Originally created 01/31/05

Blacks lack leader in economic battle



SAVANNAH, Ga. - Some of the most economically powerful and politically influential blacks in the country have never rallied the masses from the pulpit or led protests in the streets.

They are people like Richard Parsons, the CEO of Time Warner, who chose a business office over a political one and arguably wields more power than most Americans.

During the civil rights and black power movements in the 1960s and '70s, many of those in the nation's top business and political positions were enrolled in Ivy League schools or preparing for leadership positions within the mainstream economic and political systems.

Merrill Lynch & Co. CEO Stanley O'Neal, the grandson of a slave and one of the first blacks to attend Atlanta's West Fulton High, was finishing a Harvard MBA in the late 1970s. In 1976, American Express Co. CEO Kenneth Chenault was earning a doctorate from Harvard Law School.

However, not all people who reach unprecedented levels of power in business and politics feel they are in the position to stand up for issues of specific importance to the black community - particularly political appointees such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or her predecessor, Colin Powell.

"This is what becomes problematic," said Georgia Southern University history Professor Alfred Young.

"They are appointed and have to toe the line of the person who appointed them to office. Sometimes they have to put a bit of distance between themselves and the African-American community in general."

Making the problem even more complex is the fact that a clear black agenda never emerged after civil rights goals were achieved. The common issue of segregation no longer unites the black community.

"We are not a monolith. Different black people have different agendas that reflect where they are," said Michael Snowden, Armstrong Atlantic State University's director of minority affairs. "A Condoleezza Rice has a different ideology than a Barack Obama (an Illinois senator) or an Al Sharpton. Because we are not a monolith, we need different people to lead in all economic groups."

Most people wouldn't think of men in pinstripe suits as black activists. But George Andrews, a former SunTrust Bank executive who opened the Capitol City Bank and Trust in Savannah, Atlanta and Augusta, says black-owned banks like his help the black community achieve economic prosperity and self-empowerment.

"We can sit down at any lunch counter and stay at any hotel. The next battle to win is economic parity," Mr. Andrews said. "To win that battle, we need leadership that can deal with economic empowerment."

AFTER THE CIVIL RIGHTS and Voting Rights acts were passed, a black business and political class emerged and the civil rights focus began to shift toward economics.

Former Savannahian Walter J. Leonard, who became active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP in the 1950s, said the groups, in part because of their integration focus, have lost their reach to young men and women.

"There were those of us who thought by the 1980s or '90s that the NAACP might have worked its way out of business," said Mr. Leonard, a former president of Fisk University and visiting fellow at Oxford University.

It hasn't, and Mr. Leonard says it still has relevancy.

"I just firmly believe that we're going to see a group of young people, in their productive years, move in the NAACP from a business perspective, from a legal perspective and an educational perspective and give it new leadership," Mr. Leonard said.

Once mass marches for integration were out, lawsuits over unfair hiring, voting districts, home loans and job promotions became the new form of protest. It was business and political figures who led this new fight.

"The war we are fighting now is economic, and we need the ties to industry," Mr. Snowden said.

More than one-quarter of black households had zero or negative net worth in 2002, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released in October 2004.

Census data show that in 2002, the median net worth of black households - $5,988 - was far less than that of Hispanics - $7,932 - and whites - $88,651.

Even the wealthiest black households have less than 30 percent of the level of wealth possessed by the richest 5 percent of white households.

There is even great disparity in the net worth of middle-class blacks, who possess less than one-fifth of the wealth owned by middle-class white households.

WHETHER THE ISSUE is economics, education or civil rights, the diverse black community still has one central unresolved issue.

"What they all have in common is race," Mr. Young said.

Despite the lack of consensus on issues and leadership since the civil rights movement, national spokespersons are needed to shape debate and call America into account on matters of race, particularly around election time, Mr. Young said.

But the most devoted people with the purest intentions are typically those who work within their local communities and never seek recognition or promote an agenda.

"Throughout history people have emerged as prominent leaders or spokesmen, like Frederick Douglas or Booker T. Washington, but it obscures the fact that there were people on the ground level that were probably doing more," Mr. Young said.