President of Largest Black-Owned Bank: Boomers Can Learn Economic Optimism from Millennials

As graduation season approaches, most black parents have high anxiety about how our children can possibly achieve the American dream given economic inequality in America, while our children are confident their journey will be smooth and successful.

What if they’re right?

Research indicates a need for high anxiety. A recent study by Prosperity Now, The Road to Zero Wealth, quantifies the accelerating decline in black wealth over the past 30 years and projects if current trends continue, by 2053, black households will have a median wealth of $0! Furthermore, income inequality between blacks and whites is driven entirely by racism toward black boys, even when raised in wealthy black homes, according to a recent study by Stanford, Harvard, and the U.S. Census Bureau. While our children may be overly confident, we also have much to learn from them.


Are we underestimating Millennials?

As president and owner of OneUnited Bank, the largest black-owned bank in America, I have the opportunity to speak about financial literacy with many black communities across the country. Their feedback indicates a generational divide between baby boomers and millennials that begs the question, is past prologue? Are we underestimating our children?

For instance, for many years OneUnited Bank presented itself as a community bank that happens to be black-owned. About five years ago, we recognized the importance of speaking in our authentic voice to better serve urban communities and became unapologetically black. When young blacks hear this, they immediately snap their fingers as if to say “Amen.” Baby boomers, believing their “ice is colder,” often perceive black-owned institutions as offering less service at higher prices than a white company even when untrue.

I was blindsided once when after the typical recitation of my personal story, including Brown University, Harvard Business School, and working in the top ranks of Bank of America and American Express, someone asked, “But who are you?”

A black artist commissioned to paint an authentic mural of the black experience on OneUnited Bank’s Miami office pushed me to reflect. I finally recognized that more meaningful than my résumé, I am the great-grandchild of Annie Coachman, aka Ma Honey, who owned a barbecue pit, juke joint, candy store and real estate in Indiantown, Florida, a small town where blacks lived on one side of the railroad tracks, whites on the other. I lost touch with the enduring role Ma Honey played in my life, partially because she passed away my freshman year, but more because of the condescending reaction I experienced at Brown to my Indiantown roots.

My personal story touches a nerve with baby boomers who experienced the journey from segregation to integration. Some of them even shed a tear for the undervalued “Ma Honey” in their lives. Millennials and Generation Z, whose formative years were punctuated by the presence of a black president, make it clear they have no doubt about the value of their culture and roots, and have no tolerance for inauthenticity. For them, black is “lit.”

The generational differences are real.

While baby boomers express ambivalence about being perceived as “too black” and may even prefer the term “urban,” millennials created the #BankBlack and #BuyBlack movements, driving millions of dollars to black-owned banks and businesses. Since OneUnited Bank has embraced its “unapologetically black” voice, including our advocacy for social justice and #BlackLivesMatter, our customer base has doubled.

The black community is more focused on its $1.2 trillion in annual spending and the inaugural We Buy Black Convention is taking place in Atlanta in November.

With 43% of the 75 million millennials identifying as African American, Hispanic, or Asian, if a brand doesn’t have a multicultural strategy, it doesn’t have a growth strategy, according to Nielsen. Black consumer choices have a “cool factor” that moves markets. Hip-hop and authentic black performances— such as “Black Panther,” Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé—have shaped global culture and generated billions. And black consumers are more likely to interact with brands on social media, use social networks to support companies and brands, or conversely, “call out” companies perceived to disrespect the black community.

There is no question economic mobility remains challenging for the black community, and we need to double down on our fight for social and economic justice. And as parents, we are rightfully concerned about our children’s future. Yet, we must also acknowledge black youth and young adults are a powerful voice and a growing economic force who can succeed against the odds because, in their minds, Wakanda is real.