Race and Politics: Blacks in Corporate America
— Malik Miah
“Money does grow on trees if it's planted in the money mud.”
—Rev. Jesse Jackson
A CONCERN OF old-line civil rights leaders is how to remain relevant to the vast majority of African Americans. Since the victories won by the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this has been an issue facing the NAACP, Operation PUSH, the SCLC, Urban League and every other group formed in that period and since.
Jesse Jackson (a former aide to King and founder of Operation PUSH and leader of the Rainbow Coalition, and I would add, a close friend of President Bill Clinton) decided a year ago that the future of Black America lies on Wall Street.
On January 15 Jackson's “Wall Street Project” held its second annual conference in New York. The two-day meeting was held at the top of the World Trade Center overlooking the New York Stock Exchange. Why there? Because, Jackson explained, Wall Street is the “Capital of Capital.”
According to the January 16 New York Times, Jackson told the elite gathering of mostly Black executives that Black America must embrace corporate America. He said government and business must learn to invest in minority areas because “money does grow on trees if it's planted in the money mud.”
He noted that sixty-eight percent of Fortune 500 companies have no minorities on their Boards of Directors. “Sharecroppers,” he said, “are becoming shareholders. We have taken our battle from the picket line to the board room.” The Wall Street Project has purchased stock in more than 100 American-based multinational companies.
Jackson added, “We will now ask who is on our board of directors? What are our top 100 employees. What are our community reinvestment commitments? Who are our vendors. Our attorneys. Our accountants?”
Where's the Power?
What's behind this strategy? Has so much progress been made for Black civil rights that it's time to shift from the battle for full equality in all fields of life to target the high ceilings of Wall Street?
Jackson and the new middle-class layer say yes. “At this stage of our struggle,” Jackson told the gathering, “we need to measure progress not just by pilots and flight attendants but also by contracts to supply rivets, pistons, carpets and yes, peanuts.”
Jackson calls his strategy “Revenue Return Relative.” He notes that the Black community spends nearly $600 billion in the United States each year.
While I can agree that the vast wealth produced and spent by African Americans should give us more economic power, the proposal that the focus of civil rights should be the “board room” and not the picket line is far-fetched. What we have was won on the picket line and the streets, not by taking cup in hand to the owners of capital.
The reality for the vast majority of working Black Americans remains getting and holding a decent paying job, educating our children and having a safe place to live. Most of us don't own stock, are not shareholders. We are wage earners living paycheck to pay check.
While I can sympathize with the problems of the Black elite (racism is still all too common on Wall Street as everywhere else), their concerns should not be the focus of a new civil rights campaign.
Not surprisingly, President Clinton spoke to the meeting (partly to escape the impeachment trial and be among his Black friends). He proposed a Federal initiative to stimulate $15 billion of new private investment in poor areas over several years. This included a proposal to set aside $1 billion in tax credits over five years to provide enforcement for private investment in economically distressed urban and rural areas.
Some Wall Street big shots also attended and praised Jackson's new strategy. C. Michael Armstrong, the chairman of AT&T, said he sees Jackson's project as simply good business. “He's a salesman, a very good salesman,” Armstrong said. “He approaches these things with logic and passion. That's different from pressure.”
Shortly before King's assassination on April 4, 1968, he began organizing the Poor People's Campaign. The objective was to build a shantytown in Washington, DC to illustrate the problems of poverty for Blacks and all Americans.
King understood that legal equality was not the same thing as full economic and political equality. In a speech he gave on March 23, 1968 in Albany, Georgia, King said:
“We aren't going to take our economic deprivation any longer. We are tired of living in rundown, dilapidated housing conditions, where we don't have wall-to-wall carpet but wall-to-wall rats and roaches. We are tired of it. We are tired of being unable to educate our children. Think of the bright young Negro youth who can never get to college because their parents don't have the money to send them.
“Nobody needs to be poor in America,” King added. “We have a national gross product of $800 billion. Next year, it will move toward a trillion dollars. My God thinks of all the money around here. God's children are too precious to be poor.”
Today the Gross Domestic Product is $7 trillion. Yet Blacks continue to suffer all social ills disproportionately. Unemployment remains on average at twice the levels than for whites.
Affirmative action programs are being eliminated. College education is more expensive. The Black poverty rate stands at twenty-nine percent (compared to eleven percent for whites), and higher among our children. The decision by Congress and the Clinton administration to gut welfare has put more people in desperate positions.
At the same time, there is far less poverty than thirty years ago (in 1967 the Black poverty rate was forty percent). More Blacks receive college degrees. There are more opportunities for Blacks including in business.
But King's dream (actual demand) is still not reality. The vast sums of wealth produced and spent by Blacks are still not going for the benefit of the Black communities, poor urban and rural areas or for society as a whole. The rich are getting richer as the majority of working Americans work longer to survive.
A new civil rights campaign should focus on using the wealth of society to benefit society. The wealth is available. It simply must be redistributed in a rational manner: Social wages must be expanded; education, health care and housing should be cheap and subsidized by the government. That would mean, of course, restructuring the “market economy” in a way that ends corporate welfare and stops unlimited funding of the Pentagon.
ATC 79, March-April 1999