Is it time to critically interrogate the black “success stories” of pro atheletes and near-billionaires? Should we be identifying with the Junior Bridgemans and Magic Johnsons or with their thousands of underpaid and cheated workers? And what would a more reproducible black “success story” really look like?
“...How twisted are we, to abhor Herman Caine while we uncritically praise the black fast food “entrepreneurs” who paid his fat salary?...”
A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine, both an actual friend AND a Facebook “friend” posted a link to an online story about Junior Bridgeman. He's a black former NBA player who instead of squandering his pro ball money like some do, used it to build a $400 million dollar “fast food empire” which by now includes about 160 Wendys and 120 Chilis restaurants. My friend offered the link, paraphrasing him only a little, as something inspirational, as a comforting tale of purpose and hard work rewarded, the kind of black-man-makes-good success story that ought to brighten anybody's day.
Except it didn't make me feel all that good. I'd feel a lot better about this success story, I said, if there was any reason to believe the conditions in Bridgeman's fast food empire were quite unlike those in the rest of the fast food universe. Did Bridgeman pay his workers a living wage, say at least $15 an hour? Do his workers have affordable medical benefits? Are his managers trained NOT to steal hours and wages from workers as is pretty common in that industry? As the single biggest Wendy's franchisee I noted Bridgmon likely has paid hundreds of thousands in yearly dues to the fast food restaurant trade associations which they use to bribe – excuse me, I mean “lobby” elected officials to keep his workers' wages low. And it works. For Junior, anyway. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has stayed around $2.31 an hour for more than 20 years now.
At some point I also mentioned that my friend worked for SEIU, because I imagined that being with one of the unions helping the fast food workers demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage should have made him ask these questions instead of me.
My friend didn't exactly welcome the questions. He accused me of “reflexively impugning” Bridgeman, and declared that although he had no idea what the Bridgeman empire paid its workers or what its management practices were, he was inclined to take the story at face value, as good news worth spreading around.
I confess that this disturbed me even more. I believe my friend is a conscientious guy with his head and heart in the right places. Why had it not occurred to him to ask these questions before offering his “good news” story about a black half-billionaire who's very likely to have been lifted up on the backs of thousands of underpaid and cheated and disproportionately black workers? Why are poor people applauding the black rich just for being, well, black and rich?
Remember the detestable Herman Caine, a Republican candidate for president in 2012? Caine was the head of one of the fast food lobbying organizations that has labored for decades to keep the minimum wage low. The trade association dues, millions each year collected from Junior Bridgeman and Magic Johnson pay the salaries of hacks like Herman Caine. How twisted are we, to abhor Herman Caine while we uncritically praise the black fast food “entrepreneurs” who paid his fat salary?
“...black billionaires simply do not lift up the masses of Africans or of African Americans. Only collective action on the part of ordinary people can do that....”
In the real world of the first black president and unprecedented numbers of black faces in high military, corporate and government positions, black child poverty is rising not falling. Black unemployment is the same double white unemployment as it was 50 or 60 years ago and climbing. In the real world black women's wages are catching up with black men's wages only because black male unemployment is rising and their wages doing the opposite. Given all this, it should be clear to anybody without ideological blinders that lifting up black millionaires, black politicians, black entertainers and celebrating black celebrities does absolutely nothing to improve the lives of ordinary African Americans.
What these kinds of black “success stories” actually do is narrow the boundaries of our struggle to the individualized pursuit of wealth and status and consumption that neoliberal American prescribes. If we cannot or should not throw shade on Junior Bridgeman or Magic Johnson or whoever for their failure to stand up and pay a living wage, for their willingness to fund the lobbying that keeps wages low and makes it easy for employers to cheat workers, and all but impossible to form unions, then we close off any possibility of collective action that benefits the masses of our people.
The historic truth, as my friend upon some reflection will probably agree, is that black billionaires simply do not lift up the masses of Africans or of African Americans. Only collective action on the part of ordinary people can do that. The best example of collective action advancing the real economic status of black families in recent times is the New York City transit workers strike of 2005. That one single strike of less than a week protected the retirements, the medical care, the college educations and the homes of more black families than all the seven or eight black billionaires in the United States have in their entire careers. That is a black success story that corporate media will not tell us, and one that we have conditioned each other to overlook. But it's a success story that is far more reproducible – in the language of business – one that “scales up” far better than the individual success stories of Magic Johnson or Junior Bridgeman, or for that matter, of Barack Obama.
You can't ride someone's back, they say, unless that person bends over. Our unnaturally cramped and bent way of thinking, that refuses to interrogate black “success stories” is holding us back. This ain't the Oprah show, or “reality TV”. There's no new Camaro under your seat, and nobody's going to show up and rehab your house while you're off on vacation, if you can even afford a vacation, if you have a house.
The only ways out of the neoliberal trap, out of growing poverty and the prison state are the ways that traditional “success stories” do not allow us to imagine. They are collective organization, colletctive imagination, collective struggle and collective success. Slavishly worshiping the black rich and their individual “success stories” is truly holding us back.