On May 14-18 in Nashville, Tennessee, a significant annual gathering of African Americans will occur. I am not referring to a meeting of high-ranking blacks working in government nor is it a meeting of the NAACP. Rather, this gathering is the Black Enterprise/Microsoft Entrepreneurs Conference, an important meeting of black business people. Its significance lies in the fact that it is the entrepreneur, not the pastor – and certainly not the politician – that now typifies the future of national black political leadership.
Over the last two decades, black entrepreneurs have done more to improve the economic situation for “the black community” than any black pastor or politician. These entrepreneurs are taking the risks and building the businesses that create economic growth and prosperity. This is in stark contrast to the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has done little to encourage entrepreneurs and has limited its efforts to securing increased funding for feckless programs that harm African Americans. Sadly, many politically inclined black pastors are stuck in the rhetoric of the 1960s (and even the 1980s for that matter) speaking about need for coercive affirmative action programs and lamenting the diminished economic status of African Americans.
Since the 1960s – and even more rapidly since the 1980s – the social and economic situation for African Americans has dramatically changed. For example, most black people in America do not attend church regularly, contrary to popular perceptions. Recent data from the Barna Research Group indicate that black Americans attend church at a rate similar to that of whites. Currently, 43 percent of black people attend church on a given Sunday compared with 42 percent percent of whites. Moreover, according to Barna’s research, 21 percent of blacks are completely un-churched compared with 32 percent of whites. Perhaps there is more equality in American than we think … and that may not be for the better.
Despite the misperceptions disseminated about African Americans by TV and Hollywood movies, most blacks are actually members of the middle class. Furthermore, most blacks do not live in America’s inner city neighborhoods; instead, nearly 40 percent of blacks live in the suburbs. The percentage of adult African Americans holding college degrees is 17 percent, as compared with 20 percent of adult Americans overall. And it is a surprise for many to learn that, according to research done by the Kaufman Foundation, blacks between the ages of 24-35 are 50 percent more likely than whites to engage in entrepreneurial activities. In other words, the most active group of entrepreneurs in American is black men and women. This reality, still waiting to be grasped by leaders in both political parties, is producing a new and welcome leadership paradigm in the black community.
This new reality leads one to ask an important question, especially as it relates to politics: Why is there no significant black leadership in either of our main political parties? One answer, and I think the correct one, is that leaders in both parties are tapping into political “dry wells.” The future of black political leadership does not lie with the black pastor and his local political machine, oiled with government dollars. The locus of black political leadership is shifting away from the traditional black pastor and to the black entrepreneur. This reality arises from a simple fact: While we may live in nation where a majority does not attend church, blacks and whites alike, we do live in a nation where everyone participates in the market as a producer or a consumer.
What politics has failed to do in raising up diverse national leadership, the marketplace has done with amazing success. America’s best kept secret is that many blacks are well-off and hold critical positions in America’s largest corporations – companies like Merrill Lynch, American Express, AOL Time Warner, Citigroup, Verizon, United Parcel Service, General Electric, Morgan Stanley, to name only a few. The marketplace promotes and rewards based on competence, performance, and results.
Historically, it was the role played by the black church with its pastoral/political leadership that produced significant gains for African Americans. Black pastors acquired significant access and leverage in government and business, serving as the conduit through which opportunities flowed. Such an arrangement today, however, is not necessary, as blacks hold key positions in business and government themselves. This is not to say that with this shift in leadership black pastors no longer have a role to play in addressing key issues; they certainly do.
The marketplace still needs the moral leadership provided by religious leaders. However, these days most people are capable of understanding that the economic improvement of the “black community” is directly dependent on the economic improvement of all Americans. As such, the strategies and rhetoric of past eras need to be cast aside in favor of the new era of leadership offered by black entrepreneurs.