Warmed-over Myths of Black Wealth

It’s 2009 and a black man is President of the United States of America. So why is CNBC still programming like it’s 1989 and the only way black Americans can hope to achieve wealth is via a sports contract or a record deal? CNBC’s NEWBOs: The Rise of America’s New Black Overclass, a special which aired last night, is wrong on so many levels. But its biggest disservice is that it is based on two stereotypical myths about black wealth that are just not supported by the facts:

The best–and even the only–avenue to real wealth for black Americans are through sports and entertainment. The majority of the “NEWBOs” featured on the program hit, run and jump for a living (the NFL’s Terrell Owens, Major League Baseball’s Torii Hunter and the NBA’s LeBron James) or perform on stage and in recordings (Cash Money Records co-partner and rapper Bryan “Baby” Williams, contemporary gospel artist Kirk Franklin). An exception is RLJ Development CEO and billionaire Robert L. Johnson–the only subject featured who can make a credible claim to being “uber-wealthy.” Of course, he made his fortune by creating and marketing a cable channel featuring black people singing, dancing and rapping. (Oh, and unless you’re Oprah Winfrey, black women need not apply–apparently there are no female NEWBOs.)

Black athletes and entertainers are among the richest black Americans and among the nation’s wealthiest Americans. The problem with this is that NEWBOs primarily focuses on the gross income of the subjects. However, the real measure of wealth is not gross income, but net worth–a person’s assets minus their liabilities. (Black Enterprise readers are familiar with the net worth tables accompanying our monthly Wealth for Life profiles.) Lee Hawkins, the host/interviewer of NEWBOs and a Wall Street Journal reporter who’s authored a forthcoming book about this group, goes to great pains to hype the fact that “black athletes in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball and the 20 highest paid hip-hop entrepreneurs” earn a combined total of $4.5 billion dollars. He quickly moves past the fact that this is the combined income of more than 1,000 people, and never mentions that the combined net worth–the real wealth–of this group would be a small fraction of that total. Athletes and entertainers earn good money–but they don’t even come close to being uber-wealthy, the term Hawkins repeatedly uses without ever defining what he actually means when he says it.

Aren’t these the stereotypes and false messages we’ve spent much of the past 40 years trying to deprogram from American thinking, and black American thinking in particular? In the age of Obama, why are we still telling each other–and worse, our children–that our best chance to become wealthy in America is through sports and entertainment? Especially when anyone who understands wealth and the American economy, as CNBC and Hawkins surely do, knows that is not true? Ken Fisher’s book The Ten Roads to Riches: The Way The Wealthy Got There (And How You Can Too!), correctly identifies sports