Civil Rights or Silver Rights

Manning Marable

More than a century ago, conservative black educator Booker T. Washington

proposed a strategy for black advancement within capitalism. The founder of both

Tuskegee Institute and the National Negro Business League, Washington cautioned

African Americans not to agitate publicly for civil rights. He argued that white

corporations and the Republican Party were black people’s best friends.

Washington called for building black capitalism, forging a close partnership

between wealthy and powerful whites with the aspiring black entrepreneurial

middle class.

It is a measure of the conservative times in which we live that many of the

most articulate spokespersons within the black community regarding issues of

social justice are gravitating toward this approach. This includes the Reverend

Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church, who has, among other things publicly

embraced reactionary New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and aligned himself

politically behind the administration of Republican Governor George Pataki.

Former Congressman Floyd Flake became an unofficial Giuliani spokesman inside

the black community during the 1997 New York mayoral campaign. Civil rights

movement veterans like Reverend Wyatt T. Walker support the development of

charter schools, which in the long run undermine the viability of public

schools, which the vast majority of black children attend.

Leading the pack of black entrepreneurs headed to Wall Street is the Rev.

Jesse Jackson. In January 1997, Jackson initiated the Wall Street Project, which

was designed to assist minority-owned firms into financial markets and inside

corporate America.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Wall Street Project has been widely

endorsed by many government officials and corporate executives, such as

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt, Jr., and Citigroup,

Inc. co-chairman Sandy Weill. Jackson’s top pointman in the project, attorney

Thomas Hart, has "earned tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees

from minority-owned firms looking to cash in on some of the new financing

opportunities." To a considerable extent, Jackson’s current strategy is a

throwback to Operation PUSH’s "corporate covenants" of twenty years

ago. In 1998, for example, the Wall Street Project began to campaign against the

racial hiring policies of Telecommunications Inc. (TCI), charging that the

company deliberately prevented upgrades in cable service in poor communities.

When AT&T then announced its intention to buy TCI, the Wall Street Project

went ballistic, declaring that it would use all means to block the merger,

unless there were real changes in workplace diversity and opportunities for

black entrepreneurs.

AT&T chief executive C. Michael Armstrong wanted to avoid bad publicity,

and participated in several meetings initiated by Jackson. Armstrong agreed to

retain several minority companies to underwrite the bonds for acquisition of

TCI, including Utendahl Capital Partners and Blaylock & Partners. More

recently, Jackson’s Wall Street Project has forced MCI WorldCom to the

negotiating table. An agreement last September commits MCI WorldCom "to use

minority-owned investment banking, pension fund and financial service

companies," cited in the Wall Street Journal.

Even the Reverend Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, has

followed his political mentor’s lead into corporate headquarters and investment

banks. Sharpton is launching his own program to force Wall Street firms to do

business with black-owned companies. Sharpton promises to shake things up on

Wall Street: "I’m coming downtown, just like King Kong."

The basic problem I have with these minority-corporate partnerships is that

they benefit only a tiny number of black executives, and foster the illusion

that the corporate sector, can be persuaded to "do the right thing" on

race. The vast majority of African Americans are working people, not investment

bankers. According to a recent study by United for a Fair Economy, the median

black household in 1995 had a net worth of $7,400, including home equity – only

about 12 percent of whites’ median income at $61,000. Nearly one third of all

African-American holdings actually have a zero or negative net worth; that is, a

greater amount of debt that their combined financial assets. The poverty rate

for blacks and Latinos at about 26 percent is more that 3 times higher than that

of whites. How many working class and poor African American families will

actually benefit from the successes of the Wall Street Project?

Don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely nothing against black-owned businesses,

so long as they provide goods and services with a degree of social

responsibility to the black community. But Jesse and Al would make a more

significant contribution to the black freedom movement if they placed greater

emphasis on income distribution strategies, and the campaign for a living wage

to support families. Several weeks ago, even billionaire Donald Trump called for

an across the board 14.25 percent tax on all assets of wealthy individuals and

trusts worth $10 million or more. Such a tax would generate according to Trump

$5.7 trillion. Shouldn’t Jesse, Al and company be at least as

"progressive" as The Donald? African Americans’ real interests are not

to be found in making deals on Wall Street or within white corporate America’s

ruling class.

Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the

Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia

University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to

over 325 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally



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