where we should all want to wind up in this regard, we'll have to recognize that current patterns of race-based exclusion are still doing significant damage to the American people and that they extend well beyond residential issues and deep into the very fabric of the U.S. economy, and the New Jersey economy.

It's interesting to note, for example, that the state of New Jersey and the U.S., as a whole, have virtually the same percentages of persons in their populations who are under the age of 5, who are under 18, and who are 65 and over.

In addition, and more to the point, both have about 14 percent black populations, both have Hispanic populations in the 17 and 18 percent range, and both report single-digit Asian populations. Also of great interest is the fact that, while 7.1 percent of all U.S. businesses are black-owned, 7.7 percent of New Jersey firms have black ownership.

New Jersey also slightly surpasses national averages for Hispanic-owned and Asian-owned firms, and has virtually the same percentage of woman-owned firms as the country, as a whole, at 27.3 percent. These strikingly similar data make New Jersey an ideal place for conducting the definitive case study for how the U.S. can take steps to include persons and businesses of color into its own mainstream economy.

New Jersey can, if it chooses to, take the national lead in this area, as the federal government has seemed reluctant to do so, for far too long.

Let's get back now to a discussion of the "other New Jersey economy," the one with the high incomes, fine homes and nation-leading household income levels. With its proximity to New York City and Philadelphia metros, New Jersey is much more prosperous, on a per-capita basis, than the U.S., as a whole.

Those with bachelor’s degrees or higher, for example, constitute 26 percent of the national population. For New Jersey, those degree holders are 35.8 percent of all residents. Median household income for the U.S. is $53,046, but for New Jersey, despite its poverty-stricken big cities, median household income is $72,629, the second-highest in the entire nation.

So, now that we see where the opportunity lies, and what has already been achieved in the New Jersey mainstream, let's benchmark the challenges faced by black businesses, both nationally and, here, in the State.

We'd have to begin by recognizing the black economy's importance to New Jersey, even in its current, less-than-widely-supported condition. For example, given its current spending power of roughly $1 trillion, Black America would rank 22nd in the world among 182 national economies. Its spending power is greater than that of the Netherlands, Colombia, Venezuela, the UAE, Belgium, Iraq, Sweden, Singapore, Portugal, or Ireland, among others.

How can U.S.-based firms, including those in N.J., rationally ignore such economic potential, sitting virtually under their profit-driven noses?

Curiously, Nielsen Research reported in November 2013, that even though 14 percent of Americans are black, only 3 percent of major media advertising spending is focused on them. National advertisers seem to have missed the boat, entirely, with regard to the profit potential in black consumer markets, even at currently depressed levels. Let's hope New Jersey-based businesses "wake up and smell the coffee." There’s opportunity to be gained, competitive advantage to be won, profits to be realized.

Not only has the U.S. business community seemingly lost interest in selling goods and services into the black community, those same companies continue to underutilize the professional services available from black-owned firms.

Despite the fact that the number of black-owned New Jersey firms increased by 72 percent, versus the 13 percent national average, over the period of the most recently published economic census, those black firms, on average, grossed just $72,000 on an annual basis. That compares to the $179,000 generated by Jersey-based Asian and Hispanic firms, and the $490,000 in average gross receipts realized by the state's mainstream firms.

It's difficult to argue against the point that business growth generally fuels job creation. In 2013, while it underutilized black and other diverse businesses, the State saw its private sector employment increase by just 1.4%, well below the 2.1% national average.

So, clearly, there’s work to do:

  • First of all, elected leadership in New Jersey should encourage the private sector to do more to extend its annual volume of procurements of goods and services with black-owned, and other minority, businesses. It should be, both, an economic and political agenda item.
  • On the business-to-business side, no small business can survive without contracts from large private-sector procurement decision-makers. The greatest business plan, the most highly educated business owner, the most well-designed services or well-packaged products don’t matter, unless the small, minority business can generate cash flow. As Peter Drucker once famously said, “Nothing happens in business until someone sells something.”
  • Yet, in a 2010 study of diversity practices at Fortune 500 Companies, researchers found that: 
    • Black/Africa-American firms represented only 2.58 percent of total procurement, that 
    • Hispanic/Latino firms represented 2.69 percent, and that 
    • Asian firms were 3.2 percent of contract revenues.
Even worse, 118 out of 219, or 53.8 percent, of the Fortune 500 respondents chose to not even answer the survey's questions about supplier diversity, or said they do not track such data, at all. As we all know, those things that don't get measured or monitored don't really matter in politics or in the business community.

If that kind of mean-spirited, self-defeating approach to the growth of minority businesses exists in large New Jersey corporations, it must stop, and stop soon.

  • In addition, Corporate New Jersey, like all of Corporate America, needs to do a significantly better job in recruiting African-American board members and executive managers. In 2010, according to the same Fortune 500 survey, blacks, nationwide, comprised just 4.23 percent of the members of executive management teams. 
  • Executive management. Isn't that where the ultimate hiring and procurement decisions get made in the business environment? That’s clearly an area for development.
  • There's also work to do within the black community, itself, beginning with the black religious community. If it's true that charity begins at home, so does support for small businesses. Regrettably, the perverse cultural history of this country has taught black consumers that they, too, ought to ignore the goods and services of black businesses, no matter how superior or convenient they may be, as compared to their mainstream competitors. There’s a regrettable, but true, old saying in the black community, one which black folks have been taught to believe, that says: "the white man’s ice is colder and his sugar is sweeter."
  • How does the black community move toward eliminating it's own, self-destructive economic behaviors?
    • A good place to start is the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Study, which disclosed that, as compared to other religious traditions, 85 percent of congregants of historically black churches believe “religion is important in one’s life.” That feeling about religious guidance exceeded all but Jehovah’s Witnesses (86%), and it compares to national religious dependency levels of 56% for Catholics, 31 percent for Jews, 72 percent for Muslims and 35 percent for Buddhists.  
    • Given these data, there's a role for the highly influential black church pastors to play in creating respect and promoting patronage for black businesses, in New Jersey, and across the country. In addition to stressing the importance of this effort from their pulpits, black ministers can establish protocols for tracking purchases from businesses within their own congregations, and throughout their local communities. 

    • The nation’s African-American businesses generated $137 billion in annual revenue, including small amounts from mainstream purchases, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet, African-American spending power is estimated at about $1 trillion. Where are black consumers spending that additional $863 billion, each year, if not with black-owned businesses? According to recent census data, African Americans spend just 7 cents out of every dollar at a black-owned business. While that's a much higher level than the expenditure rates by large, mainstream, corporations, it's still embarrassingly low, and has to change, too, if black businesses are to achieve full potential and have significant beneficial impact on the mainstream New Jersey economy. The Black Church should be joined in this effort to impact black purchasing patterns, by black media outlets.
  • Next, universities must play a heightened role, through partnerships with public sector leaders, to produce branded training programs for those seeking employment. They should also review their economics and political curricula to ensure that the “inclusion business case” is appropriately reflected. Statewide media must accept the “improved relationship” theme as part of an imperative for editorial agendas, assuming they want the strengthened New Jersey economy and improved quality of life that would result. 
  • Additionally, the African American Chamber, working together with public and private-sector leaders should take steps to update and enhance a central African-American business owners database. Such information would be utilized by both consumers, and businesses seeking vendors. This all-inclusive, online portal, which would have implications for use as a mobile application, would gather, update and disseminate information about black businesses, across all industry sectors. 
    • For example, the website, claims to have more than 10,000 businesses listed on its site, including firms from 58 New Jersey cities and townships. The challenge for sites such as this one, and others like it, is their inability to provide timely updates of business listings, and the fact that they don’t proactively forward potential black business leads to interested parties. 
    • An expanded database, managed and promoted by the Chamber, would bring additional credibility and effectiveness to such sites and would remove, once and for all, the time-worn excuses, by businesses and consumers, that they WOULD have used a black architect, plumber, or chef, but they just couldn’t find one.

  • Finally, leaders at large publicly traded, New Jersey-based corporations must expand their views beyond the short-term focus on margin and begin to think, also, about the long-term benefit that would accrue to their businesses and communities through providing increased levels of contract opportunities to black and minority businesses, and management-level career positions to Jersey-based black executive talent. A good place to start would be the completion of community-wide, geo-coded, procurement audits, designed to uncover where and with whom corporations are choosing to spend their budget dollars, and how those decisions are impacting the broader New Jersey economy.

Such an initiative would constitute a long-overdue transition from “fiscal-only” imperatives for procurement budgets, to a greater recognition for the need to have those expenditures also reflect the opportunity to have expanded economic impact, into the State's dramatically marginalized black and Hispanic communities. 

Clearly, the greatest beneficiary of providing access to full economic inclusion to ALL New Jersey residents will be the Garden State, itself.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Rahm Is The Mayor. What Did We Learn?

(Written February 25, 2011)

If you’re one of those people who has been patiently waiting to see whether the "post-racial society" – in the third year of the Obama administration – has finally begun to kick in for black Americans, this was a good week for you.

Is the whole "rising tide lifting all boats" thing finally working for us? Are we moving up or falling further behind?

Let's start in Chicago, to see what we might have learned from the Windy City's mayor’s race, last Tuesday.

By now, it’s not news anymore that Rahm Emanuel, who just a few months ago was supposed to be in the political “fight of his life” with Chicago’s black leadership, actually won that election – by a landslide.

If you recall, black leaders in Chicago, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, in early January, had encouraged two of Emanuel’s leading black opponents to get out of the race, clearing the way for a single, black “consensus” candidate. That candidate, of course, was none other than Carol Moseley Braun, attorney, entrepreneur, first African-American female U.S. Senator, former U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and former candidate for U.S. President of the United States, in the 2004 Democratic Primary Election.

On paper, it looked like “a plan.”

If all had gone according to that plan, Emanuel, even with a bold, politically risky endorsement from the country’s “first black president,” Bill Clinton, in hand, would have gotten his back kicked out by a unified black vote and there would have been an African-American mayor in Chicago, again, for the first time since Harold Washington’s untimely death in 1987.

That was the plan, anyway, right up until January 30, the day that Moseley Braun, during a Sunday political debate at Trinity United Church, out of the clear blue sky, called a political opponent a “crack head.”

Apparently, the opponent, another black woman, named Patricia Van-Pelt Watkins (who commanded a whopping one percent of the vote in the polls, at the time) angered Moseley Braun when she remarked that the former U.S. Senator had been largely invisible in local Chicago politics, in recent years.

When it was her turn to speak, Braun, the former U.S. presidential candidate, said: “Patricia, the reason you don’t know where I was for the last 20 years is because you were strung out on crack.”

While Watkins had openly admitted to drug use as a teen, there is absolutely no evidence that she ever experimented with or abused crack, at any point in her life.

As they say in the sport of tennis, that statement, coming from a person who wanted to be elected mayor of the second largest city in the U.S., was “game, set and match" for the Carol Moseley Braun election campaign.

At the time she made the comment, Moseley Braun had been running in second place, behind Emanuel with 21 percent of the vote. Just one month after the “crack head comment,” however, her support among likely voters had dropped to 10 percent and, on election day, she finished even lower, at 9 percent of the vote, behind two Hispanic candidates, former Chicago school board president Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel del Valle and, of course, Emanuel.

Chicago, with more black residents than any other U.S. city (1,019,000) and 600,000 registered black voters, as compared to 500,000 registered white voters and 300,000 registered Hispanic voters, just saw, last week, an opportunity to elect its second African-American mayor “go up in smoke," so to speak.

Emanuel won the election with 317,000 votes, the lowest number of winning mayoral votes in Chicago history. Moseley Braun received a little more than 50,000 votes, and came in fourth, behind Chico with 138,000 votes and Del Valle, who attracted 53,000 voters. Turnout, in an historic Mayor's race, was 40 percent.

Some in Chicago seemed to leap to conclusions about Barack Obama’s impact on the outcome, despite his reluctance to take any side, at all, during the campaign. Straining to make that point, black Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell wrote: “Obama didn’t have to say anything. He just had to be. And from that point on race became a bad word in elections.”

She went on to officially declare that “Carol Moseley Braun's stunning defeat signals the end of the black political empowerment movement in Chicago.”

Really, Ms. Mitchell?

How about the absolute lack of a responsible and credible black candidate? Was that a factor? And, how about the effect of the notorious crack comment? Didn’t any of that matter?

Why, in 2011, when the virtually all-white Tea Party is setting the political agenda in a disproportionately large number of states, including in Wisconsin, where the new governor, Scott Walker, was elected with Tea Party support, are black pundits in such a rush to discredit the value of having a viable, black voting bloc? Have Hispanics stopped voting for their candidates or for their issues, as a collective? And, wasn’t it also just last week when we saw a stunning announcement from the Obama administration that proved that the gay voting bloc was still intact, and operating at full force?

Aside from Chicago, there was also the poll released, this past week, by the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University that informed us that, despite having the most significant economic barriers to their success, 85 percent of African Americans remain “optimistic” about the U.S. economy – for themselves and for their children.

“The Recession was worse for (blacks), than the previous business cycle … “ said Christian Welle, Professor at The University of Massachusetts and “since then," he said, "things have not gotten any better.”

The Washington Post poll informed us, for example, that in the event of job loss, 16.4 percent of white households wouldn’t have enough net worth to live for three months at the poverty level.” For black households, the poll reported, a stunning 41.7 percent wouldn’t have enough.

In the face of all of that, blacks informed the pollsters that what keeps them optimistic are two things – their “faith in God” and their belief that Barack Obama, as President of the United States, will eventually take steps that will improve economic conditions for them and for their children.

What we have learned from that, I imagine, is that there isn’t very much anyone can do to turn black voters into political pragmatists, the kind of people who hold elected officials accountable, by 2012. The more they suffer during the term of a favored elected official, the more, it seems, they become “optimistic.”

At the same time, I guarantee you the Obama 2012 campaign advisors have learned that it is virtually impossible for the “second black president" to lose African-American support. Therefore, it probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for them to squander valuable political campaign funds to reach out to black voters or to make campaign promises to them. They obviously have no intention of going anywhere else.

Maybe what we need is more of the approach taken by the chaplain in the old WWII song, who said to U.S. troops in the middle of battle:" Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition." The other, more passive approach, relying only on faith, is "killing" us.

Then, there's the growing chorus of “Negro leaders” and political commentators who (get paid to) tell us that voting in a bloc is bad politics for blacks, no matter what whites, other ethnic groups and special interest groups do. That's a recipe for even further black political disaster.

Looks like the 2012 Presidential Election will be another one wherein we believe in the candidate way more than the candidate believes in us, and when not much will have changed for us once it’s over.

That certainly looks like the lesson we should have learned from the Chicago election.

Were we paying attention?


Americans May Soon Walk Like Egyptians

(Written February 19, 2011)

Have you had about enough news about Egypt? Is your head starting to spin as you try to figure out whether the next, biggest “unrest” story is coming from Egypt itself, or from the “protest of the day” In Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Libya or Sudan?

Even now, after three consecutive weeks of 24/7 media focus on "Middle East unrest", can you find any of those places, other than Egypt, of course, on a map without a great deal of assistance?

Was it as strange for you as it was for me to see the president of the United States flip-flopping back and forth in his support for Hosni Mubarak, the 30-year U.S. ally? Was it stranger still to see Mubarak quit abruptly and leave Cairo by helicopter, just one day after saying emphatically that he wasn’t going anywhere,, and after he had vowed to “punish” the demonstrators?

Even before events in Egypt came to a head, there had been unrest in Tunisia, and in Jordan, a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Also hit with demonstrations has been Sudan, which receives about $300 million annually in U.S. aid. Bahrain, home to a huge U.S. naval base, has also been the target of protestors.

Curiously, even though the U.S. provides $1.75 billion per year in foreign aid to Egypt (second in the region, only behind the $2.75 billion given annually to Israel), a recent poll by Zogby International has made it clear that the unrest in Egypt was probably just as much an anti-U.S. phenomenon, as it was an anti-Mubarak event.

According to the poll, 85 percent of Egyptians had an unfavorable attitude toward the U.S., 87 percent had "no confidence" in the U.S. and 92 percent named the U.S. as one of two nations that are the greatest threat to their country.

Those poll results and these recent events have been clear indicators that the U.S. is going to have to conduct itself much differently in the next few months, and over the coming years, if it ever hopes to regain the respect of people in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Notwithstanding the importance and value of oil, for example, the U.S. is going to have to learn to pursue it without having a total disregard for the lives of those in the countries where it is produced.

I hope it’s become increasingly clear to the president of the United States, and to Congress, that people around the world no longer seem to be impressed by how powerful, rich and influential the United States used to be in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.

It’s apparent that when they look this way, both friends and foes of the U.S. see a country that hasn’t won a major war since 1945, and a nation with a chronic and growing unemployment problem that has seriously diminished its ability to function as a leading global economic power.

They’re also seeing, more and more, a country that has to be increasingly concerned about the potential for addressing its own domestic challenges and protests.

In that regard, it was especially interesting to hear, early during the Egyptian protests, that the people in that country were demonstrating because they had an unemployment rate of 9.75 percent, that the cost of food had grown unacceptably high and because there was a far-too-great economic disparity between rich and poor in the country.

When I heard that, I was struck by the similarities between what was happening in Egypt and what we’re beginning to see here in the “good ole U.S.A.”

If you thought the people in Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia were angry and frustrated, maybe you should take a closer look at the faces of the 30,0000 people who marched on the Wisconsin legislature last week, protesting a bill that would diminish the power of labor unions over all, and substantially reduce pensions and benefits for members of teachers’ unions.

That protest grew so ugly so quickly that 14 Democratic legislators actually left the State capitol to avoid participating in the vote and to prevent the government from having the quorum needed to pass the legislation.

State troopers were called in and the governor threatened to call in the National Guard.

But it’s not just Wisconsin.

It’s been reported that 40 states across the country are trying to address budget shortfalls that may climb to $140 billion. The resultant budget cuts will have disastrous impacts, among other things, on the country’s 14,000 school districts for at least the next five years. Most states are targeting areas such as health care, public school education, university funding and services to senior citizens and to low- income youths to close their budget gaps.

In November of last year, 500 students converged on Baton Rouge, La. to protest cuts in state education. One student, from the University of New Orleans, was quoted as saying, “The cleaning staff in the Liberal Arts building has been laid off. The classrooms are filthy. It’s not uncommon to see trash all over the room.”

In addition, in March of last year, thousands protested education budget reductions in California, and in May, an estimated 35,000 people, the largest group of protestors ever assembled in the state of New Jersey, gathered in Trenton, the state capital, to protest Governor Christie’s education budget cuts.

Two things bother me about all of this: One, our mainstream media outlets are diligently covering stories about government unrest in the Middle East, and occasionally, in Europe, but seem not to be interested in similar stories right here.

Secondly, our elected officials, especially those who claim to be fiscal conservatives, or who profess affiliation with the so-called Tea Party, seem to be taking an all-too-theoretical and dogmatic approach to the pain their trendy new “deficit reduction-or-bust” ideology is inflicting on the American people. They seem to be really impressed with hearing themselves repeat for Fox Cable Channel and the Wall Street Journal that the only way to improve the economy is to reduce taxes for the extremely rich and to cut services — across the board — for the American people as a whole, especially for those who are most economically vulnerable, including most African Americans.

The idea that they might be able to improve city, state or federal economies solely by reducing the size of governmental budgets is absolutely ludicrous. It’s like trying to convince an already-destitute family that the best way for them to improve their wealth is to stop spending.

Global economic supremacy has shifted over the past decade, from the West to the East. Consequently, the U.S. is suffering through a significant economic crisis. It doesn’t help that our politicians seem not to understand how to stop spewing empty rhetoric about budget cuts and deficit reductions, or how to start changing our national business and economic models so the country and its businesses can go back to generating revenues and creating jobs.

If they can’t learn to do these things, it seems to me, our elected officials, much like those who are being toppled across the Middle East, will simply have to be removed from office as soon as humanly possible.

Too many Americans are already seriously at risk, largely due to conditions they had absolutely no role in creating. We can’t afford to endure indecision, incompetence or empty ideologies very much longer, or to continue to have our elected officials cater irresponsibly to those in our society who absolutely did create these circumstances and who, even at this late date, are still committed to maintaining the status quo.

Pretty soon, the people in Egypt may very well be watching us on their flat-screen TV sets as we’re having our own anti-government demonstrations, here in the U.S.


Outrage in Ohio Leads To Effective Response

(Written February 11, 2011)

Outrage in Ohio Leads To Effective Response

An anonymous African-American man once said, in describing the attraction that black folks have for “the blues," as a musical form, that “we've been down so long, getting up don’t even cross our mind.”

I had begun to accept, reluctantly, the fundamental truth in that statement, given the lack of focus and energy I’ve seen, recently, in our local and national community about things that should engage us.

I’ve been disappointed that we seem not to care as much anymore about demonstrating our ability to mobilize around an issue. Sadly, we seem to have lost our interest in confronting those who insult, demean and marginalize us. Not only do we no longer accept the old, established, black leadership organizations, but we publicly denounce the concept that black people need any leadership, at all, to move from “Point A” to "Point B,” as if the laws of management and nature, themselves, no longer apply to us and we’ve, somehow, outgrown the need for them.

Hell, we’ve even lost interest in being “black,” lately, and we seem to join in enthusiastically in every idle discussion about why black self-identity no longer matters.

We’ve stopped defending what has always belonged to us and we have no collective thought about what should be ours in the future.

In the main, black people I see – across all income and educational levels – just seem to be satisfied that they are “here.”

It’s … getting ….really …. depressing.

That being the case, when I see a sign, any sign at all, that we’re beginning to stir, or that we’re ready to fight again for what’s right, to do what needs to be done to preserve our families and our community, I do get a little encouraged.

This past week was one of those times.

I went back to look at a story that had shocked and angered me when it first circulated in late January. It was the one, of course, about a young African-American woman named Kelly Williams-Bolar who, you may recall, seemed, at first glance, to be one of the most admirable models for “bootstrap self-improvement” that our community has seen in a long time.

Not only had she taken steps, back in 2006, to move her two daughters into a much better-quality public school system than the dramatically under-performing one to which her children had been assigned, she also was gainfully employed as a teachers' aide in one of her local high schools. In addition, she was just a few credit hours short of earning her degree in education at the University of Akron.

Do you know what Ms. Williams-Bolar's reward was for doing all of that? She was sentenced by Common Pleas Court in Summit County, Ohio, in late January, to five years in prison- - all but ten days of which were suspended – two years of probation and 80 hours of community service.

Her crime? When she transferred her children out of the Akron Public School system and into the suburban Copley-Fairlawn School District, where the average household income ranges up to $88,000 per year, where more than 90 percent of the residents are white and an astounding 41 percent of the population in one of the District’s townships have at least a bachelor's degree, she told school officials that her daughters lived with her father, Edward Williams, who actually lives within the District’s boundaries. In actuality, however, the primary residence for the young mother and her two daughters was a public housing project in Akron in Ohio.


Once that was discovered by the School District, the officials decided to bring criminal charges against Ms. Williams-Bolar.

There is no doubt that what happened in that Summit County court room last month was designed to “send a message” to other poor, non-white families that such behavior is not only unacceptable, but that it would also lead to a conviction for having committed a felony.

That being the case, the Summit County prosecutor, a woman named Sherri Bevan Walsh, who has had a highly controversial career in her own right, also brought charges against Kelly’s father, Edward Williams. The first charge, amazingly, was “grand larceny,” for misappropriating what the prosecutor estimated as $30,000 in tuition for the two girls, over a two-year period; the second was “tampering with records, in connection with a related fraud claim.

The first time I heard about Ms. Williams-Bolar, her father, her two children and the criminal charges, I thought the whole thing was an ill-conceived joke. But, it was absolutely real.

Gradually, however, I began to recognize, as horrendous as all of this has been, that for at least a brief moment, some black people and several whites "of good conscience," actually did wake up and become engaged in pushing back against an abusive legal system in Ohio.

All of a sudden, there was the ubiquitous Rev. Al Sharpton, getting personally involved in raising cash to help defray Ms. Williams-Bolar's legal expenses, through his National Action Network.

There was the equally ubiquitous Rev. Jesse Jackson, threatening to push for a piece of national legislation that would ensure equal access to quality education, regardless of family income.

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and the recently chastised and more-sensitive-to-black-folks National Public Radio (see “Juan Williams”), even weighed in, calling Ms. Williams-Bolar “the Rosa Parks of education reform.”

Two online advocacy organizations, Change.Org and Color of Change, asked visitors to their web sites to sign petitions requesting Ohio’s Governor John Kasich, who, by the way, until very recently, had been widely criticized, himself, for not having any people of color in his cabinet, to drop the charges against the young mother and her father. It was very good to see more than 165,000 petitions from those two web sites signed in just a very brief period of time.

Hey, even "big-time" P. Diddy took a few minutes off from selling Ciroc and generally “living large” to send out a tweet, asking his 3.2 million followers on Twitter to send messages to the governor. His tweet was very direct and “on time:” “I want all 3m of yall 2 hit up @ johnkasich and tell him Moms shouldn't go to jail for protecting their kids.”

That’s what I’m talking ‘bout!

That’s the kind of coordinated activity, the kind of passion and focus we’ve been missing on our issues, now, for far too long.

And, you know what? It seems to be working.

The Ohio Justice and Policy Center has announced that it is providing a new legal defense team to appeal Ms. Williams-Bolar's’s two felony convictions and to seek a pardon on her behalf so she can return to the pursuit of a teaching career, which had been precluded by her felony conviction.

Last Tuesday, Governor Kasich ordered the Ohio State Parole Board to investigate the validity of the felony conviction. At the end of the day, the only person of note who should have, but who hasn’t, weighed in on this subject is, of course, your President of the United States. It was an appropriate issue and it might have helped.

At the end of the day, what this case has shown us is that there still is great value in activism and in raising the public profile of racial and social injustice. Clearly, it has also shown us that there is an important role that social media can and must play in our efforts going forward.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks, I’m sure, for the Williams family, but maybe we all learned something in the process.

I hope so.

And, by the way, don’t forget to send out your own tweet to Governor Kasich.