I spoke this weekend at an Entrepreneurship boot camp for The Urban Philly Professional Network. The head of the organization created something I consider to be profound and promising. He regularly gathers the black entrepreneurs of Philadelphia for networking events, training and motivation for their endeavors. I am proud of him because he has shown a consistent commitment to two issues of critical importance in the black community: black people working together and black people engaging in the ownership of capital.
Black entrepreneurship is not just about money. It’s about LIBERATION. The easiest way for me to control another man is for him to know that I am the reason his kids get to eat every day. That man will do exactly what I tell him to do, when I tell him to do it, and how I tell him to do it. Historically, African-Americans have been consumers of products and sources of labor. We have rarely been in a position to own or control capital. This country’s empire of wealth was built without black participation, as our ancestors were unable to transfer assets to their children. We all know that. Slaves were a form of human capital from which our country’s foundation was created. Theft from the black community is in the trillions.
As a result of this legacy, nearly every inch of the financial capital base of American institutions is controlled by someone else: The media, corporate America, academic institutions, you name it. Fox News freely spouts racism because Rupert Murdock and others like him control media infrastructure. Universities earn over 1 billion dollars per year from the families of black athletes because HBCUs don’t have the capital base to compete for these players. Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama end up with distorted images because they’ve attempted to repair their reputations by appealing to the same institutions that destroyed their images in the first place. There are few black alternatives to media and corporate America, so our messages, leadership, outcomes and incentives are typically beyond our control. The controller of capital is the controller of destiny, so the social implications of capital ownership are vast.
The legacy of disproportionate capital acquisition also breeds a mentality in those who are controlled by capital. Some might call it the slave mentality. It affects all of us, from truck drivers to college professors. The slave mentality says your sole objective for obtaining education or skill is to work for someone else. We seek to find a job, rather than create one. Even most black doctors, lawyers and college professors fall victim to this mentality, as this is the tradition for many people of color. Risk aversion in the black community is strong enough to choke a horse, and any dreams of “going at it on your own” are squashed by relatives who encourage you to take the high paying, “prestigious” position at IBM or Stanford University.
The problem with the slave/laborer mentality is that there is a huge social price being paid when one spends his/her entire life drinking from someone else’s fountain: You are not free to pursue social justice and the platform on which you stand can be taken out from under you at a second’s notice. When injustice occurs around you, you are trained to sit silently and hope for the best. You don’t dare rely on ideas like “academic freedom”, because capitalism usually trumps idealistic concepts like democracy and freedom of speech. You can speak freely as long as it is financially convenient for the organization that controls you.
When I met with the black entrepreneurs and business owners of Philadelphia, I reminded them of the significance of their contribution to Black America. Owning a business is not about making a dollar, it’s about providing a critical supplement to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Black Entrepreneurs aren’t just finding a source of income, they are building black institutions. I reminded them that General Motors wasn’t built in a year, and that they should be proud of the trees they’ve planted, even if they are smaller than the strong, sturdy oaks around them.
There was a time when a high ranking position in the British Empire paid a lot better than joining the American Revolution. Black Entrepreneurs are the financial Harriet Tubmans of the black community: liberating people in mind, spirit and resources.
Many of us are so “blinded by the bling” that we take our eyes off the prize. Even those with high incomes remain as vulnerable as Katrina victims, as one unfortunate event can lead you to financial ruin. High income without an understanding of wealth building, diversity of resources and long-term financial stability is a recipe for financial disaster.
An understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism is critical to any social movement in America. Socially responsible financial machinery can serve to empower and sustain movements toward justice and equality. Models of entrepreneurship should be taught to every black child in America. Children should understand the nature of revenue generation, cost minimization and how business models work. The path to liberation in a capitalist democracy goes straight through Financialville. Controlling capital means controlling lives, and it’s tough to be free without it.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and founder of YourBlackWorld.com. For more information, please visit www.BoyceWatkins.com.