When Black People Start Winning, the Rules of the Game Change

Remember “white flight”?  In this age of gentrification, it might seem quaint to think about the days in which well-off white Americans were simply seeking to flee their black counterparts rather than displace them. Let me remind you. In the latter half of the 20th century, black people in America started to demand and take for themselves economic, social and educational opportunities that they had been denied since Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow settled in.  During the first half of the century, millions of black people left the segregated South for economic opportunities in the less oppressively racist North; by mid-century, African-Americans ended up comprising significant portions of the urban populations throughout the North.  The Civil Rights movement and its victories – desegregation, Affirmative Action, busing and more – gave these folks not just a physical presence in America’s major cities, but a socioeconomic presence as well.

Once this happened, white America of course embraced black people without hesitation and…no wait, I’m joking. While many people did welcome these changes and decided to not be racist jerks about it, others – both the aforementioned outright “racist jerks”  and the people who were more liberal in a theoretical sense but not in a “welcome to MY neighborhood” sense – picked up their balls and quit the game by fleeing the cities for the suburbs.  And thus, “urban” became synonymous with “black” and – as continued discrimination, income inequalities, crack and a biased criminal justice system all did their work – urban became synonymous with “poor,” “dangerous,” and a host of other negative associations, as well.

Cool story, bro, but why do I bring this up now? Thanks for asking. I tell this story to highlight a frustrating pattern in American history:

  1. Black people are excluded from some social benefit or aspect of life that the majority takes for granted.
  2. After long and hard-fought struggles, black people, or maybe just a subset of them, are finally able to break through the barriers erected against them and gain the access that had been denied them.
  3. Just as these overcomers are beginning to enjoy the benefits they’ve just secured, (white) society implements a major change that lessens or negates the benefit of the recent victory.

The current political landscape seems bent on making radical changes to the ways wealth, power and privilege are distributed in America, and while this may likely bring significant benefits to large number of people (if the details can be worked out), it seems ironic that these reforms are being proposed just as African-Americans were beginning to gain some of these advantages.

For example, there are now more African-American billionaires than ever before. Before you get too excited, note that the total number is five. Not five hundred. Five (5) individuals.  Jay-Z, who was already in a “billionaire couple” with Beyoncé, is the most recent addition, as he individually crossed that threshold earlier this year. (Jay-Z’s former frequent collaborator Kanye “Christian Genius Billionaire” West is similarly part of a ten-figure couple with Kim Kardashian, and ‘Ye is poised to surpass a billion through his Yeezy line, among other endeavors).

Given the walls that have traditionally kept black Americans out of the avenues of sustained power and wealth (and the violence used against us when we’ve managed to develop alternative sources of those things, as the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 demonstrated), it’s probably not surprising that two of the other black billionaires in America come from the worlds of athletics and television: Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey.  As Jay-Z himself once rapped “all us blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we even.” And yet, there’s a glimmer of hope that things are beginning to be more “even.” Who are the other two black billionaires? Robert F. Smith and David Steward; not exactly household names.  Smith and Steward earned their ten-figure net worth status from investment and IT, respectively; in other words, they went the Warren Buffett and Bill Gates routes, rather than the Jordan and Jay-Z paths.

But now, just as black wealth is beginning to creep up at the very top (it’s still practically nonexistent otherwise), “billionaire” is increasingly becoming a dirty word for a significant segment of the population (the one currently occupying the White House certainly doesn’t help).  Dan Riffle, a senior advisor to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, famously believes that “every billionaire is a policy failure.” Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have made a wealth tax a central part of their platforms, specifically highlighting in their rhetoric the effects this would have on billionaires (Warren, in particular, has developed a bit of a political conflict with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, although that beef is a bit deeper than simple tax codes).  Now, I’m not saying that the rise of black billionaires is the reason for this new focus on tackling wealth inequality – for one thing, there are obviously too few of them to garner such policy attention – but it is a bit striking that “billionaire” became a bad thing just as black billionaires became a thing, period.

Education has shown an analogous trend. As I’ve talked about before, the coincidence of the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal and the Harvard Affirmative Action case has led to a general narrative that college admissions is broken and in need of an overhaul. One of the areas on which this new spotlight has centered is the practice of Legacy Admissions, the granting of preferential treatment to applicants whose parent(s) or close relatives previously attended a given school.  The effects of this practice can be huge; at Harvard, for example, a full 36% of the recent incoming class consisted of legacy admits.   This system, almost by definition, perpetuates privilege (and usually benefits wealthy, white students), and there have recently been renewed calls to scale back or eliminate legacy consideration from admissions to elite institutions.

While getting rid of legacy admissions will presumably have a significant effect in terms of reducing the process by which privilege reproduces itself, and may therefore benefit a number of non-white and non-rich applicants, the timing of this potential reform is again bittersweet. As Harvard alum Ashton Lattimore wrote in her recent Washington Post Op-Ed, with significant black admission to Harvard and other Ivy League schools rising over the last several decades through a long process that began with Affirmative Action and integration in the 1970s (that’s not to say a lot of African-Americans go to these schools, just that there’s more than there used to be), we’ve just entered a period in time in which significant numbers of African American students are eligible for legacy admissions.  For us select few Ivy-educated parents, it feels like, yet again, we’ve arrived on the cusp of privilege only to have the rug pulled out from under us.  That might not be a particularly sympathetic problem for the much larger portion of the black and brown population that has not experienced the opportunity to attend these schools at all, but for us hoping to leave behind generational wealth of education (in addition to money), it surely stings.

While these developments might be coincidental (again, I don’t think they’re talking about getting rid of legacy admissions because black people may start to use it), the equivalent change within the political realm is not.  It might be hard to remember this now, but we elected a black president. Twice. As Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, We Were Eight Years in Power.  And even if Obama’s election did not result in the post-racial America that many pundits (but few black people) declared, he still won in 2008 and 2012. The joke was that all it took to elect a black man as president was two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, or, a bit more biting, that they’d finally given the presidency to a black man once no one else wanted it.

More seriously, though, Obama’s presidency was dogged by a level of disrespect and vitriol unprecedented in modern presidential history (when I recently reposted my write-up about Jimmy Carter as a get-well-soon wish, a Twitter user replied to declare Carter the second-worst president in history, with Obama topping his “worst” list for reasons he did not explain).  But maybe I’m mis-remembering things. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton each got a lot of hostility from across the aisle (and Trump isn’t exactly popular among Democrats, who are currently attempting to remove him from office). Barack Obama fits in the middle of a general trend toward increasing partisanship that has made American politics less congenial.

While this may be true, this is not the whole story.  While recent presidents have generally been subject to significant hostility from the opposite party, none have been held to the level of scrutiny that Obama faced.  Let me prove it to you: without looking it up, where were Donald Trump or George W. Bush born? Who’s listed as father on Bill Clinton’s birth certificate? How do you know that Ronald Reagan was a ‘natural-born citizen?” Unless you’re a real political junkie, you don’t know the answers to these questions because no one thought to ask them of these individuals. Many may have questioned whether Clinton or Bush or Trump were qualified to be president, but no one asked if they were eligible. That was simply assumed, up until the time a black man (and one with a funny, Muslim-sounding name, to boot), decided to run for president. Then, many right-wing figures, including our current President, decided that he must be a fraud who was “illegally” running for an office he was not entitled to claim, required him to go above and beyond to prove credentials that were never questioned for anyone else, and then simply refused to believe him when he offered that proof.

Current black candidates for the Democratic nomination for President have not gotten the same form of scrutiny, but they have gotten sustained scrutiny – the so-called “black tax” of having to be twice as good as a white counterpart.  Senator Kamala Harris, a strong early candidate, has been raked over the coals for her supposed role in furthering a biased criminal justice system during her times as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General for California.  Yet, Joe Biden has largely skated by without being held accountable for his role in passing legislation that set the stage for the system that has been so biased against black and brown Americans.  And as Deval Patrick announces his late entry into the presidential race, he remains hampered by the idea that the country simply won’t elect another black man so soon after Obama (“hey, we already had one,” a thought that does not apply to white men in this, or any other situation), a question that has faced Senator Corey Booker as well. If pundits thought that the election of Barack Obama would make it easier for other black Americans to follow in his footsteps (and again, many within black America were skeptical), this prediction doesn’t seem to be playing out at the highest levels.

Now, Harris or Patrick or Booker might well emerge as frontrunners in the current Democratic race and prove that their race is not a liability among voters. And reforming college admissions or taxing the ultra-rich for social spending might end up being beneficial for more black Americans than are hurt by these policies.  An end to legacy admissions, combined with the protection of Affirmative Action, could further boost black acceptance rates at elite colleges. And having a handful of black billionaires hasn’t necessarily had the greatest impact on the rest of the black community: Jordan’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality and apolitical persona have largely precluded him from being a significant social force, and Jay-Z’s rumored role in getting Colin Kaepernick a workout with the NFL (which is increasingly looking like a PR stunt and not a serious move) doesn’t outweigh Jay’s partnership with the league working as a tool to blunt real criticism. On the other hand, Oprah has done a lot of good with her money in the US and abroad (and was an early supporter of Obama), and Robert Smith famously paid off the student debts of the entire Morehouse graduating class of 2019.

But perhaps more than the individual accomplishments of these figures (except Obama, who actually did a whole lot substantively, even if he was hesitant and constrained from specifically helping the black community), black billionaires and Ivy League graduates and a black President represent aspirational figures for millions of African-Americans who, a generation ago, could scarcely dream of these things.  And although aspiration shouldn’t be used as a trade-off for sustained inequality (a trick that the Republican Party has used to convince poor white people to vote against their economic self-interest by dangling the idea that they might be rich and successful one day), neither should it be dismissed out of hand.  And so it’s sad, frustrating and more than a bit unfair that black people in America are finally becoming billionaires and multi-generational Ivy League graduates and President at a time when these things are no longer valued by society, and are actually held in contempt by many people.  Dr. King said that his dream was rooted in the American Dream, yet it seems that every time that dream becomes a reality for black America, the rest of the country decides to adopt a new dream instead.

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