Point of View Columns

People Make the World Go Around

Last week, by chance and good fortune, I was invited to the closing bell ceremony at the New York Stock Exchange, honoring Operation Hope – www.operationhope.org – and its excellent efforts to increase financial literacy in America, particularly in minority communities. The chairman and founder of Operation Hope, John Bryant, was present, along with the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange and about 10 sixth graders from a New York City public school.

          I happen to believe that Operation Hope represents an extremely important initiative that will ultimately make a huge difference in the progress of this country. Financial literacy is assumed even the face of a blizzard of countervailing events. The fact that most Americans overuse available credit and ignore achievable savings is perhaps the most obvious indicia of financial illiteracy. And we should understand that the global financial crisis, while including a Very Special Onetime Performance by some of the least honorable aspects of the financial community, could never have occurred without millions of Americans being lured into the trap of adjustable mortgage loans that they could never afford.

          Operation Hope doesn’t claim to cure all of the ills that the financial crisis illustrated in living, 3-D color. But after a major epidemic it is usually a good thing for people to at least learn to wash their hands and to observe good basic hygiene habits.

          Another noteworthy aspect of my adventure on Wall Street was an opportunity to actually walk on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange as the Operation Hope participants went up on a balcony to trigger the ringing of the closing bell. And up on that balcony were the 10 black and Latino sixth graders and several black and white representatives of Operation Hope. And being on the trading floor with no official responsibility in the balcony festivities I walked around.

          As the official stock exchange trading was coming to an end there wasn’t the manic activity that some associate with Wall Street stock trading. Of course, much of the trading is done globally and electronically 24/7, so there were traders everywhere trading and dealing in the ethereal environs of a multi-trillion dollar economy. A very impressive sight indeed, notwithstanding the greed-driven debacle that almost collapsed the economy of the entire planet. And yet, there was something unsettling.

          And then the source of my unsettlement was made known to me via a clarion call of simple observation. With the hundreds, probably thousands of NYSE jacketed and tagged traders, it was almost impossible to find a black man or woman working on the floor of the exchange – unless they were engaged in maintenance or security work. Thinking that I was letting some deep-seated prejudice against the New York Stock Exchange rear its ugly head, I asked a white colleague who was also attending the Operation Hope celebration if my perception of a monochromatic environment was accurate. After some further reconnoitering and surveying, we agreed that unless Thursdays was the day that black traders were given the day off, that there were some serious diversity issues in the very heart of American capitalism. Indeed, there were also very few women wearing the vaunted NYSE jackets with the coveted NYSE badges. It actually had the feeling of some fraternity for the over aged. Just “us guys” handling key aspects of the economy of the planet. Just “us guys” having the wherewithal and the innate skills to handle the complex tasks of managing major market movements all the time every day.

          I realized that there were several problems with this picture. First, there is no way that the floor of the New York Stock Exchange could achieve such a vanilla hue without intent. There are too many men and women of color with the education and expertise and interest in finance for there not too at least a handful of minorities present. Second, one of the problems with monochromatic decision-making and lack of diversity is that there are skills and abilities and even genius that are excluded on the totally arbitrary basis of race or gender.

          I have no doubt that there are black and Latino men and women who are as sufficiently skilled as their white counterparts and are eminently capable of losing billions of dollars within a matter of minutes. But no one knows if there might be a glimmer of a glint of a hint of a different perspective from some of the thousands of men and women who have been excluded over the years, a different perspective that might occasion a different result.

          No one knows for sure. But what we do know is that as long as exclusionary processes are the norm, as long as diversity is seen as a desultory nod in the direction of political correctness, we will never find out what gems of brilliance and jewels of genius this society is missing. And as a country, as a society, we are all the poorer as the result of such bad judgment.

Wallace Ford is the Principal of Fordworks Associates, a New York-based management consulting firm and is the author of two novels, The Pride and What You Sow.