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Opinion

Baltimore, Reginald Lewis and Freddie Gray

Chances are if you walk the streets of Baltimore and ask anyone under the age of 35 who Reginald Lewis was, many would offer a blank stare. But, Lewis was one of them — a street smart, athletic African American kid growing up in the economically forgotten neighborhood that Freddie Gray called home.

Lewis however was one of the lucky ones. An outstanding student athlete, he attended Virginia State University and was later admitted into Harvard Law School. After graduating from Harvard, Lewis worked on Wall Street as a lawyer, later opening the first African American law firm on the Street. He negotiated financing deals for African American businesses who had been turned away from mainstream funding sources. Most of the businesses Lewis fought for were located in urban communities like his hometown.

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Lewis later founded an investment firm, the TLC Group L.P. His most widely known and respected deal was the 1987 $1 billion leverage buyout of Beatrice, an international food distribution company. At the time, the Beatrice acquisition was the largest Wall Street bankers, black or white, had ever seen. Lewis' business success was chronicled in the 1994 best seller, "Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?" and hit book stores months after his death of a brain tumor in 1993.

The most recent in a seemingly perpetual cycle of African American men and women dying in police custody has shined a bright light on more than just the problems of police brutality. They underscore the economic opportunity inequities and struggles faced daily by poor African Americans in Baltimore, Ferguson and urban areas coast to coast. For us, they further highlight the urgent need to raise our voices and call for a 'Silver Rights' agenda.

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The outrage of Blacks dying from police brutality is only a symptom and unites us to lift our voices for equality and justice. The virus is born of desperation, hopelessness and right of self-determination.

The black unemployment rate in the U.S. is still double that of all other demographics. And the African American community has seen the lowest job participation rate during the past eight months. In Sandtown-Winchester, the Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived, more than half of residents ages 16 to 64 are unemployed. In fact, the overall unemployment rate in this area is about twice that of the rest of the city, and nearly one third of families live in poverty.

So what do we do? We must acknowledge there's been no substantive, quantifiable urban economic revitalization agenda in more than 50 years. We must demand elected officials to move beyond the fallacy that "better paying jobs" and increasing the minimum wage will suffice. The rising coast of basic goods and services far out pace income levels across the nation. Having a job is critical, especially for young black men and women looking to develop skills that ignite confidence and success. We must call on our elected officials to expand opportunities for black-owned businesses and venture capital firms committed to urban development, affordable housing and building sustainable communities.

From 2002 to 2007, the number of black-owned businesses increased by 60.5 percent to 1.9 million, more than triple the national rate. If each business hired one African American, that would be 1.9 million employed. National surveys indicated that black business owners are three times more likely to hire from the communities they are from and where their businesses are located.

The life line for any business is access to capital. Less than 10 percent of SBA guaranteed bank loans are awarded to black businesses. Less than 2 percent of Small Business Investment Company licenses are given to Black-owned venture capital firms. SBIC, managed by SBA, can support black banks and local chambers of commerce with capital and direct funding for businesses for them to grow and attract private investors. Novel idea? No, it's what Reginald Lewis championed 40 years ago.

Any community with staggering socio-economic hurdles such as Baltimore will undoubtedly produce generations of fear and low expectation. To expect that the public outbursts and unbridled anger to end simply because the glaring lights of the media dim is foolish. When the fundamentals of life, liberty and the pursuit of self-definition and economic development in urban areas are made a national economic policy priority will Lewis' question — "why should white guys have all the fun?" — take on new meaning?

Ron Busby Sr. is president of U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. and C. Earl Peek is founder/managing partner of Diamond Ventures.


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