MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN (TBP)– There is a duality that exists within black professional men that only another black professional male can really understand. There is a part of who he is which must exude competence at a level that dispels any lingering stereotypes towards black people that arise in the social structure of his professional environment. Questions like, “is he really capable or is he here because he is black”.
On the other side, despite the accolades, awards, and recognition of being a positive reflection of racial progress, a black male can also be too articulate to the point where even his own will call into question “his blackness”.
There are many within the community who say that were it not for history being on his side and the fact that he married a “real” black woman, President Obama himself was not perceived to have had the street credit to call himself a true “brutha”.
Unless you are a preacher, an activist, a liberal college professor, or a black woman, you might as well hand in your African American Express Card if you visit certain parts of our community and don’t know how to do The Dance.
I’m not talking about a physical dance here- although you better not be “ebonically challenged” and not have rhythm either. They will start saying “I just don’t know what went wrong with that child”. If you got some Urkel in you and you a brutha, you better find your inner Stefan.
The need to reconcile racial relevance to progress and purpose is not unique to the black experience. It is part of the evolution of every immigrant and minority group that has ever dared to jump into this great melting pot of America.
But unlike every other culture who has been allowed to add its substance into that cauldron, the children of former slaves are a seasoning America has always found a little too bitter to the taste. Since we were not an intended recipe ingredient, our choices were few. Either become neutral bland filler, or change our flavor so that we could not be distinguished for what we truly were. Or accept being injected only as an inexpensive byproduct- pink slime.
In a historically male dominated society, this is the duality that black men are born into. Some excel and never look back, not wanting the responsibility of carrying that torch. They just want to enjoy their humanity without labels. Ideally, who could blame them?
Others are “undercover bruthas” who secretly finance philanthropic endeavors within the black community from a perch of wealth and affiliations that would be threatened within their business and social circles if their continued commitment to “black causes” were discovered. Because of this, there were many black conservatives whose conscience forced them to be on the right side of history in the election of Barack Obama.
There are also the black men who simply remained committed to “the cause” by staying home and just trying to affect change by being a good father and a presence in the community. They placed their hopes in their children.
And then there are those black men who “lived the Urkel” and “found their Stefan” and, simply, came home, bringing with them the wealth of knowledge and experience sorely needed to be a trailblazer in this new millennium. Erbert Johnson, current President and CEO of North Milwaukee State Bank, is one such man. He leads a 40 year old financial institution that is only one of two banks in Wisconsin controlled by African-Americans.
Johnson was tapped for this post in 2008 in the midst of national fears that a financial meltdown was imminent. Conventional wisdom said that odds of such small banks surviving were slim. In fact many banks of larger size had already been taken over or closed. A lot of people would have seen Erbert Johnson’s choice of North Milwaukee State Bank as a bad career move.
Sure there is prestige in a title. But few remember who the captain was of a sinking ship unless he gets the blame for sinking the ship. Erbert had an impressive resume. He could have taken a safer job in a less volatile environment.
Erbert Johnson graduated Milwaukee Tech High School and went on in 1983 to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was the only African-American in his class to receive a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
He started his career with KPMG- one of the Big Four auditors, along with Deloitte, Ernst & Young (EY) and PwC before moving on to work 10 years for Security Savings & Loan.
Milwaukee Public Schools became the next stop on Johnson’s career path. He started as supervisor of the budget and later was promoted to chief financial officer. This post would last four years.
Then Johnson was recruited to become the CFO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District where He helped the district develop a $1.5 billion capital plan and improved its bond rating.
This caught the attention of Key Bank. In 2004 Johnson was recruited to work as an investment banker helping public-sector entities secure bond financing.
Then in 2008, after 18 months without a bank President and in the midst of an economic storm, the opportunity to lead North Milwaukee State Bank came along. Erbert Johnson was being asked to come back home.
With all due respect to all those who sacrificed in the past, it is like asking a potential NFL draft pick to take a vacant coaching post at their old local high school and nobody being sure if it will survive the next round of budget cuts. Why in the world would Johnson go when he could basically have it made?
These are the types of decisions that lay in the heart of those whose family legacies are tied to the black experience in America. Despite the cold, reckless, and, oft times, ruthlessness of capitalism, black mamas have always taken heed to that old Christian axiom of “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world yet lose his own soul.”
There is a hymn to the heart of blackness that makes little sense to the rest of the business world. It is a composition of compassion written for the voices of a chorus. It runs contrary to the monetary melody that seeks to satisfy only the soul of the soloists. To forgo the herald of trumpets only to be a voice among many is a modesty seen as an affront to capital gain.
And yet the unbridled larceny of the American spirit remains a self-inflicting wound that reopens now and then to remind us of our responsibility one to another. Except for black folk, it isn’t something that needs reminding. It is something that is daily lived.
To understand the choice of Erbert Johnson, you need to understand the man; and not just the man- the black man.
Johnson grew up on Milwaukee’s north side in a working class neighborhood. Like many black parents of that racially segregated time who were not afforded the opportunity to attend college, they stressed the importance of education to Erbert and his siblings.
Being a small child in the midst of the Civil Rights Era, the Vietnam War, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Johnson saw a lot of praying going on around him. He also saw his share of violence.
During the summer of 1967 Johnson witnessed the inner city riots in Milwaukee and watched as the National Guard was called in to quell the violence. He saw the fires. He saw the tanks on the streets. Erbert Johnson was five years old.
The events of his childhood would shape the man who would later come home to lead a bank that was established to help the very communities he saw on fire. You see, five year old Erbert Johnson made a promise to himself to somehow make things better when he grew up. And from a child’s heart to God’s ears, it was a promise he planned to keep.
Black owned financial institutions were few and far between. They were historically founded to provide services where other banks had standards that ruled out lending opportunities to minorities- sometimes deliberately, other times indirectly through business models and practices that disenfranchised the working poor. That meant credit for the greater majority of black people was hard to come by.
Black banks found their niches by helping to fund the building and expansion of churches and small business development in and around inner cities. Because of the disproportionate high rates of unemployment in black communities which could adversely affect the local economy, this kind of banking didn’t exactly fit the profile of smart business.
In an interview with Trymaine Lee of The Huffington Post, Johnson confirmed this stigma.
“Part of what people look at is our business model: they don’t understand it,” he said, speaking of the regulators who can grant a bank access to federal funds. “I actually had a regulator say to me, ‘We wouldn’t want to put more money in an environment that, on its surface, is high unemployment,’ because the prospects for turnover aren’t that high, and that quite frankly, he was amazed that we are able to do what we are able to do.”
The reality is, that has been the story of black life in America. From Slavery to sharecropping, to separate and unequal schools, discriminatory wage practices, and predatory lending, what blacks have been able to accomplish with so much less is, indeed, an enigma to conventional wisdom.
But then, there has never been anything conventional about black economic survival. And that is the beauty of Erbert Johnson. Instead of being dissuaded by the indifference and ignorance of the mainstream to the black experience, Johnson has brought his mainstream experience to North Milwaukee State Bank.
Johnson also brings credibility. By having served in mainstream financial institutions and with experience managing investments, Johnson is viewed as a contemporary to his counterparts in the larger banking establishment. He speaks their language. But his duality as a black man also allows him to translate ours.
With this ability, Erbert Johnson has expanded upon the traditional base of North Milwaukee State Bank to become a bank that so happens to be black owned and not just a bank for black people.
Understanding the direct impact of unemployment to the stability of his depositors, Johnson has also targeted small businesses with proven records and contracts with other stable companies for loans that will enable them to grow and expand. These expansions translate into more jobs in the surrounding community.
More than that, for Erbert Johnson, this is home. He worked as a public debt commissioner for the city. He knows and understands the economic landscape right down to the people in the neighborhood where he once lived. Johnson’s unique ties to his hometown coupled with the wealth of experience he gained by leaving home for a while gives him a unique perspective on how and where the money goes and how to best foster growth in a way that could benefit any community.
In 1994, the FDIC identified 54 banks as black owned. In 2011 there were only 28 left. Mission based black financial institutions have largely failed because the reciprocation of loyalty from the community has failed.
Some see that as a sign of progress- that somehow we have “overcome” because black folk don’t need to rely on black banks anymore.
Others look at the state of predatory lending that led to the housing bubble, unemployment, and foreclosures that severely impacted the black community and say, while we have overcome some things, it is clear that the mainstream banking industry flat out “got over”.
So before we are entirely dismissive of the relevance of such community based institutions, be they minority owned or not, the proven lesson of this era of financial trouble is to contemplate the integrity and history of a bank’s lending practices when deciding where you should deposit. Too big to fail has also become too big for jail.
When Erbert Johnson made the decision to come home, it wasn’t just to Milwaukee, it was also to the memory of burning streets and a minority community that still disproportionately suffers unemployment as high as 25 % in the worst of times.
He had his cake. He earned it. He could have eaten it. But he traded the sweet, and decided to break bread instead. ■
EDITOR’S NOTE: Erbert Johnson is now with the Milwaukee School District.