Building Black wealth
Johnson speaks at Mackinac Policy Conference:
‘Put more wealth in the hands of African Americans’
By C. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen
MACKINAC — There is not just a wealth gap between African Americans and white America but also a median income disparity and persistent Black unemployment.
Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), described the growing wealth divide at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference.
The conference brings together Michigan’s corporate leaders, public officials and business professionals. This year the conference focus included culture change, education policy and the 21st century global market.
Black unemployment statistics have “been this way for 50 years,” Johnson said. He added that the majority of children from Black families who were “solidly middle class in the 1960s and 70s” will never attain the wealth of their parents.
Johnson urged attendees to create opportunities for Black Americans and support his program to end payday lending. He encouraged “business solutions for social problems.”
Johnson says African American “individuals, entrepreneurs, employees are just as dedicated, hardworking and committed to building wealth for themselves and their families as everyone else.
“The disparity between African Americans who have these attributes and white Americans who have these same attributes has continued to widen, and that is a disturbing problem that will continue to confront this country.”
Johnson says his personal story changed when an investor gave him a chance by investing in BET. The investor bought 20 percent of his company and, through the years, loaned money to the company rather than insisting on more equity.
In 2001, Viacom bought BET for $2.3 billion.
When Johnson asked the investor why he did not buy more equity in the company, the investor said, “I always knew you would work harder for yourself than you would for me.”
Johnson says, despite the fact he did not know anything about cable and had no experience running a business, his life trajectory was changed because someone with capital gave him an opportunity.
He wants African Americans to be a part of that American “economic engine.”
“Figure out the right way to enter in a relationship that would create an opportunity,” Johnson urged the audience.
He suggested attendees adopt his policy that does not require government regulation. The billionaire business magnate noted that the United States’ current partisan environment would not allow for legal remedy for African Americans that could include affirmative action or set asides.
Johnson instead asked for the companies to employ “enhanced best practices.”
He suggested corporations interview at least two minority candidates for jobs and do the same for contractors and vendors. Johnson says leaders should focus on creating a “pipeline” of people.
“The only way African Americans are going to get to scale in small business is to get more work,” said Johnson, who also says we need more Black CEOs.
To this end, Johnson launched OppsPlace, a Black digital network that can connect corporations with potential employees and small business owners.
Johnson also said he wants to compete with payday lenders and put them out of business. Unable to accumulate savings, payday lending reinforces Black poverty, Johnson says.
“The impact on the Black family can be debilitating,” said Johnson who remembers his parents visiting the “loan man” to solve short-term financial emergencies.
Johnson says he will begin a wage advance program, partner with banks and provide lending at lower rates. To qualify for low interest rates, the program would offer financial literacy tests, saving account bonuses and on-time payment rewards with lower rates.
Johnson says he wants to “put money back into people’s pockets” and his ideas will help the “fastest growing segments of the population.”
To do nothing about the economic disparity is detrimental to the nation, he added. It takes consumers out of the marketplace and will create higher taxes “to pay for people out of work.”
RLJ Lodging Trust, Johnson’s Real Estate Investment Trust, owns over 147 hotels. Eight are in Michigan, including hotels in Benton Harbor, Detroit, Pontiac and Southfield. He has also invested in 38 car dealership franchises with over $1 billion in sales.
Johnsons says some of his first BET hires came from Detroit and included Charlie Neal, “Video Soul” host Donnie Simpson and Ed Gordon.
To hear Johnson’s speech or any presentations from the Mackinac Conference, visit www.mivote.org.