Thursday, September 28, 2006

African Americans Are No Longer the Flavor Of the Month…Not Even Among African Americans

Billionaire Bob Johnson, former CEO of BET and the first African American majority owner of an NBA Team, will lead a group of African-American leaders to Liberia to facilitate at least $30 million of direct investments in the country's infrastructure, health, education and agriculture.

"I had the privilege of meeting with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and I am anxious to work with President Clinton's Global Initiative to support President Johnson-Sirleaf's leadership of Liberia as it recovers from more than 10 years of civil war," Johnson says. "The goal of our commitment is for Liberia to become an economic and social success that will benefit all Liberians."

Johnson's delegation will form the basis of an organization whose goals are as follows: 1. To establish a permanent interest group of African Americans to re-ignite the long-term historical ties between African Americans and the people of Liberia; 2. To form a permanent organization headed by African Americans to advocate on behalf of Liberia for greater support from the United States government and the US business community; and to further awaken African American interest in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa.

First let me say that Johnson is championing a very worthy cause: there are many African nations that need aid. Africa has been and continues to be stripped of its natural and human resources, and the help that is finally going to one of Africa’s nations is long overdue.

However, I find it both interesting and bit troubling that Bob Johnson, an African American billionaire, has taken it upon himself to gather a group of African American leaders to invest $30 million oversees instead of investing in the African American community's infrastructure, health, education and agriculture. Can you imagine the impact that $30 million could have on the African American populations of Newark, Detroit, or the Delta region in Mississippi? The total $30 million investment could be split evenly between those three regions and still pay for serious improvements for the African Americans living there.

Why would Bob Johnson overlook the plight of his own to aid people from another country? If he simply views Liberia as a place where people need help (in similar fashion to Bill Clinton, the Gates Family and Richard Branson), then this is simply a noble cause, and Johnson should be praised for his efforts. However, nothing is that simple. I have to believe that the former CEO of Black Entertainment Television, at some point in his decision-making process, thought about investing in the African American community only to decide otherwise.

I once heard Tavis Smiley say that African Americans are no longer the flavor of the month, referring to the idea that the African American cause is no longer in vogue. I can’t help but view Bob Johnson’s latest investment through the lens of Smiley’s comment.

As we move further away from the civil rights era, it is easy to find some truth in Smiley’s reference in the political forum. I have come to understand Smiley’s reference as fact and have grown to accept it, no matter how much I despise the idea of my people receiving help when it is politically opportune.

I am somewhat surprised at Johnson. I would have hoped that he would invest much needed dollars into our poor urban communities before he would invest oversees. While I am sure that he has made some financial commitments to the African American community in the past, I doubt those investments had either the dollar amount ($30 million) or symbolism (African American leaders investing said $30 million) that his Liberian investment possesses.

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