Politics Mondays: The NAACP And The Evolution Of Tribalism
On Saturday when I learned that the NAACP had selected a businessman, Bruce Gordon, as its next President and CEO my mind went to two ‘running conversations’ I have been having. One, with Star, of the Star and Buc Wild Show, for over a month. And the other with economist Reuven Brenner, for nearly three years.
Most recently, I had the privilege of communicating with Star last Friday morning, by telephone and e-mail, during his show, which revolved around the topic, "Will The Negro Do For Self?" The listeners of the highest rated morning program in New York City among those age 18 to 34, were treated to three hours of wide ranging conversation about the Black Renaissance; Black Wall Street(s) (in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Durham, North Carolina); the opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, the economic blueprint of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad; and praise for, and facts about historian Cheikh Anta Diop. Star told me, and his listeners that the inspiration for his selection of the topic was twofold – a business meeting he had had the night before with a group of Brothers regarding a possible joint venture; and the news that Chinese businesspersons and groups were seeking to purchase American companies in record numbers. He said he thought to preface the title of the topic with the word ‘when’ so that it would be "When Will The Negro Do For Self?"; but he said he did not want to be presumptuous in the premise of his question regarding the probability that Black Americans would one day do for self, the achievement of which, Star said, would be characterized by land ownership, self-sufficient communities and even, separation.
At one point during the show’s conversation, White Trash Helene, with great insight, very gingerly and carefully raised a critical point. In reference to some information she was reading regarding the "Black Wall Street" of Durham, North Carolina, Helene said she noticed that one of the interpretations and conclusions regarding that time period of economic growth and wealth accumulation for Blacks in the 1800s, was that the end of the era could be directly attributed to the end of Jim Crow laws which discriminated against and persecuted Blacks. She thought that was interesting and paradoxical. Star, conveying an attitude that indicated he had been waiting all along for this point in the conversation, acknowledged Helene’s point and said that yes, the imposition of Jim Crow era laws had actually been "a great period of motivation" for Blacks. He mentioned how he had discussed this point in the past with Sister Sharazad Ali. The implication that Star wanted his listeners to walk away with was evident – there is something very valuable that we all should reconsider regarding the manner and circumstances in which Blacks were able to ‘do for self’ in previous generations.
Those who listen to Star should be familiar with his thesis regarding ‘tribalism’. He looks askance at rhetoric that implies an inherent need for unity and a familial relationship between people solely on the basis of skin color. As a result he constantly warns his listeners and his guests to not be ‘roped in by way of tribalism.’ Hence, his disapproval of Mariah Carey appearing on the cover of the April issue of Essence magazine; and part of the basis for his expressed desire to ‘test’ the genuineness and bona fides of many Black leaders who make mass appeals. But having consistently stressed that position, the 41-year old host – paradoxically for many – admittedly gets ‘tribal’ by challenging Blacks and those viewed as leaders of the Black community to take a page from the days, prior to integration, when Blacks were segregated but empowered economically and autonomous in many respects. The apparently contradictory position is far from what it appears. Star, at times, places a premium on appreciation for the open display of hate and the motivational influence it can provide for the discriminated and oppressed. The merit of this motivational force tempers some of his distaste for superficial group identity.
The other conversation I thought of when I learned that a corporate professional rather than a political activist, preacher, or an experienced traditional civil rights leader would be leading the NAACP was one that began in July of 2002 with my friend, economist, Reuven Brenner. While on a West Coast trip, at the time, I spoke to Reuven by telephone. In that conversation,and subsequently by e-mail, he informed me of the tremendous reaction he was receiving from Blacks and others to a small portion of his latest book, Force Of Finance, page 148 to be exact, which reads:
"One system that has been pursued with obvious success is the melting pot of the federal U.S. government - an example of a state creating, in the course of time, a new, larger tribe with the most open financial markets in the world. When American financial markets were closed to some groups, such as African Americans, symptoms of the aggressive "tribalism" that was common in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe surfaced there too. Militant organizations, whose goal was to rebuild the strength of the marginalized groups soon emerged.
But at the same time, events such as the civil rights movement were also helping to restore trust between the many "tribes" living under the U.S. federal umbrella. These new institutions were successful in transforming governments into a source of capital for these groups when private capital markets stayed closed. The debate today in the U.S. asks whether capital markets have now been opened sufficiently to members of these groups, and thus whether governments should no longer single them out for preferential treatment. In broad terms, then, the history of racial unrest in the U.S. over the past few decades can also be seen from the viewpoints advanced in this chapter and in chapter one. By looking at societies from the perspective of the "five sources of capital," one can predict the maze of complex conflicts that entangle societies when capital markets are closed and mistrust rises."
Reuven Brenner, a Jewish immigrant now living in Canada had arrived at an insight regarding something very significant about the dynamics of the racial divide in America and the evolution of the methodology utilized by Blacks to obtain access to financial capital. I asked him about that and pg. 148 of The Force of Finance in Part II of an interview published at BlackElectorate.com in September of 2002:
Cedric Muhammad: …In these two paragraphs [on pg. 148 of Force of Finance] you made what some people have informed you is one of the most lucid articulations of what was at the root of the civil rights movement and what happened when Blacks more fully integrated into the U.S. economy. What exactly is it that you think enables insight when your "five sources of capital" model is transposed over the racial problem in America?
Reuven Brenner:...What did it mean that Blacks were discriminated against? If we go back to those five sources of capital - that people have  access to financial markets,  retained earnings, and  some type of natural resource. If you don't have those three then you turn to  government and  crime. Well, if you look at the Black experience from this angle, you see they were completely dispossessed of whatever they had not only in financial capital but even in the sense of social and family capital. That is what destroyed them. They did not have natural resources because they were dispossessed and they didn't have any access to financial markets. So to me it was not a surprise that in part, they turned to crime because that is what gives them access to capital and secondly, when they could, they turned to government. Now, the moment you are completely discriminated against in financial markets, which is the most important, it reflects in crime and violence. The United States in a way is unique in the sense that yes, it allowed groups to emerge to try and solve this problem internally. So on one hand you had the civil rights movement who really tried in various ways to open up the financial markets and also the government to give these denied opportunities. So when you see these events through this angle you can see the course of development over the last 30 years. And now I think the big debate in the Black community is really over the following: whether or not, at this stage, and to what extent the Black community should continue to rely on the government as a source of capital, or, should it have moved much faster now, to the private sources of capital which are much more flexible, and which provide much more opportunities - this is today where I think the Black community is.
On June 16, 2005 I sent Reuven Brenner an e-mail and an Associated Press (AP) article, "New York Exec Likely Next to Chair NAACP", regarding the rumors that the NAACP might be selecting a business man to lead it. I entitled the e-mail, "Pg. 148 of Force of Finance Unfolding?"
I wanted Reuven’s interpretation of the article and whether or not he felt the NAACP’s possible decision was in any way indicative, or a sign of Black Americans moving away from a primarily political mobilization around government as the primary source of capital. I did so, particularly in light of a quote in the article attributed to David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who supposed of the NAACP:
"Maybe they are going to put more emphasis on, say, promoting black business and entrepreneurship, getting access to capital," Bositis said. "This is big among younger, educated black people and also a lot of black churches."
Reuven responded and told me that he felt the NAACP rumors were indeed "good news" and that in addition to that he felt that a recent Forbes magazine article about multi-platinum artist, Usher was also a positive sign as it showed that the Black artist wanted to be respected more as a businessman than as a "star". Both developments, are in keeping with Reuven’s view that it is entrepreneurship that Blacks will increasingly bet on as a method of gaining capital, as opposed to a reliance on the political process to pry capital from government. It is an interesting thesis, and one that I wrote about extensively in 2003, in an "E-Letter To Daniel Altman And The New York Times Re: Young Blacks Try Entrepreneurship" in particular.
Indeed, the early signs are that Bruce S. Gordon is seeking ways for the NAACP to embrace a new paradigm - access to capital from sources other than government. On Saturday, June 25th, The New York Times wrote of his thinking:
Mr. Gordon said he would like the N.A.A.C.P. to address economic issues like the unemployment rate among African-American men; access to health care benefits; opportunities for black-owned companies to manage large pension funds; and representation for African-Americans in all levels of employment in corporations.
He said his own "bias" was that "economic power and economic equality enables social justice."
In a great many ways I agree with the insights of both Star and Reuven Brenner regarding tribalism and its relationship to economic empowerment. The two views are also complimentary when one considers that the militancy and 'aggressive tribalism' that Reuven Brenner refers to in Force of Finance is that which was most visible in the middle to latter portion of the last century, while the positive form of tribalism preferred by Star is that of the 1800s and early 1900s. Reuven Brenner’s thesis accurately depicts a pin ball effect, as Blacks have bounced between four of the ‘five sources of capital’ – natural resources (Here I would differ with Reuven in that I recognize Black land ownership. As late as 1920 they owned 14% of America’s farmland), crime, savings, and government and are now increasingly engaging Wall Street and formal financial markets to obtain access to capital. I think that Star properly identifies that the problem with Blacks is not one of access as much as it is one of willpower, thus the preeminence of the question, "Will The Negro Do For Self?" For Star, it is abundantly clear that history informs us that once the decision is made, access to capital will not be a demand made upon government or necessarily an entry into formal financial capital markets, but rather a demand made upon self – where the collective pooling of resources for example, becomes a value that is elevated to a top priority by the Black community [Bearing witness to this point, on Friday morning I shared with Star data that indicates that although Blacks in New York City have $27 billion in income, the largest Black owned bank in the city (and actually America), Carver Federal Savings Bank of New York City, only has $443 million in deposits. In Philadelphia, where Blacks are said to have $8 billion in annual income, the city’s largest Black-owned bank, United Bank of Philadelphia, has only $63 million in deposits.]
At present my view is that it remains to be seen whether or not the NAACP’s decision represents a paradigm shift or not. That judgement will ultimately be made by the rank-and-file membership of the organization. One of the reasons being offered as to why Mr. Gordon was selected to lead the organization was his anticipated fundraising prowess. Here is where the rubber meets the road. If the saying that he who pays the piper calls the tune is true, then the direction of the organization will be determined or limited by the largest and most influential source of funds. If Corporate America and politically-interested fundraisers write and gather the bulk of the checks necessary to fund the NAACP then it is highly doubtful that the organization will embrace the historic form of tribalism acceptable to Star; or accelerate the movement toward entrepreneurialism expected by Reuven Brenner (although the latter's expectation will probably occur to some degree regardless of fund sourcing.) But if Mr. Gordon’s search for cash is guided by a healthy respect for the current and emerging ‘market’ of lay membership, political independents and apolitical Black entrepreneurs, then it is highly likely that the agenda of the nation’s oldest and best-known civil rights groups could simultaneously reflect the economic blueprint of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and page 148 of The Force of Finance.
We shall see, and fairly soon.
Monday, June 27, 2005