As the fiasco in Ferguson continues to unfold, one of the arguments gaining traction is that the poor condition of the black residents of Ferguson stems from their lack of political representation.
As The New York Times reports, "Ferguson's demographics have shifted rapidly: in 1990, it was 74 percent white and 25 percent black; in 2000, 52 percent black and 45 percent white; by 2010, 67 percent black and 29 percent white." As the population of Ferguson became more African-American, those who controlled the local government and law enforcement remained virtually all white. Nonetheless, the voter turnout rate in Ferguson was a mere 12 percent.Why Vote, Some Ask?
While I agree with calls for the residents of Ferguson to vote, the underlying cause of voter apathy is more related to whether they feel they have a stake in the community. I often point out how a car renter treats a car, compared to a car owner. The renter will rarely wash the car, because he has no stake in the car.
This, too, is often the attitude of the underclass. "Why should I care about politics? Why should I waste my time to vote?" With such an attitude, it's easy to understand how and why so many Americans - not just in Ferguson - opt out of the system.Giving People Hope
Voter registration drives, while important, are not the only answer to this endemic problem; ownership is. That's why I founded Operation HOPE in the wake of the riots in Los Angeles 23 years ago, sparked by the videotaped police beating of Rodney King. Our mission was to empower the financially ill-equipped and the economically excluded, and to bring them into the system of American power. As was true then, we now see a wave of self-destructive energy: looting, arson, violence, and chaos. Those young people - those we saw in L.A. and those we see on the night streets of Ferguson - simply have no stake in the society.
Our organization's solution is centered around economic empowerment, a practical program for teaching young people the language of money and opportunity to replace the language of rage and frustration. We need to provide the basic tools of capitalism as a driving force of economic and personal development. This means turning low credit score neighborhoods into 700 score neighborhoods, with the help of banks and businesses and government.The Ripple Effects of Financial Empowerment
We need to channel the entrepreneurial energy of these young people into small businesses -legal small businesses.
Here's an example of how free enterprise can help solve the problems in inner cities. Ryan Taylor, an aspiring clothing designer, came to an Operation HOPE Banking Center in South Los Angeles. We worked with Taylor to first improve his credit score and then develop a solid business plan. Then we helped arrange traditional bank loans through one of our partners, Union Bank. We helped this young tailor build a successful business, and become an employer and a taxpayer.
Hope is a force multiplier. Not only did Mr. Taylor and his partner operate a successful business venture; they created a nonprofit organization that provides after-school programming for inner city children.Give Them Something to Vote For
There are no easy answers to problems as intractable as those demonstrated in cities like Ferguson all across this country, where my own family has its roots. Ferguson is not an isolated instance. It is emblematic. There's a Ferguson near you.
We need to create a generation of individuals who see themselves as change agents and stakeholders. That's the path that makes more sense. Yes, civil rights. Yes, justice. But we need to move beyond fighting against what we don't want, and for the things we do want: opportunity, hope, personal dignity.
For good or ill, free enterprise is the most effective tool in America. For without "silver rights," i.e. the power of money, civil rights means very little. Once we solve the stakeholder problem, more people will naturally aspire to express their voices with their votes. To vote is to hope. Let's give them something to hope for.
John Hope Bryant (johnhopebryant.com) is the bestselling author of the new book called How the Poor Can Save Capitalism: Rebuilding the Path to the Middle Class (Berrett-Koehler, 2014). He is also founder, chairman, and CEO of Operation HOPE, a nonprofit banker for the working poor, which provides financial literacy for youth, financial capability for communities, and financial dignity for all. Learn more at www.operationhope.org.