Monday, April 14, 2008


This article hits home about
The State of the Black Union: When Money and Activism Don't Quite Mix

When reading Tavis Smiley-related blogger comments on YourBlackWorld, I actually started to feel sorry for Tavis. Not since Milly Vanilly have I seen a brother lose so many fans so fast. His attacks on Barack Obama were about as popular as Cheeseburger flavored Ice Cream, and the brother was going down hard. It’s one thing when your enemies hate your guts (i.e. the racist viewers on Fox News), but it’s another thing when your old friends are feeding your kidneys to the family dog.
I didn’t hate Tavis for being hard on Obama, since I happen to believe that healthy skepticism is….well….healthy. Obama-mania is a frightening reminder of the same support Clarence Thomas received during his Senate Confirmation in 1991, and we all know how that one turned out.
Rather than being concerned with the fact that Tavis was attacking Barack, I was more concerned about WHY Tavis might have been attacking Barack. As a Financial Expert, I am trained to always sniff out the money trail. If you ever want to know why a hooker hooks, why a politician lies or why a doctor rejects a patient…..the money trail is always a good place to start.
When I studied the money trail being left by Tavis Smiley’s Superman cape, I saw things that gave me cause for grave concern. One of which was the following:
Hillary Clinton is on the board of Walmart.
One of Tavis Smiley's biggest sponsors is Walmart.
Tavis Smiley just happens to be a lot nicer to Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama.
Oh yeah, Tavis gets a percentage of Bill Clinton’s book sales.
While I am not ready to accuse Tavis of any wrong-doing, I can’t help but wonder how Walmart might have reacted if Smiley had launched the same verbal ass whooping on Hillary Clinton that he did on Barack Obama. The idea that such an attack on Mrs. Clinton would have possibly jeopardized Smiley’s sponsorship is certainly not out of the question.
This led me to reflect further on the sponsorship of the State of the Black Union. The State of the Black Union had achieved almost sacred status in the black community. Smiley had the brilliant foresight to put together a political gathering in which African-Americans could map out our destiny, hear thoughts and ideas from excellent thinkers, and put together a set of policies and expectations not unlike those created during congressional gatherings on Capitol Hill.
If the goal of the State of the Black Union is to present itself as a political forum, one must spend time carefully considering the implications of corporate sponsors, if such sponsors are necessary, and who those sponsors should be. Imagine seeing an ad stating that “The State of the Union Address given by President Bush was brought to you by McDonalds, Al-Qaeda and Petroleos de Venezuela”. As ridiculous as it may sound, that is exactly what you have when all money is green and good, and there is no accountability regarding who is allowed to provide sponsorship, who collects the money and the form by which that sponsorship is provided. In light of the peculiar financing structure used to support the State of the Black Union, one wonders if the Obama shake up was actually a public shake down. Was he attacked for lack of accountability to the black community or for refusing to kiss the pinky ring of King Tavis?
Race matters in America. However, race matters are minimal compared to MONEY matters. America is more capitalist than it is democratic, it is more capitalist than it is religious and it is certainly more capitalist than it is racist. Wealth is, arguably, the single most important factor in the obtainment of influence in this country. Universities sell their souls by admitting (and not graduating) unprepared students to earn billions via NCAA sports. Doctors force patients to decide which life saving surgery they can afford to purchase. Many churches sold just a little slice of Jesus in order to expand the collection plate with faith based initiatives. Young kids are dying in Iraq to fill the bank accounts of dirty old executives. Many powerful black lawyers, doctors and professors are afraid to speak honestly about racism because it might jeopardize their job security.
Money can clearly liberate you in a capitalist society. The problem is that it can also enslave you. Few are better at raising dollars “for the cause” than Tavis Smiley, who has obtained a massive collection of corporate sponsors for his forums. It is the ability to obtain sponsors and major media outlets, and little more, that makes Smiley the broker of African-American perspectives to the broader community. I don’t doubt Smiley’s commitment to black people. But when the very institutions you are fighting are the ones financing the war, you eventually lose both the will to fight and the capability. You and your adversary have become the same, and you can’t hurt one without slaughtering the other.
One must look no further than many third world countries, where leaders are paid handsomely to allow companies to extract resources without compensating the people. When companies accused of abuses or discrimination are the first to line up to sponsor The State of the Black Union, the first question that must be asked is “why?” It is usually cheaper for a firm to market their good behavior than it is to actually engage in good behavior. A $50,000 donation with a $5 Million dollar marketing campaign goes a lot further than a $5 million dollar donation with $50,000 in marketing. Conversely, a firm like Wells Fargo, who has been accused of stealing the homes of poor people and those of color through predatory lending, may find that a donation to Tavis Smiley goes a lot further than the high cost of actually helping these people keep their homes in the first place.
This is not, again, to imply that Tavis Smiley, Tom Joyner or anyone else is doing anything illegal or unethical. It is to say that the noble ambitions of many freedom fighters in history have become tainted by choosing the wrong sponsors for their endeavors. What lies in your heart matters far less than what you actually do. The more you allow those with contradictory incentives to hold a stake in your behavior, the more your intentions and actions become misaligned. To the extent that forums such as That State of the Black Union are critical to the leadership infrastructure of the black community, then sponsorship accountability becomes an issue moralistic security.
In other words, a payment comes with a debt and some degree of control. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, even if it’s soul food.
posted by Boyce Watkins at 11:49 AM

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