African-American investors planning for retirement might want to boost their stock holdings, even though the markets are languishing in the doldrums.

That advice comes from Mellody Hobson, president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments LLC, a black-owned investment firm. Hobson asserts that stocks, though volatile, are key to strong, long-term returns on investment.

Hobson has been trying to get that message out to seniors. Her firm hosts seminars, including a two-day AARP Life Festival at Navy Pier in June. She noted black investors have about half the holdings in their retirement plans than do white investors because they tend to be more financially conservative.

According to the Ariel/Schwab Black Investor Survey, the median value of retirement holdings for an African-American investor is $53,000, a sizeable 53 percent less than their white counterparts.

Hobson points to two key reasons for this difference: lower rates of contribution and financial conservatism. The Ariel/Schwab study found that African-Americans invest, on average, $169 monthly compared to $249 by white investors. On top of this is the tendency for African-Americans to shy away from holding stocks-assets marked with volatility, but with the greatest potential for long-term rewards.

Chris Daniels, an Evergreen Park-based investment advisor with Edward D. Jones & Co., said he sees financial conservatism daily with many of his minority clients. Working with individuals having annual incomes ranging from $30,000 to nearly $400,000, Daniels explained that many African-American clients don’t like the risk of the stock market.

“They don’t want to see money lost,” he said. “They want to see primarily gains, regardless of the environment.”

Daniels noted many of his white clients have been investing for a longer period of time and, therefore, are not intimidated by the cycles in the stock market.

Hobson and other personal finance experts point to this difference as a key reason behind this investing gap.

“A lot of the reasons that the minority numbers seem to be lower is that if you don’t grow up in a home where the stock market is discussed, it doesn’t influence your thinking,” Hobson said. “It’s not that the white population has so much more knowledge about the issues; it’s just that even in talking about it, it lends itself to more action than what we have seen in the minority community.”

Charlotte Stallings, the former vice president of investment strategies for American Express, agrees.

“What works for one can work for all,” she insists. “We don’t need to be investing differently, but by nature, by our lack of knowledge and our distrust from misinformation has caused us to be more conservative investors. But that is not good.”

Stallings and Hobson both stress that the stock market is the best long-term investment, if undertaken correctly.

“I am a believer in the stock market,” Stallings said, though careful to point out that investors should not simply “jump on the bandwagon and invest” in stocks without a full understanding of the risks.

But not all personal investing advisors believe stocks should be a top investment priority. Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, known in some circles as The Money Coach, warns that no matter the investor’s race, contributing to a 401(k) plan should take a backseat to other issues.

For Khalfani-Cox, who’s based in New York, holding quality life insurance is one of the most important investments an individual can make.

“I think that a lot of African-Americans in particular don’t see the value of life insurance versus the potential gains they have with investments,” she said, pointing to what individuals would be able to leave for their heirs.

Hobson, however, described her idea of investors’ priorities with an analogy. She said: “You should think about it in the way that you get on an airplane, and they give the emergency announcement. If the oxygen mask drops, take care of yourself first, then the person next to you. You really have to save for your own retirement security first; then you can think about helping family members and doing other things.”

But, she warned: “If you don’t do this, going back to work when you are 80 is not an option, so you end up with no options whatsoever.”