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

Saturday, November 3, 2018
Paul Sowers

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.

 

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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