Photo: Kenneth Wynn
  /  09.21.2020

“Black Power” is a bi-weekly editorial column that explores how the Black community can use their collective power to design a new America.

You can’t properly speak to the ongoing fight for Black liberation without emphasizing the importance of economic empowerment. 

The foundation of racism has always been fueled by the mechanics of classism, which serves as the basis of why Black bodies were classified as property before being properly recognized as people. 

Slavery industrialized Black bodies in a way that created accumulating wealth for multiple generations of white men and their families. Slave owners turned their portfolios of human capital into venture capital that ultimately funded industries and birthed lucrative businesses, establishing an economic model that continues across markets today.

Beyond serving as tangible assets themselves, slave labor further generated the cash flow needed to build expansive enterprises and acquire additional assets. Additionally, slaves functioned as scarcely compensated employees responsible for growing and maintaining the personal business of their masters

From managing the household and manning the fields to being the unheralded architects, designers and craftsmen tasked with bringing their owners visions to life; Black people provided the cross-disciplinary labor that notably marked the beginnings of a staggering wealth disparity that has persisted for centuries.  

More notably, this early framing of the working relationship between Black and white people established a definitive separation of power grounded in restricting access to the necessary education, resources and opportunity required to economically advance. 

Instead of seeing an emergence of independent, upwardly mobile Black entrepreneurs and business leaders, this dynamic created a crippling dependency that forced generations of brilliant Black creators, thinkers and visionaries capable of building wealth to become mere contributors to the companies, industries and institutions controlled by white gatekeepers. 

It is from this foundation that the “slave” mentality derives, which speaks to Black people subconsciously adopting the belief that they are meant to be indefinite workers, not owners — employees, not employers. By accepting this position, Black people enter into an unspoken agreement to ultimately exchange their labor for pennies on the dollar, reducing their worth and earning potential while only operating at a fraction of their capacity. 

This psychological barrier causes generations of Black people to suppress their power and stifle their ability to build wealth by simply aspiring to survive. Under this pretense, economic success is not defined by creating or acquiring appreciating assets, but rather takes the form of earning a comfortable salary or receiving a livable wage. More notably, the pursuit of entrepreneurship then appears as an aspirational luxury afforded to a select few, as opposed to being seen as an essential pathway to breaking patterns of generational poverty and shifting the paradigm of race in America

This is not to dismiss the fact that the socioeconomic ramifications of slavery and systemic oppression have inevitably placed Black people at a glaring disadvantage, being subject to disproportionate levels of poverty and discrimination. 

Racism is a social construct fueled by the politics of power and privilege. Power and privilege are inherent byproducts of the imbalanced distribution of wealth that has compounded throughout history. The imbalanced distribution of wealth in America is directly tied to the distribution of access and opportunity.  

Although white supremacy is an ideology imparted to set order and impose self-governance according to a fictitious racial hierarchy, this power system was intentionally formed to fuel classism. By controlling the access and allocation of money and resources, Black people remain categorized as second-class citizens by default. Thus, the same demographic that represents over $1.2 trillion in purchasing power, the highest of any racial group, still stands as the most economically undervalued and underserved. At the core of this economic disparity is a battle to preserve a power structure rooted in racial superiority. 

Black people undoubtedly power America’s largest global exports: music, media, sports and entertainment. Although these spaces act as key drivers of the American economy, the overwhelming majority of major label owners, team owners, and network owners are white. Consequently, despite being the primary factors in increasing the profitability, marketability and overall valuation of these companies and each respective industry, Black talent is paid a minimal percentage against projected revenue generated without receiving a fair profit split or owning an equity stake in the business. 

The byproduct of this business model is white owners across cultural categories reaping a multiple return on their investment without ever needing to become active participants in the spaces they represent. While Black people carry the culture, white people build wealth from it. As such, white people in positions of power have adopted the philosophy – you can keep the culture, we want the capital. Black artists, athletes and entertainers need to grasp that they are being paid multi-million dollar contracts and endorsement deals because it is making the owners above them exponentially more. But, what happens to the wealth gap and the ability of Black people to mobilize when Black cultural leaders become the founders, investors, and equity shareholders? 

In today’s era shaped by multifaceted artists, athletes and creators becoming entrepreneurs and building impactful enterprises, cultural capital is becoming more valuable than a dollar. As a result, the exchange rate on influence is eclipsing the value of physical currency. Meaning, if you’re an artist, athlete or creator tapped into culture and actively shaping it, what you can access with your accumulated influence is more expansive than what can be purchased by a physical dollar alone. This takes the power to generate wealth away from the traditional white gatekeepers and places it into the hands of Black culture.  

As we witness megastars like Kanye West publicly challenge the major label “slave deal” structure, calling for more artists to own their masters and control their future, let’s briefly explore the duality of hip hop as an example of how the cycle of poverty can be perpetuated within these cultural categories without teaching Black creators and leaders the power of wealth building through entrepreneurship, independence and ownership

Birthed from narrating the complex realities of Black youth navigating America’s inner-cities, hip hop has always been a triumphant voice of impoverished communities. More significantly, it has evolved to become one of the few platforms that empowers Black people to become earners, owners and prominent business leaders. Conceived on corners where kids crowded around ciphers, standing amidst the hustlers and locals alike, hip hop rewarded seemingly trapped souls with hope. Commonly silenced and ignored by high society, a thriving culture was cultivated that empowered poor and disadvantaged people to aspire for more with a true belief in attaining it. Growing from a niche art form into a dominant global genre, hip hop ushered these untold stories into the scope of mainstream America in a way that perceivably deactivated the dangers to white communities, while still celebrating its many coveted nuances.

Yet, what amplified the allure of the culture also revealed a mentality that has continued to keep many Black communities economically bound. Behind every image of shell-toe Adidas, Cuban link chains and five-finger rings stood an abundance of families void of money, access and opportunity. This duality stems from being at the bottom of a class system that fails to recognize or benefit the poor. It’s not solely being Black that makes achievement seemingly impossible, but being poor and Black that does. For a culture that commonly depicts lifestyles of luxury and excess, this presents both the gift and the curse. 

For many hip hop superstars, their ascension to the forefront of pop culture symbolized first-generational success. From fighting to escape the projects to selling out arenas, generations of gifted emcees have been granted access to a world once limited to the imagination. However, while we rightfully marvel at the transcendent success stories of artists like JAY-Z and Drake, countless others have come and gone – embarking on runs that bring a fleeting overflow of money and opportunity only to lose it all just as fast. Taking the first million to buy a mansion instead of investing, failing to expand their brand, or blowing 6-figure checks without saving, the disparities caused by a suffocating class system are in many ways further perpetuated instead of defeated.

Their acquired fortunes dissolve not solely due to the decline in album sales or reaching a social status that inspires overspending, but largely due to lack of equity in their art, brand and intellectual property.

Taking definitive steps toward closing the current wealth gap and leveraging our shared power to achieve equality requires a cultural revolution anchored in independence and ownership. 

Independence gives you the ability to move fluidly and create freely. Ownership allows you to leverage your creativity, influence and value to serve your best interests. Both position you to create wealth by taking the cap off of your earning potential, while also becoming self-sufficient and building a portfolio of assets. 

If race was neutralized, perceivably making all races equal in the context of skin color, classism would then determine value and social positioning according to worth, calculated by accumulated liquid (cash flow), equity and tangible assets. Therefore, the distribution of power would be anchored in the differences in wealth amongst communities. Due to the existing racial dynamic, this notion of equality still places white people atop the class system due to collectively acquiring exponentially more wealth over time; continuing as the top priority for available opportunity, resources and services alike. Understanding this, it is even more imperative today for Black people as a collective to emphasize the importance of wealth building as an essential act of revolution required to achieve the true freedom and equality we desire. 



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