Civil Rights or Silver Rights
More than a century ago, conservative black educator Booker T. Washington proposed a strategy for black advancement within capitalism. The founder of both Tuskegee Institute and the National Negro Business League, Washington cautioned African Americans not to agitate publicly for civil rights. He argued that white corporations and the Republican Party were black people's best friends. Washington called for building black capitalism, forging a close partnership between wealthy and powerful whites with the aspiring black entrepreneurial middle class.
It is a measure of the conservative times in which we live that many of the most articulate spokespersons within the black community regarding issues of social justice are gravitating toward this approach. This includes the Reverend Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church, who has, among other things publicly embraced reactionary New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and aligned himself politically behind the administration of Republican Governor George Pataki. Former Congressman Floyd Flake became an unofficial Giuliani spokesman inside the black community during the 1997 New York mayoral campaign. Civil rights movement veterans like Reverend Wyatt T. Walker support the development of charter schools, which in the long run undermine the viability of public schools, which the vast majority of black children attend.
Leading the pack of black entrepreneurs headed to Wall Street is the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In January 1997, Jackson initiated the Wall Street Project, which was designed to assist minority-owned firms into financial markets and inside corporate America.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Wall Street Project has been widely endorsed by many government officials and corporate executives, such as Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt, Jr., and Citigroup, Inc. co-chairman Sandy Weill. Jackson's top pointman in the project, attorney Thomas Hart, has "earned tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees from minority-owned firms looking to cash in on some of the new financing opportunities." To a considerable extent, Jackson's current strategy is a throwback to Operation PUSH's "corporate covenants" of twenty years ago. In 1998, for example, the Wall Street Project began to campaign against the racial hiring policies of Telecommunications Inc. (TCI), charging that the company deliberately prevented upgrades in cable service in poor communities. When AT&T then announced its intention to buy TCI, the Wall Street Project went ballistic, declaring that it would use all means to block the merger, unless there were real changes in workplace diversity and opportunities for black entrepreneurs.
AT&T chief executive C. Michael Armstrong wanted to avoid bad publicity, and participated in several meetings initiated by Jackson. Armstrong agreed to retain several minority companies to underwrite the bonds for acquisition of TCI, including Utendahl Capital Partners and Blaylock & Partners. More recently, Jackson's Wall Street Project has forced MCI WorldCom to the negotiating table. An agreement last September commits MCI WorldCom "to use minority-owned investment banking, pension fund and financial service companies," cited in the Wall Street Journal.
Even the Reverend Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, has followed his political mentor's lead into corporate headquarters and investment banks. Sharpton is launching his own program to force Wall Street firms to do business with black-owned companies. Sharpton promises to shake things up on Wall Street: "I'm coming downtown, just like King Kong."
The basic problem I have with these minority-corporate partnerships is that they benefit only a tiny number of black executives, and foster the illusion that the corporate sector, can be persuaded to "do the right thing" on race. The vast majority of African Americans are working people, not investment bankers. According to a recent study by United for a Fair Economy, the median black household in 1995 had a net worth of $7,400, including home equity - only about 12 percent of whites' median income at $61,000. Nearly one third of all African-American holdings actually have a zero or negative net worth; that is, a greater amount of debt that their combined financial assets. The poverty rate for blacks and Latinos at about 26 percent is more that 3 times higher than that of whites. How many working class and poor African American families will actually benefit from the successes of the Wall Street Project?
Don't get me wrong. I have absolutely nothing against black-owned businesses, so long as they provide goods and services with a degree of social responsibility to the black community. But Jesse and Al would make a more significant contribution to the black freedom movement if they placed greater emphasis on income distribution strategies, and the campaign for a living wage to support families. Several weeks ago, even billionaire Donald Trump called for an across the board 14.25 percent tax on all assets of wealthy individuals and trusts worth $10 million or more. Such a tax would generate according to Trump $5.7 trillion. Shouldn't Jesse, Al and company be at least as "progressive" as The Donald? African Americans' real interests are not to be found in making deals on Wall Street or within white corporate America's ruling class.
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to over 325 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally