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Wealth With a Conscience

July 25, 1999|Susan Anderson | Susan Anderson's short story "Josephine Baker at the Club Alabam" appears in the current Obsidian II: Black Literature, in Review

From Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson to television's George Jefferson, wealthy African Americans are seldom accepted on their own terms. When not satirized in the media, they are frequently portrayed as "sell-outs" who "make it" by turning their backs on their own. This negative attitude is partly traceable to sociologist E. Franklin Frazier's seminal "Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class." In his 1957 study, Frazier, himself African American, accused wealthy blacks of accepting, "unconditionally, the values of the white bourgeois world" because "they do not truly identify themselves with Negroes." Even this year's publication of "Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class," by Lawrence Otis Graham, inadvertently reinforces Frazier's attitude by focusing on superficial details of some black elite: lavish homes, parties and exclusive clubs.

In Los Angeles, notions about upper-class blacks can be especially misleading. Here the words "black wealth" usually conjure up images of professional athletes and movie stars. It doesn't help that former Laker Earvin "Magic" Johnson, owner of Johnson Development Corp., makes headlines with every business deal. But while you may not have sipped coffee at the La Tijera Plaza Starbucks, in which Johnson has a stake, or seen a film at the Magic Johnson Theatres at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, you have probably relied, at one time or another, on a Thomas Guide. When Warren B. Wilson, an African American entrepreneur, retired and sold Thomas Bros. Maps to Rand McNally earlier this year, he was sole proprietor of the 200-employee firm with annual sales of $25 million.

The easy focus on celebrity money, ignorance of the long history of black enterprise and lingering skepticism about the racial loyalties of rich black folks--all combine to obscure the truth about black wealth and business ownership in Southern California.

To most people, black business means mom and pop stores, barbecue stands and barber shops located in the 'hood. These businesses certainly contribute to individual prosperity and neighborhood economies, as well as to local culture. Central Avenue, in its heyday of African American life, represented this kind of vitality. Today, the shops, art galleries, jazz clubs and small merchants located in Leimert Park also offer evidence of a thriving community, in which employment, home ownership and incomes are stable and high.

But the largest black-owned companies aren't to be found in historically black neighborhoods. Instead, they are spread around Los Angeles--in the South Bay, the financial district, in beach communities, downtown and in manufacturing zones. Black entrepreneurs are in high-tech, garment manufacturing, personal services, aluminum processing and distribution, and aerospace. Los Angeles is the only metropolitan area with three sizable black-owned banks; African Americans own and operate construction-equipment suppliers, major auto dealerships, architecture firms, art galleries and insurance and realty firms. L.A. is also home to the "granddaddy" of large black U.S. companies, C.H. James and Son, Inc., established in 1883.

The fact is, more high-income blacks live in Los Angeles County than anywhere else. A growing number of them own businesses and assets that comprise real wealth. The most recent Census figures show that there are 32,645 black-owned businesses in the county, with total revenue of more that $3.6 billion and 25,082 employees.

These companies are run by African American entrepreneurs who not only successfully compete in the open market and create wealth, but also give back to their communities. The range of their community, civic and charitable involvement is wide. According to Patricia Means, publisher of Turning Point magazine and a member of the board of the Jenessee Center shelter for battered women and children, these entrepreneurs exhibit "a commitment to not only do good for [themselves], but to do good for the community. It comes from tradition. We have been taught to reach back and help somebody. You're not successful if you don't."

They are living proof that Frazier's generalizations about the black bourgeoisie are outdated.

Compared with other companies, a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shows, black businesses "were more likely to participate in programs to assist young people, welfare recipients and individuals from high-poverty neighborhoods." Indeed, a distinguishing mark of many black-owned companies is a dedication to diversity in their work forces. For example, out of 40 employees at Bazile Metals Service, with annual sales of $15 million, 60% are African American, 35% Latino and 5% white. President Barry Bazile also operates Welfare to Work Partners, a nonprofit that provides education, training and jobs for low-income participants.

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