Building a model of black affluence It is not enough for individual African-Americans to amass wealth. Blacks must work as a team to craft an economic game plan if they want to end black poverty.

August 09, 1998|By John H. Morris Jr. and Charles G. Tildon Jr.

It seems you can't write a piece about basketball these days without mentioning Michael Jordan. This article, however, does not discuss Jordan's scoring titles, his NBA championships or his status as the best player ever to step on the court. It celebrates the economic phenomenon of his celebrity while noting that his huge economic footprint has failed to change the lot of other African-Americans who would love to be like Mike.

The point here is not to criticize Michael Jordan for "forgetting where he came from." Rather, it is to challenge our own expectations of wealthy African-Americans and our understanding of the importance of black wealth.

Certainly, Jordan has done well. Spectacularly well, according to a recent Fortune magazine cover story that says Jordan has generated $10 billion for the U.S. economy during his 14-year career.

Yet Jordan's good fortune must be tempered by another story. One of Maryland's oldest black-owned businesses, and at one time the largest, has sought the protection of a bankruptcy court. At its peak 10 years ago, Maxima Corp. had sales of more than $60 million. Its earnings have shrunk to just $5 million, with debts of $2.5 million.

Just 10 years ago, Maxima founder Joshua Smith was seen as an economic Michael Jordan. His accomplishment was celebrated nationally as a model of what African-American enterprise could achieve.

Again, the point here is not to diminish Smith. Rather, it is to question what we understand as black wealth.

A new book addresses this question. "Clairvoyance: Reweaving the Fabric of Community for Black Folk" is a joint effort of Associated Black Charities, Coppin State College and Morgan State University. From its vantage, the obvious antidote to black poverty is black wealth. The book makes the following observation about black wealth:

"Economic development in the African-American community raises questions of wealth and class. Is it enough for the economy to produce wealth for a few? The existence of a class of great wealth does not raise the same questions in other communities. Yet, for African-Americans, wealth in America can be racial betrayal at worst, or callous selfishness at best.

"On the other hand, universal poverty serves no one. Some black folk may find comfort in shared misery and only a threat in someone's prosperity. However, the question we may fairly ask is why the wealth of any individual African-American should mean anything more to us than the wealth of any other person."

Reality of black wealth

What makes the good fortune of Michael Jordan meaningful to the lot of African-Americans or the bad fortune of Maxima more than a matter of limited concern? A point often made to less affluent African-Americans about their predicament in America is the example of other financially successful blacks, such as Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby - or Josh Smith.

They stand as exhibits A through D in the case for the reality of black wealth in America. "See," the argument goes, "here are your wealthy black people. So why are the rest of you still poor?"

The argument misses the point. Michael Jordan and others reflect what no one has questioned. Individual African-Americans have generated large sums of money. Reginald Lewis' takeover of Beatrice Corp. some 15 years ago probably exceeds the accomplishment attributed to Jordan. He did not just influence but owned, managed and controlled the wealth he tapped. Still, we are only considering wealthy people who happen to be black. We have yet to embrace the idea of black wealth.

Black wealth means more than associating money with African-American account holders. Black wealth not only supports the aspirations of African-Americans, it is secured by the talent and risk-taking of African-Americans. Black wealth produces not just the money that African-Americans might hold from time to time. It provides African-Americans the power to secure for ourselves our own worth. Wealth is simply the power to assure value.

Money and wealth differ

Money and wealth are not the same. Wealth includes possessions, assets, goods, property and money. Money alone is to wealth as keeping score is to winning. In this way, we can understand the growth that Michael Jordan must show to fulfill his economic promise, as he has probably exceeded his basketball promise after just a few NBA seasons.

As a young player, he had no trouble scoring points. Yet he won no championships. He won only scoring titles until he had a surrounding cast to complement his skills, a coach to teach his team to win and a system that enabled him not only to score points but to lead his team to championships.

Looking at Jordan as evidence of what other African-Americans might accomplish is as misleading as assuming that he had only to walk on an NBA court to win championships. That did not happen. Jordan put in a lot of sweat to hone his God-given talent.

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