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The Night John Hope Bryant Came to Town: Chautauqua, Bed-Stuy, and the Empty Charlatanism of Preaching Hope to Black Poverty

A few months ago, John Hope Bryant—whose website describes him as a ‘thought-leader on economic empowerment and financial dignity’—stood onstage at an event in Memphis, Tennessee and told the audience that “there are more poor whites in America than anybody else, then and now, so this is not a minority issue, by the way.”

‘This’ is U.S. poverty. And the ‘then’ to which he refers—having cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign as an apparent precedent for his own project of economic liberation—is 1968. And while that campaign was in name and spirit an inclusive movement, its principal organizer was—even in that very same year—publicly making the point of how the country’s poor whites, unlike black people, had in fact been the beneficiaries of numerous government initiatives designed to help lift them out of poverty and promote prosperity: “But not only did they give the land [to whites],” Dr. King said, “they built Land-grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that; they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that; they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that; today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man he oughta lift himself by his own boot straps.”

In describing the American capitalist class’s evolution as one of peasants having become the owners of the means of production in the country’s premiere industry only with the critical assistance of government policy and expenditure, Dr. King was doing more than laying bare the pretensions of that group to vaunt themselves as ‘self-made’ individuals. By—in that same speech—noting how freed slaves, left destitute after having been made to spend centuries in a condition of human chattelhood, were explicitly refused any such policies of economic advantage during that time, Dr. King was pointing to the discriminatory underpinnings of the racial wealth gap; a phenomenon which, as he makes clear, was manufactured with the help of public policy at the federal level.

Since 1968, the disparity in wealth between that which is held in white America and that which is held in black America has only persisted and intensified, often abetted by the same kind of racially-biased policy to which Dr. King alluded as having first deprived the black community of wealth-creating opportunities following emancipation. In the relatively short period of time during which John Hope Bryant has been touring the country and promoting his strategies for economic uplift, the racial wealth divide has undergone an unprecedentedly sharp expansion. The median white family—which in 2010 was worth 16.5 times as much as the median black family—is now worth a staggering 68.5 times more. Nonetheless, when Mr. Bryant is out on the lecture circuit talking about the African-American experience in this country and the need for economic empowerment, he insists before his audiences that “pigmentation of skin has nothing to do with anything other than where the sun was thousands of years ago.”

And so as someone whose body of work betrays this kind of rigor and commitment to disentangling and oversimplifying race and poverty in America, John Hope Bryant would seem to be a curious choice to have been invited as a speaker at tonight’s event, “Bridging the Racial Wealth Gap,” one in a series of weekly colloquia held in Brooklyn entitled “Wealth Building Wednesdays.”

After all, given his own calculus—one in which whites are victimized by the economy in vastly greater proportion than any other group—it seems like it may actually come as something of a surprise for Mr. Bryant to have learned that the racial wealth gap even exists in the first place. Or that maybe he has the positions of the gap’s constituent groups backwards.

As an audience member, I’m admittedly anxious to see whether—insofar as he concedes to the empirical proof on the deep divide that exists economically between black and white America—he’ll nonetheless assert the importance of understanding that those skin colors have really only ever functioned purely as adaptive traits throughout the whole course of history. Or will tonight’s discussion necessitate slightly tighter parameters than geologic time? Will there be a more precise attempt to focus on the in fact extremely dynamic role of that accident of solar influence at certain latitudes; a more exacting look at the history of how it was used to justify and perpetuate all forms of brutality on a specific people—not least of all, economic.

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A spray-painted advertisement seen on Dekalb Avenue in Bed-Stuy. Many would correctly argue that the outcome of the scenario posited above has—from the beginning—only helped to further marginalize black people out of wealth-building opportunity. In this particular neighborhood’s context, it takes on a whole new valence, and you sort of can’t help but walk by it and wince.

Because it would, in a way, be truly obscene for our speaker to not recognize the totally context-altering location of tonight’s event—the historically-black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant—and shift the usual terms of his discussion on inequality accordingly. To fail to fully appreciate the neighborhood’s vivid legacy of racialized poverty; how its history epitomizes the post-emancipation imperative to, as much as possible, preserve the wealth-depriving aspect of institutionalized slavery, an aim realized most fully in the anti-black discriminatory residential zoning practices carried out in concert by governmental and real estate agencies who, together, literally grafted economic failure onto entire portions of the city, and who—in so doing—effectively quarantined whatever societal maladies would follow and ensured that they were given a black face.

Of course what has since followed has been the predictable—though no less atrocious—outcomes of the logic of exclusion and extraction, two processes which, for so long and to such a great degree have characterized not just Bedford-Stuyvesant but American black life in general, that it would seem almost impossible to attribute the racial wealth gap’s very essence to anything other than their crippling effects.

But you’d be surprised with what John Hope Bryant can come up with, especially when he is speaking to crowds in a setting wholly unlike tonight’s.

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Two young men in Bed-Stuy, photographed at the corner of Lexington and Marcus Garvey. When asked if they would mind their picture being taken, they generously obliged and then, throughout, playfully argued over who was more photogenic.

I first listened to John Hope Bryant speak three years ago on July 3rd at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York. His presentation was sandwiched between a culinary ambassador for the U.S. State Department—who was there to promote his book, For Cod and Country, which details the author’s approach to consuming marine life sustainably—and the Korean-American novelist, Chang-Rae Lee. The theme for all of the afternoon’s presentations was “With Economic Justice For All.”

Chautauqua is a small town in Southwestern New York state. It is, by car, about an eight-hour drive from Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Institution has been around since 1874, and—as a speaking venue—has a certain cachet when it comes to where one makes the rounds on the national lecture circuit. Four sitting U.S. presidents have visited the Institution and given speeches in its open-air amphitheater.1  It is situated just inland from Chautauqua Lake amid an almost comically-picturesque surrounding. Rows of sailboats docked thirty abreast, all nodding gently in the surf of the lake upon which, in the evening’s dying light, a lilac sky’s reflection lays still and continuous on its surface; a deep, serene blue, which further out bleeds to violet before inclining to a soft blush of pink at the horizon, fusing with the now gone sun’s last refulgent burst of vermilion.

I could probably squander the rest of this ink cartridge trying to describe Chautauqua’s natural beauty and I think still fail to sufficiently convey the sort of omnipastoral quality that envelops and obtains in just being there. The splendor—especially if one has been doing a good deal of living in the city—is so inescapable that it’s almost claustrophobic. So I won’t even bother going on. Plus, the Chautauqua video brochures that are available online do a much better job of imparting its resplendency and scenic glories, if so interested. Suffice it to say that Smithsonian Magazine, in its 2014 April issue—the year before John Hope Bryant went there to speak about economic justice—named Chautauqua the number one “Best Small Town to Visit.”

2014 was also the year in which Bedford-Stuyvesant was named by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as the number one neighborhood for new HIV diagnoses and highest recorded levels of lead in the tap water. Bedford-Stuyvesant also that same year ranked number one in the borough’s homeless student population and unemployment. Its poverty rate today is 33%, and it is one of the five neighborhoods in all of New York City that—together—supply one-third of the city’s total prison population.

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It is exactly the sort of low-wealth neighborhood that Mr. Bryant had asked the audience that day at the Chautauqua Institution—in a town where the poverty rate is 5%, and where the white population is 94.2%—to all close their eyes and envision along with him. “Here’s what you see,” he said, “A check cashing store, next to a pay day loan lender, next to a rent-to-own store…next to a liquor store.”

After setting the scene, he paused for a second and then told the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not racism. That’s not even discrimination. It’s target marketing. They’re literally targeting a 500 credit score.”

Needless to say the type of thinking it takes to keep those two things isolated—to insist on the mutual exclusivity between something like credit scores as a criterion for discrimination, and skin color, and that we wrongly ascribe the latter’s anti-blackness to the former’s essentially colorblind business model—is precisely the sort of mentality that has enabled the continuum of wealth lockout and exploitation of the black community to reach well into our present without much real interruption since slavery. Once descendants of slaves were accorded consumer status in the markets, anti-black discrimination had a whole new conceptual apparatus with which to play: new language, new categories, new ways of looking at the ancient hierarchy. And it was through this new paradigm which it gained ever-greater fitness for maneuvering to shore up the already deleterious economic condition of the community following slavery and Jim Crow and to cement the profound disadvantages of what may have been an emerging rival group within the free enterprise system.

So despite trying to frame the ubiquity of predatory businesses in a place like Bed-Stuy as being a landscape that is basically natural to areas of  poor credit and not race, the fact is that because of the history of complete economic subjugation of slaves—and how in the absence of some radical redistributive measures that privation is being allowed to fully bore its way down through the generations of its victims—whatever non-explicitly racist scheme of classification a person or business might use (low-income, bad credit, high crime) to establish and guide procedure (or, in the case of John Bryant, to frame a discussion about exploitation) that organization or person is simply doing polite racism and ensuring how totally naturalized and deep and basically in-built the racial inequality is and will continue to be in every aspect of U.S. national life.

Chief among these aspects of national life—and the one from which the stability and ability to participate meaningfully in all others traces back to—is wealth. And it’s presumably that relationship which we are all here tonight in Bed-Stuy to talk about. Afterall, as Yvette Carnell of Breaking Brown has said, “The tool to compete, in this era, is wealth,” before she asks rhetorically, “What do you do if you don’t have it?”

In skimming Mr. Bryant’s book, The Memo: Five Rules for Your Economic Liberation, which was available for purchase at the event’s sign-in table2, for an answer to Yvette Carnell’s question, it seems reasonable to assume that he would probably recommend that the wealth-deficient recite a litany of affirmations about their own self-worth. On page 30 of The Memo, there is a kind of graphic representation referred to as the HOPE doctrine. It contains all of the things supposedly needed to move one’s life a more wealth-positive direction, and “high self-esteem” and “high confidence” account for fully 50% of that transformation.3 The graph also includes “Aspiration,” “Role Models,” “Environment,” and “Opportunity” as the remaining ingredients a person needs to obtain greater wealth. Conspicuously absent from the graph is actual money. However, this may not come as too much of a surprise to anyone who has listened to John Bryant speak before, since he himself is on record as routinely saying, “Wealth has nothing to do with money.”4

Again, sitting here with this in mind while we wait for him to take the stage—his insistence that these things (skin color, wealth; these literally constitutive elements of the racial wealth gap) have “nothing to do” with anything concrete in their function—I have to wonder if we are going to leave here tonight all having been told that the racial wealth gap is essentially an inequality of attitude? That the racial wealth gap boils down to how white people just basically have ten times the amount of self-confidence than do black people. Or if maybe after this event we’ll read headlines like this one that appeared last year in The Guardian: “Median Wealth of Black Americans ‘will fall to zero by 2053,’ warns new report,” and understand it to mean that by 2053 black Americans will have no self-esteem.

More importantly, does anyone in the John Hope Bryant camp even think to do some basic investigating into the big, obvious claim that—in the context of something like ‘the racial wealth gap’—jumps out when you define wealth as positive self-perception? The big, obvious claim that jumps out any time he talks about poverty and says something like he had said back in Chautauqua: “That’s the African-American experience…because of slavery…we had our confidence literally beaten out of us,” or his claim that “The legacy [of] two-hundred and fifty years of slavery…and one-hundred years of Jim Crow…was that you, as an African-American, may have a suit and tie on, but you feel like crap.” Namely, is that even true? Are black people, as a group, empirically deficient in self-regard? Why would anyone accept that assertion uncritically? Afterall, insofar as John Hope Bryant has any credibility to speak to the racial wealth gap, one might reliably assume that his diagnosis of the problem could withstand a little scrutiny.

Alas, a quick search brings up three relevant studies which all directly contradict the proposition that the black community suffers from low self-estimation, one which—it bears repeating—Mr. Bryant needs to be true, lest his whole epistemic foundation and paradigm of poverty be undercut.

The first study was carried out by a team of researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Their study, Self-Esteem Development from 14 to 30 years: A Longitudinal Study, examined self-esteem development in subjects from adolescence to young adulthood over the years 1994-2008 and found that “Blacks have higher self-esteem than Whites do during adolescence and young adulthood.” The second—a 2011 study published in The Journal of the International Society for Self and Identity—demonstrated how, among U.S. 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, “African-American students score highest” across all groups (Whites, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics) in the category of self-esteem. The study also notes that “the findings are highly consistent across 18 annual surveys from 1991 through 2008, and self-esteem scores show little overall change during that period.” Lastly, a 2002 paper published by the American Psychological Association showed “blacks scored higher than whites on self-esteem measures,” and “blacks’ self-esteem increased over time relative to whites.” Elsewhere, one of the study’s authors, Dr. Jean Twenge—a professor of psychology at San Diego State University—pointed out that “research shows black women score higher on self-esteem than women of other races and ethnicities, which may seem surprising,” she notes, “given the long history of prejudice and discrimination they have faced.”5

Certainly it may give Mr. Bryant pause, since it would seem to—at the absolute very least—complicate the basis of his argument he’d deployed onstage in Chautauqua to explain to that very wealthy community not only poverty in a general sense, but black poverty, specifically: “African-Americans are one of two groups in America who’ve had their self-esteem devastated, their confidence devastated.”

And so one has to naturally wonder why he might be so invested in this narrative of negative self-evaluation being endemic to the black community? There would seem to be an almost kind of contempt that you have to have for a group of people when—in the face of incontrovertible evidence of its not being at all the case—you would maintain positively that the problem is their mentality and attitude. The only types of people I know who contrive to convince a vulnerable person of their low self-worth are basically extremely insecure sociopaths who make sport out manipulating other people for some sort of personal gain.

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Margaret, a thirty-year Bed-Stuy resident with her dog.

This past April, a seminal report on the racial wealth gap, “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap,” was published out of Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Equality. With great vim and incisive analysis, the report goes through and methodically explodes the most common misconceptions surrounding our present discourse on what drives the divide, and thus serves to contribute to the adulteration of our conceptual approach(es) to substantively closing it.

Among the report’s authors are Dr. Sandy Darity—a Duke U. professor of public policy, African and African-American studies, Economics, and basically veritable giant in the field of generational wealth studies—Professor Darrick Hamilton—a man whose present academic appointments are honestly so impressive and numerous that he would seem to be able to be in multiple places at once—and Antonio Moore—someone who is so verse in the data on wealth disparities in the U.S. that it would seem to literally be the air he breathes.

In all of the report’s 67 pages, the words ‘confidence’ and ‘self-esteem’ appear exactly zero times. Wealth is discussed throughout the report not in the sort of vague and abstract language of attitude of mind found in the HOPE doctrine, but rather in concrete terms of how it actually functions: as a fundamentally generative asset which, depending on the initial endowment, determines by greater or lesser degrees a person’s ability to secure their next asset. The report puts it more concisely: “Literally,” the authors write, “it takes wealth to make wealth.” Furthermore, the authors are always forcing the reader to confront the historical reality of how “blacks largely have been excluded from intergenerational access to capital and finance.”

That intergenerational lack of access to capital and finance—and the resultant dependency on highly-exploitative financial services that tend to sabotage wealth-building efforts—loomed over (quite literally) a conversation that I had earlier this week with Margaret, a 70 year-old woman who has spent the past 30-plus years living right at the border of Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill. She was out walking her dog when I approached her to talk about what it’s like living in the neighborhood.

“Everything in this neighborhood is new,” she told me. “But the liquor store’s always been on the corner. Everything else is new.” After she said this, Margaret turned around and looked up at the Apple Bank behind her. “That wasn’t Apple Bank back then,” she said. “It was something else. I can’t remember what it was…”

When I got home later that night, I went to my computer to look it up. It turned out that the building had been an Emigrant Savings Bank, a financial institution which—in 2016—was found by a federal jury in Brooklyn to have “aggressively market[ed] toxic mortgages” to black homeowners with poor credit between the years 1999-2008.

The next time I saw Margaret I told her about Emigrant Savings Bank and the verdict that I’d read about in the case involving their predatory loan practices. I also played for her the part of John Hope Bryant’s talk in Chautauqua where he tells the audience that these kinds of abusive, extractive practices don’t constitute racism; that they’re not even discrimination.

“Naw,” she said after listening to him. “Bull. Bull crap. Oh, please…”

Margaret’s sentiments pretty accurately reflect the data that was submitted in testimony given by the plaintiffs’ attorneys during the trial, wherein it was shown that even when applying variable controls for credit scores, income, and education levels, STAR NINA Loans (the type of predatory finance instruments offered by Emigrant that allowed prospective borrowers to apply for the loan with No proof of Income and No proof of Assets) were still 32% more likely to end up in majority African-American neighborhoods.

In walking around the neighborhood some more with Margaret and talking about the number of homes up for sale—and how a large portion of them are being converted for use as rental units—it was hard not to be reminded of Darity et al.’s assessment of the basic ontology of wealth; namely, that wealth begets wealth, a point that is driven home in about a hundred different ways throughout the report. As Darrick Hamilton observes, “It provides people with the necessary capital to secure finance and purchase an appreciating asset, which in turn will generate more and more wealth.” When Margaret and I were later saying goodbye, she mentioned a recent sale in the neighborhood that embodies Hamilton’s point exactly.

“I know the guy who owned Piro’s funeral home,” she told me, referring to Richard Costa—CEO of Clinton DeKalb Realty and two formerly active corporate entities specializing in funeral services—and a property which, according to an archived Home Owners’ Loan Corporation Map, is located in an area that was once marked ‘Definitely Declining.’ Margaret continued, shaking her head: “And he was bragging because he got that house…that whole funeral home and building for like sixty-thousand, but he made millions off of it.”

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Aaron, photographed in Bed-Stuy. “I think financial literacy is important, but like having money to be literate with is more important.”

Contrary to the words ‘confidence’ and ‘self-esteem’, the word ‘home’ appears in the racial wealth gap report a total of 70 times. The reason for its prominence, as the report notes, is obvious enough: “[T]he typical household, regardless of race, holds most of its wealth in home equity.”

The rate of homeownership in Chautauqua is an astronomical 91.2%. Bed-Stuy’s homeownership rate is 21.7. When the State Comptroller’s office went to write up a post-mortem on the housing crisis ten years ago, it was reported that as of 2008 there had been a total of 800 sub-prime mortgages issued in the entire Chautauqua County area.6 In the single year of 2006, there had been 1,517 sub-prime mortgages issued in Bed-Stuy alone. Two years later, it had the highest sub-prime foreclosure rate, statewide.

The point is not simply to compare the dramatic levels of wealth inequality between these two places. In America—if the demographics are right—you can pretty easily find any number of similar examples of cities where the history of unequal access to wealth-building opportunities gets expressed in homeownership rates. This is, however, a particularly glaring one. Rather, the point is how, in Chautauqua, there is a long tradition of supposedly intellectual figures—’leaders’ from the black community—who get up before the crowds there and encourage them to feel, to think, to know that a place like Chautauqua—which so obviously enjoys an unusually high level of wealth—has nothing to do with the failure to prosper having always been assured to occur elsewhere, in a place like Bed-Stuy.

In 1918, Robert Moton—Booker T. Washington’s successor at The Tuskegee Institute—told the audience at Chautauqua, “I am glad that my people were brought here as slaves, for we were placed beside the strongest race that the word has yet produced, the Anglo-Saxon race.” He continued: “The schools of the South have been solving the negro problem. Patience, Christianity and forbearance are enough to make it possible for the white race and the black race to live in peace and harmony…We are coming on. We are behind you, but we are catching up.” Fifty years later, while riots were erupting in urban centers across the country, then-Governor of Michigan George Romney was welcomed onstage at Chautauqua with the remark, “We welcome you to a riotless Chautauqua,” whereupon hearing this, the crowd reportedly broke into “thunderous applause.”

Nearly one-hundred years later, John Hope Bryant stood in that exact spot, his turn to carry the torch of white reassurance: “Black people are not dumb, and we are not stupid,” he said, urging a la Moton for a kind of recognition of black capability while gesturing at some obstacle or barrier which is inhibiting its full potential. He stopped, letting a pregnant pause fill the amphitheater before saying, “We never got the memo. There’s a memo about free enterprise and capitalism…there’s a language to money. Imagine one-hundred and fifty-years of not knowing.”

And so with the basically all-white audience unburdened of any inkling that all the refined comforts they enjoy there—all that beautiful surrounding architecture, taking in an evening performance of Tchaikovsky and wandering the Institution’s sprawling grounds with its churning watermills; spending an afternoon getting the Baroness Facial which (I shit you not) is advertised on the Spencer Spa in Chautauqua’s website as a ‘premium face treatment’ with ‘mineral-rich clay that’s “out of Africa”‘ and will ‘leave your skin glowing like dawn on the savannah’—that all of this is completely detached from the economic consequences of the history of chattel slavery and anti-black discrimination in this country. And then, with the amphitheater’s crowd’s sympathies fully excited, John Hope Bryant partook in the Institution’s tradition of celebrating the stability of a place like Chautauqua relative to the always-waiting-to-combust locales of black America.

“Middle-class neighborhoods don’t riot,” Mr. Bryant said. “Middle-class folks want to go shopping and spend time with their families. Only poor neighborhoods riot. Middle-class black, white, Latino, Asian neighborhoods don’t riot. Only poor neighborhoods riot.” And helping to interpret for the crowd at Chautauqua those occasional, distant, remote and isolated expressions of unrest, Mr. Bryant turned again to Dr. King, quoting from his “The Other America” speech and telling the audience that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

But of course what Dr. King was saying was that the conditions that brought black people out into the streets to riot were much graver than their not having gotten the ‘memo’ on free enterprise. It was not because they didn’t know the jargon of finance. As Aaron, another Bed-Stuy resident with whom I had spoken earlier in the week noted, then as now the conditions animating unrest in black America are “civil rights. Like it’s still civil rights. That project was never finished.”

I had mentioned to Aaron that John Hope Bryant was going to be coming to Bed-Stuy in a few days for a conversation about the racial wealth gap.

“I heard John Hope Bryant speak about like four years ago,” he told me, “and he was talking about the move from Civil Rights to ‘Silver Rights.’ And that doesn’t really play as well, you know? Especially in the like, post-Mike Brown and #BlackLivesMatter moment.” I then asked him if it was safe to assume that he didn’t think that financial literacy ought to be how the country approaches the conversation about what’s needed to meaningfully close the racial wealth gap. “Financial literacy is important,” he said, “But like, having money to be literate with is more important.” Aaron then thought for a second and shrugged. “John Hope Bryant is very palatable though.” I asked him to elaborate. He paused before saying, “Because to say that the way to close the racial wealth gap is through financial literacy, people love to hear that—white people love to hear that—because then the onus is on black people. But then to say that the racial wealth gap is because of racism and that it needs to be closed through some kind of transfer payment, that’s not as popular. So if he’s coming to talk about reparations in particular, I think that’d be good, and I think that’s where the conversation needs to start, not with how can low-income black people be better with their low income.”

Like Aaron, other residents of Bed-Stuy with whom I spoke throughout the week appeared similarly dubious about the gains to be had from framing the racial wealth gap exclusively as a problem of—or as a thing that might be solved by— financial literacy. A man named Isaiah, who I had met while he was walking home with his three daughters one afternoon, echoed Aaron’s misgivings on the idea that financial literacy can or should supersede the fundamental need for reparative justice.

“The work, and the demand for reparations—that’s critical,” he said. “Let’s just begin there. I think that’s critical and long-ignored and not embraced by the broader society. I think that’s—to me, anyway—that would be the principle way in terms of resetting, and how we begin to establish ourselves on a level playing field. And, I mean, education, of course, you know I’m not gonna argue about that. It’s key. But to teach you about managing your money…and you don’t have any money… What are you going to teach me about? Concepts of financial literacy? I don’t produce. I don’t own. I think it’s…some of the initiatives, even with the non-profit community, it’s like, you’re preaching to people about, ‘hey, you’re the problem; let me get you some education.’ But they’re not connecting the other dots…”

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Shemaia, a home health aid and lifelong Bed-Stuy native, walking her son home from school. “In this area, the rent is becoming too high, so I feel like that’s where mostly everybody’s money is going. And mostly everybody is making minimum wage, and that’s, you know, not enough. I’m working and living with my mom, paying rent, and also taking care of my son and that’s…I’m barely making it.”

It would be delightful to report that, in advance of tonight’s talk in Bed-Stuy, John Hope Bryant has evidently sat down and read the racial wealth gap study and now in light of the information and hard data therein stridently and without hesitation professes that what is patently and urgently required at this juncture is a commitment to a kind of politics that prioritizes securing targeted public policy to redress centuries of wealth-depriving discrimination of the community. To use the report’s own language on what this might look like in practice, “This could take the form of a direct race-specific initiative like a dramatic reparations program tied to compensation for the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, and/or an initiative that addresses the perniciousness of wealth inequality for the entire American population, which could disproportionately benefit black Americans due to their exceptionally low levels of wealth.”

Afterall, these legacies are presumably the exact ones referred to in the Restoration Corporation’s own manifesto, which is printed on the first page of a booklet entitled “Dream & Do: A Record of Your Journey to Economic Success,” which everyone here was given. It reads, in part, “We dream of opportunities for the people of Bed-Stuy, a community that has borne the weight of America’s history.”

But let me assure you that John Bryant did not come here tonight to talk about reparations.

To be honest, for all of The Memo’s ostensibly ‘deep’ contextualization in American history—the references to the establishment of The Freedman’s Bank, the Savannah Convention and the establishment of Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, Lincoln’s assassination and the failure of Reconstruction, all of which he mentions in the first few minutes of his presentation—Mr. Bryant doesn’t really even talk about history in any sort of meaningful way. There’s no ‘connecting the other dots,’ as Isaiah had said.

This much is apparent when, in one breathtakingly abridged description of post-emancipation life in the U.S. that occurs during the talk, Mr. Bryant tells us, “The [Freedman’s] Bank—poof!—just went away in 1874. You now fast forward from 1874, when they talked to us about money, to the next time anybody talked to us about money…a preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Poor People’s Campaign of April 1968.”7

In a way, it’s maybe almost a testament to John Hope Bryant’s gifts as an orator that the omission of 94 years is so subtle in his delivery as to not receive any on-the-spot objection, especially given how unsubtle the coordinated assault on black life was in those intervening years between 1874-1968: the mobs who massacred, the big business that depressed, and the policies that stymied exactly the sort of efforts at economic self-sufficiency undertaken time and time again by the black community over that century in the struggle for equality.

To his credit, the moderator for the evening, Colvin Grannum—president of the Bed-Stuy Restoration Corporation8—tries to incorporate into the discussion an element of how systemic anti-black discrimination remains the primary and constant obstacle in black American life: “The other conversation that some of us have,” he tells Mr. Bryant, “is discrimination holds us back. That every time we try to do something, the man changes the rules, blah-di, blah-di, blah-di…Now I’m not saying that’s not valid, but how do you address that?”9

What follows is, I’d say, right up there with some of the most appalling, crass, and contemptuous responses to a question about the lived experience of racism that I’ve ever personally witnessed from any person, black or white.

Before Mr. Grannum even gets the question completely out of his mouth, Mr. Bryant has already hitched himself up in his seat, straightened one leg out and thrust his hand into his back pocket to bring out his wallet. Digging through its contents, he removes two American Express Centurion Cards—more commonly known as the ‘Black Card’—and hands them to the audience, telling them to pass them around.10

“That has no limit on it,” he smugly tells the people in the room. “I can go buy a Ferrari. I can go buy this building…It gets me whatever I want…None of this drama in life bothers me one little bit…I don’t feel any drama…I don’t feel discrimination, I don’t feel bias. People open doors for me…When you have wealth, when you own stuff, you’re in a completely different class. All I need for you is to own your home, and watch how your life changes…Just own your home.”

Just own your home. There’s an almost taunting quality to it. To tell a community of people—most of whose ancestors, when they arrived in Brooklyn, were already extremely wealth poor and who were then redlined out of opportunity to have access to owning a home—that the best defense against racism and discrimination is the very thing that racism and discrimination would not permit their participation in from the very beginning. And since wealth is always, at all times, living and growing with the world around it, that discrimination is always just remaking itself and the conditions of impermissibility, merely contemporizing them in ways that make polite the original shutting-out, recapitulating our economy’s founding dictum that there must exist prodigious failure somewhere in society; a precondition which was managed by creating a class of squalidness and degradation and failure that was coeval with the invention of American blackness itself.

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Reggie, photographed outside of the Lafayette Houses in Bed-Stuy.

Which is why when John Hope Bryant omits that history he is able only to preach in paradox. To instruct in what is intrinsically unreasonable. I guess the question is whether Mr. Bryant is unconscious of the many contradictions contained in his beliefs? Of the violence they do to the vulnerable? Does playing show-and-tell with a fancy credit card at an event where the people’s lives have been freighted with discriminatory intent strike anyone reading this as even remotely compassionate? Saying that is the panacea to the community’s legitimate cries of frustration and injustice? How does our moderator—a man who supposedly stands on behalf of that community—witness such a response, with all of its lofty insolence—its outright rejection of history—and then possibly ask the audience to give Mr. Bryant “a round of applause”? How the actual hell is a round of applause being requested of the community center, by a community leader, for the man who—just a few minutes after this wildly arrogant response—is literally instructing the people in the community to leave it and invest their money elsewhere?

“And by the way,” John Bryant says, “you say, ‘Well I can’t afford [to buy a home] in New York.’ Fine. Take your money, find yo’ broke cousin in, uh, in Detroit where they giving away property, Baltimore where they giving away property, go to the South! By the way, the South is on fire. Go there and buy a piece of crap property, ten minutes from downtown, any place, for $30,000, or $10,000 with a tree in the roof, get a rehab loan from Rich Dude here [points to Mr. Grannum] for thirty grand, now you got fifty-grand into it, max. It’s worth, at that point, 75 grand, lease it out, rent it out for the cost of the mortgage payment plus property taxes, so now they paying you $500 a month, do that three times, and you can retire.”11

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Historic Siloam Presbyterian Church, pastored in the 1960s by Rev. Milton Galamison, a major civil rights figure in New York and leader of the Schools Workshop, a group that worked through existing parent and teacher groups to educate parents about issues concerning Brooklyn’s public schools, in particular the city’s rampant segregation. Rev. Galamison led a one day boycott that kept nearly 500,00 children out of public schools to force NYC’s Board of Education to come up with a plan and timetable to integrate.

Near the evening’s end, during the audience Q&A, a man who looks like he’s maybe just shy of 60 approaches the microphone and removes his hat.

“I’m really so happy to be here,” he tells Mr. Bryant, and there really is a detectable excitement in his voice. “The concept of the wealth gap is, uh, it’s just something I’m obsessed with…that gap, I refer to it as being genocidal. We just have to be real about it. They’re trying to wipe us off the map.”12

“They don’t have to try very hard,” Mr. Bryant interjects, before adding, “We did a good job all by ourselves.” Evidently becoming impatient, he says curtly, “Your question?”

“Well,” the man says, “I’d like for you to evaluate a concept I have—”

“Yep,” Mr. Bryant responds, again interrupting the man, obviously eager to be rid of him. “That’s my New York leader,” he says, pointing to woman in a section of the audience behind the man. “She’ll get your data, we’ll evaluate it and get back to you within thirty days.”

There’s a brief pause.

“Well…can I tell you what it is?” the man asks, clearly taken aback and confused by the dismissive response.

“Uhh…you’re taking up a lot of time with questions,” Mr. Bryant says, “But yeah. Sure. Go ahead.”

“Well, I’m in the insurance business. And about a year ago, I jury-rigged a proposal and put it to the MacArthur Foundation. They had this program called 100&Change. So, you know, they were gonna give one-hundred million dollars if you had an idea to change the world. And I did. I do. I still have it. But one part of that was my insurance concept to encourage people to use life insurance as a way to build wealth—”

“The answer’s yes. Next question,” Mr. Bryant says, interrupting the man for the third time before digressing into an aside about how, in South Africa (where—he informs us—”I have offices there”), AIDS is “so bad and so prevalent that the family members take life insurance out on each other because they pretty much know that two or three members of their family are gonna die, and they take the…and they just…I mean…they…they just cash about because they know that their…somebody in their family’s gonna die, uh, it’s really sad, but it’s the way of life in South Africa. My point is that life insurance is a…is an absolutely bulletproof way.”13

“Well the way you could do it here in America,” the audience member says, clearly wishing to at least be afforded the courtesy of being heard out, “is if 600,00 African-American babies are born each year—and if you put 500,000 in a fifty-thousand dollar whole life policy—that generates 2.5 billion per year. And if you know how life insurance works, that number grows every year. So if a baby, you know, at zero months, and they live ’til eighty, you’d be able to generate—”

“Yeah, no. It won’t work,” Mr. Bryant says, interrupting the audience member for the fourth time in less than three minutes. “It won’t work because of what I told you about the psychology of our people. We don’t trust each other14…it all goes back to that slave mentality, the low self-esteem, all that stuff. Until we fix the psychosis…until we deal with the fact that we were messed up, and we address it back to we don’t feel good about ourselves, we can’t do rational things.” Mr. Bryant continues, “Your plan will work in the Korean community, it’ll work in the Spanish community, it’ll work in almost any community, and it’ll work in our community once we get some mental health.”

Actually witnessing this exchange is brutal and sad and enraging. And it warrants chronicling in full not only because it reveals John Bryant at what I feel to be his most authentic: completely unsympathetic toward the black community and full of basic disdain and resentment for them who have been so obviously and profoundly victimized (the execrable remark: “We did a really good job all by ourselves”). Not only because it reveals him—a supposed ‘leader’—who, within literal seconds, will reverse-thrust on a position and contradict himself on ‘solutions’ that he espouses one second and then suddenly denounces the next (“You’re absolutely right, life insurance is a brilliant way to build wealth”/”Yeah, no, it won’t work, it won’t work.”) And not only because for all of his putative concern about the “psychosis” and “messed up” psychology that he feels is at the very root of why the black community “can’t do rational things”—and his belief in the apparently fundamental need of “get[ting] some mental health” as recourse—the actual words “mental health” or “mental counseling” or even “psychosis” for that matter appear zero times in all three of the books Mr. Bryant has authored.15

The exchange is worth chronicling because it transparently demonstrates how John Hope Bryant is essentially a malignancy himself. His project is an unsettling and weird exercise in a kind of Munchausen’s by proxy, wherein he attempts to convince a whole community of people that they are suffering from disorders of low self-esteem and intra-group mistrust, all while distorting their history in a way that seems intended to depoliticize them and lure them into reckless financial behavior that ultimately baits them for someone else’s easy profit, thus recapitulating once again the process of exclusion (though this time from the community itself) and extraction.

Is it for his own financial gain? Is he motivated by some weird, purely psychological endpoint? Obviously no one can say for sure why John Bryant seems to want to manipulate people into thinking that, with respect to black people’s actual positive attitudes of self and trustworthiness among and toward other black people, the opposite is true. Why he seems to want so desperately the external world to conform to his vision of black America as existing in this almost Hobbesian state of nature, with the community crippled not by their history of economic exclusion but by internecine mistrust and enmity. But what is certain is that John Bryant has literally no authority to speak to the psychological condition of anyone, let alone an entire group of people. There is no PhD after his name. His clumsy guesswork is easily refutable by consulting actual credentialed professionals who are doing research in the relevant field(s) of study. And the fact is that all he can do is try to actively produce the presence of the thing he describes, thus his insistence to a room full of black people on the impossibility of doing ‘rational things;’ that rational acts are the domain of every community other than theirs.16

After taking another question from the audience, Mr. Bryant seeks out the attention of the insurance man.

“By the way,” he says, “I wasn’t trying to discourage you.”

This would be laughable were it not for the massive amount of effrontery that is required for Mr. Bryant to actually say this to the man being so totally detestable, especially after having eviscerated his concept not on its own terms but at the expense of the black community being depicted as basically deficient in self-worth and completely leery of one another’s sinister personal agendas.

“I don’t get discouraged,” the insurance man responds, defiantly and poised.

And I think that’s true of the whole community here. I really do. I don’t know if many people really even need a study in order to give credence to the idea that American descendants of slaves possess a prodigious amount of conviction in their ability to do because of what they’ve always been able to do with so relatively little. Though I do wonder about one aspect of another self-esteem study that I came across where researchers observed that self-esteem of black people—while remaining higher than other groups’ throughout most of their lives—”decline[s] much more sharply in old age than [does] the self-esteem of whites.” According to the study, this begins to happen at age 60, just around the age of the insurance man in the audience.

Why then does positive self-perception begin to falter rapidly in African-Americans?

Perhaps then because after having lived fully two-thirds of their lives demonstrating as a people a resolve and implacability of will and determination and firmness of purpose that, given the conditions of injustice and violence that have defined their existence in this country, defies all basic reasoning and expectation; a persistence and optimism that endures despite those horrors and which serves as a pure rebuke and outrageous affront to those very people who with absolute glee would see her or him wallow always in the depths of low self-opinion and feelings of inferiority; the simple irrefutable fact of their resiliency a maddening reproach, like that of the crow that a farmer has tried in what feels like endless futility to expel from a crop field and which he thought he’d finally succeeded at until from an iron sky it suddenly alights on the straw man’s shoulder that he’d erected in a corn patch, and whereupon the crow turns its head and blinks and calmly regards the now irate and berserk and red-faced overalled rustic who turns on his heels to go inside his house and load his shotgun which he doesn’t know and will with rue discover still won’t effect his intent.

Perhaps it’s after that because having spent those first two-thirds recurrently coming up against the systemic barriers of injustice and the reach of their group’s history into the present, they’d been told each time by people exactly like John Hope Bryant that it was by their own doing, that it was their slave mentality, that it was purely a matter of their own deficiencies and attitudes that had contributed to and forestalled the success which they sought. But still and only because of that innate remarkable courage and obdurate will they said, ‘I will try again. I don’t get discouraged,’ and so they continued firmly, obstinately in their course of action until they reached that next barrier, that next imposed limit on what their lineage can ever achieve in America, that next one and that next one, until finally after the long series of frustrations they maybe stood in grim stalemate with their idea of what they had expected for themselves, one which they’d carried with them faithfully, conscientiously, and with solemn assurances had told themselves was right and attainable; they came then toe to toe with the miserable fact of U.S. society’s being structured to resist that expectation absolutely. Perhaps it is then because all the while they’d been told—not even told; chided, scolded, deceived and hoodwinked—by self-anointed leaders in their community that there was no such baked-in failure, that there was only bootstraps, and that they must pull themselves up by them, that glib empty simplistic regurgitation of complete untruth, urging them each time back onto a dangerous path, one on which their undoing has been historically conditioned, so that when they do finally meet with that one eventual disappointment, the one that finally penetrates the heretofore impregnable spirit and throws all confidence into a tumult of grief and indignation because there was never another dominant referent proffered for their difficulties than their own inability to transcend a slave mentality; perhaps then—then—they think, at last, ‘Well perhaps I really am no good. Perhaps I cannot after all, and never could.’

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Ethan, Bed-Stuy. “There’re a lotta white and black people getting along right now, doin’ the right thing, but there’s no businesses together. It’s just like you go for yours, I go for mines…”

The last thing that the insurance man says after John Hope Bryant’s declamation of the black community—and I should emphasize that it is with a hopeful note of open resistance aimed at our speaker that he says this—is, “My response to that, Sir, is that you need to understand your history. You need to have African-American history in the curriculum. Because if you know where you came from, you know where you’re going.”

In a way, what the man says here recalls something that John Hope Bryant himself said three years ago in Chautauqua. “You can’t fix it,” he told the audience, meaning poverty, “if you’re pointing at the wrong thing.”

It was said right after he’d quoted Martin Luther King Jr., which is sort of a touchstone of his presentations. Yet, despite seeking to connect his efforts to the more politicized approach of King, the two’s interpretations of the historical nature of black poverty, and what they’re pointing at for how to meaningfully address it, couldn’t be more dissimilar. For Mr. Bryant, freed slaves and their descendants simply “didn’t get the memo on money,” and are thus woefully ill-versed in the language and the know-how of free enterprise. For Dr. King, black poverty is a product with the imprimatur of the federal government all over it. Which is why—at the end of that speech in 1968—he resolutely concludes on the proper course of action to be taken by saying, “Now when we come to Washington, in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check,” and not something to the effect of, ‘We will overcome as long we have the appropriate financial literacy skills.’ Dr. King wasn’t demanding that black people be given a ‘memo’ on money, because what good is a ‘how-to’ when the ‘with what’ is still unresolved? No, he was demanding the funds because he knew that the actual history of why and because of whom there was no what to how to with in the black community constituted a particular justice claim whose fulfillment was only ever a matter of when.

And so today there is a movement underway that is fully anchored in this specific sense of history and of the righteousness of that demand. Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore are taking the ‘slave mentality’ that Mr. Bryant has used tonight so pejoratively and refurbishing it; turning it into a particular political consciousness, one that does not denote its holding a group back, but rather—because everything in that group’s life, as they argue, must be filtered through a mentality of how they have been economically victimized by slavery and its derivative configurations, and how that has and continues to wholly determine their lived experience—impels them forward with a politically actionable identity and a coherent way of understanding their position in American society.

The racial wealth gap study is every bit a result of this shared fidelity to seeing American black life through the historical conditions that created the yawning divide in economic security compared to white America. The question is why is Colvin Grannum inviting John Hope Bryant—a man who traffics in calumny and deception toward the black community—to speak to those most in need of meaningful help, and not people like Drs. Sandy Darity, Darrick Hamilton, Tom Shapiro and Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, people who can speak so much more cogently to the factors undergirding the racial wealth gap and who—most critically—do so with not a trace of ridicule but a deep and great sense of empathy for the community. These are people who have committed their life’s work to actually helping fulfill the words again found in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s manifesto: “We remove the barriers to opportunity,” it reads, “expel the darkness that eclipses hope, and dispel the shame that stifles our power to dream. We enable the people of Bed-Stuy and beyond to dream of things that never were, and ask, ‘Why not?'”


1. Speaking of former U.S. presidents, now might be a good time to mention that John Hope Bryant had served as vice-chairman of President Bush’s (W.’s) Council on Financial Literacy, and later, on Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability (PACFC). He then went on to be appointed chairman of the PACFC’s Subcommittee on the Underserved and Community Empowerment. Which is to say that, whatever you or I might think of Mr. Bryant’s approach to economic uplift—and, full disclosure, I do not think much of it at all—the guy is not exactly a slouch.

2. A copy of which I am unexpectedly handed gratis by the woman doing sign-in after I present her my ticket for the event. The complementary copy of the book comes as a doubly pleasant surprise since, last week at a bookstore in the La Guardia Airport, on my way to Ohio for a friend’s wedding, I had been very, very close to buying one in order to keep myself occupied during the two-hour flight.

3. Here is an extremely slick little marketing video on it.

4. This is something of a big, apparently revelatory utterance during the lectures, and is one of many in the John Bryant stock lecture soundbites. Others sure to be featured during a John Bryant talk are: “We are sitting in a moment in history;” or, if you wake up in the morning and don’t know who you are, then “by dinner time somebody will tell you;” and a Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quote that he consistently misattributes to Deepak Chopra that goes “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Then there are the little aphorisms oft-deployed interchangeably to whomever he is addressing at the moment. For example, the departmental director, or whomever the chairman of the host institute is “doesn’t walk on water, but he/she knows where the stones are;” or describing a person (either in the audience, or someone instrumental in coordinating the event) by likening them to eagles which, we are told, “don’t fly in packs;” and there’s usually pretty much always an announcement to the audience that he’s “from the black church,” which is meant to signal something to the usually all-white crowd but I’m not really sure what, though it usually gets a reliable laugh. I realize that it’s in the nature of motivational speaking to like really lean on these pithy phrases or whatever, but these span four years of John Bryant’s lecturing, and when you’ve heard them uttered over and over again in so unoriginal a fashion they tend to just leave someone like me feeling cold and numb on the inside rather than inspired. We will hear literally every single one of these during tonight’s talk; I would bet any amount of money on it. 

5. For an extended discussion on how, in fact, we might come to view the levels of self-esteem of black males as being even more remarkable than their female counterparts, given the manner in which their (black males’) ‘non-being’ completely upends traditional intersectional categories of oppression analysis, please see the mind-bendingly brilliant work of Dr. Tommy J. Curry, professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University.

6. The county of Chautauqua encompasses two cities, twenty-seven towns, and fifteen villages. It spans over one-thousand square miles.

7. It’s at this point in the talk where we are reminded by JHB that there are more poor white people than any other group in the U.S. And I’ll admit that I’m genuinely kind of shocked he said it here at this event. I guess I figured if there was ever a time to bracket the extremely indecorous suggestion that—not only is all poverty essentially the same—but that black people don’t really have a legitimate grievance when they contend that the poverty they experience is discriminatory in nature, because, well, look at all the poor white people. In fact one of the most salient and eye-opening aspects of the racial wealth gap study is how it demonstrates the qualitative difference between black and white poverty; how even the poorest of whites in the U.S. are still appreciably more secure, economically, relative to poor blacks. We need only look at how much more is required of black households to even approximate the levels of wealth that poor white households have, and observe how — routinely — those white counterparts are positionally inferior and much less favorably equipped to be in possession of more wealth. To very quickly run down some of the examples of this phenomenon that gets catalogued throughout the study: a black household with a college-educated head has less wealth than a white family whose head did not even obtain a high school diploma; white households with an unemployed head have more than ten times higher wealth than similar black households; white households with an unemployed head have a higher net worth than black households with a head who is working full-time; black households in the lowest 20% of the income distribution have essentially zero net worth, while the poorest white families have on average 15-18k net worth; black non-homeowner head of house have a mere $120 in net worth, while white non-homeowner head of house have hold 31 times more wealth; and white households with a single-parent have more than 2 times the net worth of two-parent black households.

8. And tonight’s recipient of the “doesn’t walk on water but knows where the stones are” description.

9. Except that “blah-di, blah-di, blah-di” is a phrase deployed specifically to invalidate whatever comes before it as being essentially superfluous or basically trivial. So I’m not really sure why Colvin Grannum even tries to qualify his statement here when it’s pretty apparent that, at least in this moment, he seems to have a palpable air of insouciance when discussing the extremely legitimate grievance of systemic racism and the extent to which it obstructs the progress—economic or otherwise—of the community. 

10. I’m here tonight at the event with a very good friend who works at the Lower East Side’s extremely ritzy and chic and celebrity-frequented Bowery Hotel. Which is to say that my friend has handled a good many ‘black cards’ in his years there. When he feels Mr. Bryant’s card, he leans over and tells me that he’s fairly confident that it’s a fake, given the lack of actual heft to the card and the absence of some other design insignia/characteristic which my friend says is meant to separate the real card from a replica, which are, in fact, available online for $30. There’s also the very big question of why anyone in their right mind would pass around their personal credit card at an event full of strangers where basically everyone in the audience has a camera and can very easily and quickly steal all of the necessary information to go out and do some serious damage.

11. In JHB’s world, there seems to exist literally no sense of community apart from the community of plundering, opportunistic, racist capitalists. The community of Bed-Stuy is not worth investing in. The poor community somewhere else where your family lives—and that is victim to the same processes as Bed-Stuy—is desirable only insofar as it is pre-speculatively ripe for extractive practices. I’m sure that, in JHB’s mind, he very much imagines himself as what he often refers to audience members as being: an eagle. Soaring packless in the sky. In fact, in this response, it becomes so totally obvious how very much a pack bird he actually is; nothing so much as a vulture circling with other vultures above a carcass, and feeding with them when the times comes. 

12. Just prior to this, the man from the audience correctly, and very politely, pointed out that, earlier in the night, Mr. Bryant had misspoken about a particular data point regarding the racial wealth gap. Mr. Bryant had quoted an article in the Boston Globe that, he said, noted the average black individual in Boston as being worth $7. When the man attempted to clarify the information, saying “That example that you gave in Boston, I think it’s eight dollars as opposed to seven.” Mr. Bryant became visibly angry and petulant, interrupting the man and saying, “No, it’s 7. I got the [unintelligible], anyway…” Well, here’s the article. 8 bucks indeed. Furthermore, imagine being so on-edge and full of conceit and ultra-sensitive to any kind of pushback that a simple, courteous clarification from a person who commuted after work to listen to you talk lights you up. 

13. John Hope Bryant is obviously correct in that AIDS is an incredibly serious problem in South Africa. And I’ll go on record as saying I know next to nothing about what might be going on there in terms of the instances of insurance fraud. However, a report done in 2013 entitled “Paying the Piper: The High Cost of Funerals in South Africa,” casts serious doubt upon his claim that the “way of life” in South Africa is for family members to enroll their relatives in life insurance policies so that they can “cash out,” by which he presumably means the family members are using the money as capital to fund subsequent economic ventures. South African funerals are, it turns out, extremely elaborate and costly affairs. Analyzing funeral arrangements after the deaths of nearly 4,000 people who died during 2003-2005, the researchers of the study found that “[South African] households spend the equivalent of a year’s income for an adult’s funeral, measured at median per capita African (black) income.” In the region studied, when an adult male dies, it is general custom to kill a cow so as to be able to feed the mourners at the funeral. The researchers note that a typical cow represents “more than a third of year’s income for half the African population.” And while the South African Council of Churches has repeatedly enjoined the population to begin practicing more “appropriate and affordable funerals,” the price tags have way more to do with long-standing cultural norms and the service’s overall significance with regard to family and community life, than they do — say — just pure conspicuous consumption. So to the extent that there is an inordinate amount of insurance policies being taken out on relatives, far from converting the money obtained from those policies into another investment, the report—with strong evidence to back it up —argues that households are in fact “taking what, in other circumstances, could be productive capital and using it on coffins, meat, and groceries to bury their dead.” Add to this the fact that AIDS in South Africa is so bad that it has altered the population’s mortality profile — with more adults dying in middle-age — and you have a maybe more slightly reliable explanation for why there is a large volume of life insurance policies being taken out, rather than imputing a motive of profit onto people who are insuring a loved one.  Just a thought anyway. Or but I don’t know, maybe Mr. Bryant was talking about funeral insurance, which is not life insurance, per se, but is tremendously popular in South Africa. Still, Dr. Erlend Berg, a professor of economics at the University of Bristol also had this to say about funeral insurance in South Africa: “In fact, at least in South Africa, funeral policy holders as a group seem to be dominated by pensioners. These are in their sixties or older, and given the life expectancy of black South Africans it is unlikely that many of them still have parents who are alive. This is a strong indication that those who take out funeral insurance do so first and foremost to cover their own funeral.” Lastly, there’s also this article in The Guardian which pretty clearly demonstrates how insofar as there is an attempt to profit off of someone’s suffering and loss of life with these policies, it is the insurers and not the consumers themselves.

14. So here’s yet another big generalizing claim that probably warrants some scrutiny. In a 2007 study published by Oxford University Press, “Are Blacks Really Less Trusting Than Whites? Revisiting the Race and Trust Question,” the authors had this to say concerning the paucity of extant literature that actually addresses the issue of whether black people do or don’t trust each other: “While there has been much research on trust and race,” they write, “no work (to our knowledge) has addressed whether and how race category affects trustworthiness…the absence of previous work offers little guidance for predicting how trustworthiness may vary within vs. between race categories.” Moreover, they note that previous studies employed a standard metric when looking into differences in trust; one which they say — while it sufficiently measured whites’ trust of blacks — “did not predict trusting behavior for any other combination of own and other’s race category.” Discussing the findings of the trust data collected in their experiments, the authors write, “[T]he results of the analysis show blacks engage in more trustworthy behavior than whites…regardless of the race category of the truster, black participants returned an average of 23 per cent more than whites.” They also found that “white participants…trusted other white participants more than they trusted black participants. Yet blacks were more trustworthy than whites toward white trusters.” The question is, then, why is John Hope Bryant so deeply invested in the idea of doubt and suspicion and distrust within the black community? Why does he speak to the issue of race and trust with an air of legitimacy when there is in fact a gaping hole in the actual scientific literature on the subject, and the literature that does exist runs contra to his thesis?  What’s the motive for essentially inventing this stuff? Does John Hope Bryant benefit somehow from sowing seeds of doubt as to the degree of affinity and fellowship between black people? And why, again, is someone who is either very uninformed or very dishonest behind invited to speak on one of the most pressing issues in modern America? 

15. Nor is it really even to defend the man’s idea, despite its being probably the closest that we come all night to discussing an actual approach to tackling the racial wealth gap (…sort of). That said, I think anyone hearing this idea described—and who also has an ear to the present discussion on reparative justice—would recognize in it a version of the baby bond program proposed by Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton, which the former outlines here, and which he aptly notes is very reparations-lite. One of the big differences—I think— between what the man is proposing and Darity’s & Hamilton’s program, being the nature of the program’s funding, which, in the private insurance realm, seems very fraught with danger.

16. It’s honestly difficult to overstate the sneering contempt that John Hope Bryant seems to possess toward the black community and the lack of sympathy for the actual historic nature of its plight. “We have institutions for civil rights, social justice, police brutality,” he says, “whatever’s against us, we can tell you in a second what it looks like. But don’t talk about owning a home, or a business, sending our kids to college, becoming an engineer. Anything that’s tied to aspiration [we say], ‘Oh, naw, naw, we not like them rich people…'”

 

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