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Warmed-over Myths of Black Wealth

Newsflash from CNBC's NEWBOs: If you're black and can't rap or play ball, forget about making it in America.

and entertainment as the most difficult way to achieve serious wealth, with the longest odds. The primary reasons to pursue a career in sports or entertainment is because you are good at it, and you like to do it—not because you have more than a prayer of ending up with Bob Johnson money. There are no athletes or entertainers on the most recent Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans. (You needed a net worth of at least $1.3 billion to make the most recent list. Their combined net worth? $1.57 trillion.) I’ve personally come to suspect that black people are intentionally steered toward sports and entertainment to keep us away from the real sources of wealth in America.

Forget the fact that, as a television interviewer, Hawkins is a great newspaper journalist. Forget that there is nothing remotely new about a tiny percentage of black people from poor backgrounds suddenly achieving fame and fortune in sports and entertainment, often fulfilling the role of financial saviors for entire extended families. Forget the fact that there is nothing unusual about most of these NEWBOs being under the age of 40: sports and entertainment are youth-oriented industries—it’s extremely rare for a recording artist or athlete to maintain his or her earning power past the age of 35. (By the way, Bob Johnson is 62.) And don’t even get me started on the poor taste, if not outright insensitivity, of Hawkins focusing—as millions of Americans struggle through a devastating economic crisis—on how his subjects spend their money. (How many black kids could be put through college on the half-million dollars Cash Money’s Williams told Hawkins that his grill is worth? Williams has the right to spend his money as he pleases. But what’s the point of Hawkins celebrating it? Why is it that when wealthy whites are interviewed, the focus is on how they made their money, but wealthy blacks are usually stereotypically profiled as profligate spenders? When did CNBC start airing MTV Cribs?)

To be fair, to really identify the wealthiest black Americans would take a lot of digging—after all, truly wealthy black people, (including many of the corporate CEOs, Wall Street executives and owners of Black Enterprise 100s companies featured in Black Enterprise) are not eager to draw attention to their wealth. They’re quite happy to let Baby Williams and Terrell Owens get all the attention—and aggravation—that comes when people realize you’re earning big money. But isn’t that the kind of thorough, hard-hitting, uncompromising financial reporting CNBC is supposed to be known for?

NEWBOs is of the kind of check-the-box, toss-the-reporting-standards programming that black Americans have come to expect—and too often, regret—starting around the King Holiday in January through the month of February. To me, it feels like the show was created to serve two purposes: as a barely disguised infomercial for Hawkins’ book and a quick and easy way for CNBC to offer programming for Black History Month (whew—made it with two days to spare!).

Sorry CNBC—that’s not good enough. And no using the flack you’re going to get, and deservedly so, for lowering the CNBC bar with NEWBOs as an excuse to do no programming about black people at all.

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