Friday, April 11, 2008

Oprah Winfrey vs. Bob Johnson: How to be a Billionaire the Non-BET Way

By Dr. Boyce Watkins

Oprah Winfrey’s support for Senator Barack Obama, while certainly admirable, has cost her some support among fans. According to a recent poll, Winfrey’s approval rating was 74% before the election, dropping to 61% after turning her support toward Obama. At the end of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, her approval rating dropped further to 55%.

I admired Oprah a great deal for stepping out in support of Senator Obama. I also knew that she would pay the greatest price for this bold political move. What surprised me about Oprah’s support for Senator Obama was the fact that she was willing to do damn near the exact opposite of what made her a billionaire: take political sides in a nasty race. She also had the audacity to support a highly qualified black man over a well-respected, powerful woman. When reporters asked me about Oprah’s decision to step out on the limb of controversy, I simply said “Damn, I thought I was the only one crazy enough to do things like that. Oprah’s going to get fried for it.”

Entertainment is based on popularity. The more of a jelly-like spine you have, the better off you’re going to be. You have to be able to move with the crowd and makes folks feel good. DL Hughley from Def Comedy Jam even appeared on several shows referring to the black women from Rutgers University as “Nappy Headed Hoes”, all so he could build a little extra fame on the back of a very serious issue. Entertainment moguls like Oprah Winfrey and Bob Johnson are the best when it comes to telling people exactly what they want to hear, and they’ve become quite wealthy for it.

But it is Oprah’s willingness to take a serious stand on critical social issues that will serve as the dividing line between the legacies of billionaires Winfrey and Johnson. Oprah will be celebrated and remembered 100 years from today. People will only think that “Bob Johnson” is the name of an exotic sex toy. Johnson’s time capsule will contain DVDs of BET (Booties, Exploitation and Thugs) videos, while Oprah’s capsule will contain pictures of the young women attending the school she built in Africa. I am not a woman, but even I am empowered by someone who stands up so firmly for women’s rights. So, I give a big “You go girl” to Oprah for doing something that many wealthy black entertainers with predominantly white audiences are not quite willing to do.

At the same time, it was Oprah’s decision to be a BLACK woman (not just a woman) and support Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton that led to the backlash from her audience. Simultaneously, it was Bob Johnson’s allegiance to Senator Clinton that led to him being compared to Uncle Ruckass, the first class Uncle Tom from the TV show “The Boondocks”. Both billionaires shifted away from their policies, and both of them are getting hammered for it.

Oprah and Bob were reminded of a valuable lesson: Popularity and politics just don’t mix.

People don’t pay their black entertainers to take political stands. They pay them to dance, sing and make jokes. One can’t wear the white suit of entertainment and swim in the dirty waters of racially-divisive American politics.

One thing I know about money is that it can empower and liberate you. The problem is that money can also enslave you. Many black professors at top white universities fear losing their precious jobs if they speak out on social injustice. So, we spend our entire careers writing research papers that no one ever reads, while a world that starves for our intellect dies around us. There are hoards of angry black middle class Americans who fear opening their mouths because they won’t be able to keep up the payments on the Lexus. We all understand, on some level, the tradeoffs that Oprah, Johnson and Obama are forced to make.

One of the great dilemmas of the black experience is that we judge one another on our ability to obtain wealth, power and popularity, three things in short supply in our community. Rather than asking WHY Bob Johnson has a billion dollars, we presume that he is a great man only BECAUSE he has a billion dollars. Our measuring stick for success is one that provides prominence and respect to those who’ve been most willing to sell their soul to obtain scarce social resources. This creates a sticky set of incentives, as we keep our eyes on the carrots while taking our eyes completely off the prize.

You (Barack Obama) can’t get elected with 13% of the vote, so you are forced to engage in a disturbing amount of diplomacy and “bridge building”. You even become the only major politician to not show up in Memphis on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. In addition, you are asked to denounce a different black male associate nearly every week, while your opponents have equally questionable affiliations that receive no attention from mainstream media.

You (Oprah Winfrey) are a TV mogul who can’t earn a billion dollars from your black audience, so you build a predominantly soccer mom constituency that will penalize you for supporting a black presidential candidate. The audience helps you pay the bills, as long as you keep feeding them more Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil without even considering building shows for many black experts across the country who DO NOT have that annoying country accent.

You (Bob Johnson) can’t quite get your message onto a mainstream TV network, so you create a network for African-Americans and spend 20 years feeding them nothing but naked women, gold grills, jock-grabbing “gangstaz” with guns and other profitable garbage. You don’t feed garbage for the survival of the network; you feed it because you want to have a billion dollars instead of 100 million. That’s what makes you a “playa”.

The sacrifices are great, and it is my argument that we should not only question the merits of the sacrifice, but also whether the rewards are as valuable as they seem. For every billion dollars of income earned by Bob Johnson, I speculate that there is at least another two billion dollars in lost productivity from a generation of kids who memorized the lyrics from “Back that Ass Up” before they began kindergarten.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider our social currency.

Does Cornel West have to be at Harvard to be important, or will we respect him at an HBCU?

If Barack Obama loses the presidency for refusing to condemn another black man, will he get as much respect from his Black Home as he would from the White House?

Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, to a measured extent, have earned my respect for putting their vast social capital on the line. As a Finance Professor, I understand Bob Johnson, since I have taught thousands of Capitalists to analyze money.

But one thing I know about money and democracy in a racist society is that if you measure your success by wealth, power and popularity, you end up with a Pandora’s Box of contradictions that keep you up all night and on the toilet all day.

Life is too short to work so hard on things that don’t matter. Perhaps we should set new standards.

Video: Dr. Boyce Watkins Speaks on Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama

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