Meet the Newbos

by Guest Contributor Jesse Singal, originally published at CampusProgress.org

Newbos: The Rise of America’s New Black Overclass, a one-hour CNBC documentary examining megarich black entrepreneurs which premiered last night, comes at an odd time. Hosted by Lee Hawkins of The Wall Street Journal (who is also a CNBC contributor), the show emphasizes the tremendous successes a select group of African-Americans have had in the sports and entertainment industries, but does so during a period in which African-Americans as a whole—along with just about every other demographic—are suffering immensely as a result of the United States’ collapsing economy. Why, then, focus an hour on stories of stratospheric accomplishment, some of which have as much to do with freakish distributions of natural talent as business savvy? Don’t we have more important things to learn about race and wealth, especially given that African-Americans were disproportionately affected by the subprime mortgage crisis?

Newbos could have overcome these troublesome questions if it had explained something novel about how race and wealth interact in America, or if it had advanced some bold new argument about what it means to be rich and African-American. Unfortunately, it does neither. In many regards, Newbos instead follows in the footsteps of the chronically ill and chronically myopic economic reporting that failed to predict the current collapse (a lot of which emanated from, ahem, CNBC). This reporting—which often looked more like cheerleading—was fixated on success stories, treated “millionaires created” as one of the only meaningful economic metrics, and decided not to bother tackling that whole pesky inequality thing. Newbos, despite the occasional noteworthy nugget, makes all the same blunders: It celebrates black entrepreneurship and focuses on some of the obstacles that very successful African-Americans must overcome, but refuses to face or address any of the real issues related to wealth distribution and race.

Hawkins, who devoted three years to researching and writing an upcoming book with the same title, devotes chunks of the hour to interviews with and examinations of NBA superstar LeBron James, Major League Baseball star Torii Hunter, gospel singer Kirk Franklin, BET founder and Charlotte Bobcats majority owner Robert Johnson, NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, and, as a pair, brothers Ronald Slim and Bryan “Baby” Williams, the CEOs of Cash Money Records.

These interviews have some interesting moments. James exudes selflessness when he discusses how he hopes his success opens doors for those around him, how he wants the legacy of the management company he founded, LRMR Marketing, to reflect not just his own influence as a basketball player, but the hard work of the talented roster of African-American businesspeople who built it from the ground up. Johnson talks about the “loneliness” that comes from being one of only two African-American billionaires (Oprah Winfrey is the other). And Slim and Williams discuss the importance of diversifying their business interests in order to survive the tough economic times to come (the two have dipped into the seemingly endless market for ring tones, and have signed the artist Kevin Rudolf, who is closer to rock than rap, to their hip-hop label).

There’s a thinness to all of this, however, because a lot is left unsaid. Every one of these success stories is undoubtedly inspiring in its own way. But we don’t hear much about what’s new here. Michael Jordan rewrote the rules of what it means to be a megarich African-American superstar 20 years ago, and was in certain key regards the first such star to see himself not just as a successful athlete or singer, but as a marketing asset to be built up over time. How are things different now? More importantly, Hawkins doesn’t show much interest in looking at the systemic inequalities and dysfunctions that continue to plague African-Americans to this day.

The easy response to this is: Well, it’s CNBC. The network covers business and businesspeople. Social commentary isn’t its thing. But the intersection of race and class is about as fraught a topic as you can get. We live in a country in which race-based inequality is, and always has been, a pressing human-rights issue. Whether or not this falls under CNBC or Hawkins’ “beat,” the exclusion of a serious discussion of any of this means only a tiny fraction of the intended story is told.

The one time Newbos brushes up against these topics comes not from Hawkins or any of the famous interview subjects, but from a kid in a youth group Franklin (the gospel singer) heads at his church. He tells a heartbreaking story about how, when he told his teacher he wanted to go to law school, she immediately cut him off and told him it wasn’t going to happen. This is a far more revealing, affecting moment than anything else that occurs during the documentary. It’s a brief glimpse at the complicated structures and institutions that undergird inequality, which, other than during this brief moment, never get more than a passing glance.

Another curious aspect of the show is the lack of any female African-American success stories. Obviously there are some—though not enough—and obviously their stories would have added an extra layer of interest to some already wrought issues. Hawkins mentions Oprah plenty (how could he not?), but she doesn’t garner her own segment, and no other successful female African-Americans come up. Why not discuss Beyoncé? Or, perhaps more interestingly, Gwen Ifill? Or how about Tyra Banks, Kimora Lee Simmons, or Sheila Johnson? For a documentary already hampered by its narrow level of focus, the exclusion of any female presence hurts.

Newbos tells us very little about race and class, and it tells us very little that is new or useful about rich African-Americans. What it does tell us, albeit inadvertently, is that the CNBCs of the world don’t seem to have quite learned their lesson. We’re living through what some are calling the biggest economic crisis in eight decades, and during every step of the run-up to it we were presented with smiling images of successful, recent millionaires and billionaires. We were told that they were paragons of the entrepreneurial spirit, of the potential of the free market, of the value of hard work. And in many senses they were. But as the cameras lingered on them and their lavish lifestyles, ignoring the alarming, widening gap between rich and poor, the unsustainable system that many of them exploited began to fall apart, taking us all with it. Newbos, rather than turning against these rose-colored tendencies for what could have been an important discussion on wealth and race, has instead embraced them. The timing could not be worse.

Jesse Singal is an Associate Editor at Campus Progress.

(Photo Credit: CNBC)