Mar 24, 2009

That Ole Black Magic

NBA icon and celebrated entrepreneur Earvin "Magic" Johnson has been the poster child for how to successfully transition from being a professional athlete into a meaningful and lucrative post-athletic life. During his playing days for the Los Angeles Lakers Magic stood atop the league, winning five titles in the 1980s, and helping to transform the game from a boutique urban sport into a global phenomena in the process. In my book, were it not for a cat named Michael Jordan, Magic would be the best to ever play the game. His place in the sport's annals is unquestioned. Magic was THE MAN on the court in no uncertain terms.

More recently, Magic has gained a reputation as a very successful businessman. His association with companies like Starbucks, AMC Theaters, and T.G.I. Friday's has helped to create recognizable brand name establishments in the minority communities of several cities throughout the country. Through all of this, Magic has come to be highly regarded in media circles for his business acumen, so much so that he recently released a book, 32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business. While the book's title obviously plays off of his Lakers' jersey number, 32, and his many championship rings, it also describes Magic as both an "entrepreneur" and "community leader."

Through the years, Magic has also become quite visible in political circles, though on this front he has committed some turnovers. Magic endorsed Jim Hahn in the 2001 Los Angeles mayorial race over strong challenger Antonio Villaraigosa. Hahn won the race, aided by a racially provocative drug commercial used against his challenger, but quickly fell out of favor and was soundly defeated by Villaraigosa in the 2005 rematch. By this time, Magic--like Don King, who once walked into the ring with Joe Frazier and left with the victor George Foreman--was now on Villaraigosa's side.

Last year though Magic was a visible supporter of Hillary Clinton in her bid for the White House. I don't have to tell you how that one turned out. As one of the most well known African Americans in the country, Magic, along with a number of other visible African American Clinton supporters, like that cultural slumlord Bob Johnson, was ass-out when it became clear that the nation had decided to go in a different direction and elect its first black president. This was not a good look on Magic's part and not because I think that every black person should automatically support all black candidates just because of their race; quite the contrary. But when you build your name as a celebrity entrepreneur and "community leader" then it would seem to suggest that your political support might fall to a historic African American candidate who himself was formerly a community activist. Yet Magic apparently owed debts of political gratitude to the Clintons that had to be repaid. Such indebtedness left Magic and these other supporters with fried egg on their face when it was clear that Obama would be the victor.

Magic Johnson Enterprises has the motto of "We Are the Communities We Serve." Yet some recent business decisions are starting to generate pointed questions about Magic's real relationship to "the community." This attention is starting to bring some criticisms that are quite different than the seemingly universal public praise he has tended to enjoy on the business front. Recent professional affiliations find Magic in bed with companies like Rent-A-Center, the rent to own furniture stores and Jackson Hewitt, the tax preparers. Rent-A-Center has long been criticized for price gouging, charging their poor, credit challenged customers excessively inflated prices for their goods under a dubious scheme know as "rent to own." Likewise Jackson Hewitt has come under scrutiny for their "Money Now Loan," a excessively high interest tax refund loan that, again, has been criticized for preying on low income minority residents. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that both Rent-A-Center and Jackson Hewitt are operating in a similar manner to those dreadful sub prime mortgage lenders, albeit on a much smaller scale.

In an country where black entrepreneurs have long been stymied by the inequalities of the system, Magic's success is to be lauded. He is undoubtedly a very successful black businessman now. This success is underscored by numerous stories about black professional athletes who have squandered their finances in a variety of ways, both extravagant and frivolous. Further, Magic has succeeded by bringing businesses to minority communities that are especially under served. All in all this appears to be a win win situation for everyone involved, Magic, the community, and the corporate partners. In this case you have both financial success along with social and civic responsibility. What more could you want, right?

Perhaps we can ponder the nature of the businesses that Magic is now endorsing though? Are you really doing anything for "the community" if the corporate interests that you are in business with exploit the poor minorities that populate your customer base? If you are the community that you serve then wouldn't you be more sensitive to such potentially exploitative relationships? In other words, Magic ain't shoppin' at Rent-A-Center, trust me! I doubt seriously if he's getting his taxes prepared by Jackson Hewitt either. Are you serving these people or are you servin' them like the dope dealers who say they are servin' their customers?

I wouldn't be saying all of this if there wasn't this overriding theme of racial empowerment being used to promote Magic's business success. If you say you just want to make money, by all means. But if you promote yourself as a "community leader" then I have expectations that you are actually doing something for the community in question besides ripping them off like everyone else before you has done. The fact that the jackin' is being done now in black face makes it that much more egregious.

I have long felt the same way about media charlatan Tavis Smiley, who was foamin' at the mouth while asking Magic about his mother's peach cobbler--or what it pound cake?--during a recent interview to discuss Magic's book. Tavis has for some years now walked the track for one of the biggest macks in the game, none other than that magnificent pimp known as Walmart. Yet, like Magic, Smiley also promotes himself as a community leader, along with regularly touting his success in business. It could be argued that both Magic and Tavis are leading their communities alright, leading them to be further exploited or better yet, leading them straight to the choppin' block.

What Magic Johnson has done is use his name and the celebrity he developed playing the game of basketball to become a very successful figure in his post NBA life. Considering again that this is the exception and far from the rule, he should be applauded vigorously. I would much rather read about Magic's business success than Latrell Sprewell's boat getting repossessed or Mike Tyson having blown all of his many millions. Yet it is important to be evenhanded in assessing such success. I am less impressed by Magic's overall business acumen. Has he really created anything or has he simply taken advantage of a spectacular NBA career in parlaying his name as a brand, using "the community" as willing dupes while he fattens his own pockets at their expense?

According to Tavis, one must be "accountable" right? Well it's time that we start holding this recent cycle of poverty pimpin' to higher standards. I get leery anytime I hear someone start talking about what they are doing for "the community." That's such a easy hook. As Magic himself likes to say, "don't talk about it, be about it." If you say that you are working for the community than many people give you the benefit of the doubt and unquestionably support you. Yet the history of racism and class manipulation in this society is such that the line between serving and exploiting the community is a very thin line indeed.

Just because the face of the potential exploiters is black doesn't mean that the act of exploitation is any more forgivable. Beware of community entrepreneurs in sheep's clothing. The Willie Dynamites of the world may have dropped their full length fur coats, glass heels, and "Diamond in the Back" Eldorodos from times past, but the re-mixed version can be just as lethal now with the "I'm down for the community" rhetorical hustle if left unchecked.

Mar 20, 2009

The Cool Presidency and The Dumbest Guys in the Room

President Obama's historic appearance on Jay Leno last night was another prominent gesture that indicated once again just how different Obama's presidency is from his predecessors. The ease which with Obama interacts with pop culture is one of the many things that helps to make him our first "cool" president.

I realize that Slick Willie Clinton helped make a name for himself back in the day by appearing on Arsenio Hall, wearing his dark Ray Bans, while playing his axe, not to mention his love of all things Hollywood while in office, but I still think that Obama's relationship to pop culture operates differently. Clinton always seemed to be seeking Hollywood's approval to me. I didn't get the impression that he ever watched Arsenio Hall, though he did recognize that appearing on the show at the time was good for votes. He was not cool as much as he wanted to use his relationship with Hollywood to make himself seem cool by association. If anything Clinton seemed fascinated that his power allowed him to mingle with those of the Hollywood elite. Forgive me, but it's hard to associate cool with someone who originally hails from Hope Arkansas.

On the other hand, Obama is so cool that he can go on Leno and make fun of all the seemingly unnecessary traps of power that now accompany his every move since becoming president. The joke about "life in the bubble" and the fact that the Secret Service wouldn't let him walk 750 yards to check out the venue he was scheduled to speak in was hilarious; especially the part about the doctor walking behind him with the defibrillator. Obama's laughter here seemed to indicate how absurd he thought all of this pomp and circumstance really is.

Perhaps the best indication of how cool Obama is involves his recent appearance sitting courtside, drinking a brew, while watching his Chicago Bulls stink up the joint against the Washington Wizards a few weeks ago.

I remember Slick Willie sitting in a luxury box above the action while watching his home state University of Arkansas Razorbacks win the NCAA basketball title back in 1994. Obama is a real b-ball fan who knows that the action looks a lot better from a floor seat than it does from a box.

Yes, a real b-ball fan can comfortably fill out his Final Four brackets on television, not worrying about who might be offended by his selections. In case you missed it, Duke's Coach K seemed to be annoyed in his comments regarding Obama's selection of K's arch rival the North Carolina Tar Heels as eventual NCAA champs. Obama knows that by picking any team to win it might be read as showing favoritism, but he's real enough to know that acting like he supports every team just because he is supposed to looks fake. He's a fan, so he is able to remain a fan, without compromising his day job. Slick Willie, a man so calculated and political that he smoked weed but managed not to inhale and once famously asked what the meaning of "is" is, would never have been so confident as to allow himself the space to demonstrate his true love for the game of b-ball without consulting his pollsters first. (By the way, Coach K, stay in your lane! You weren't going to win the title anyway.)

While the Leno appearance and filling out the Final Four brackets has demanded a great deal of attention this week, it is the bonuses being paid to AIG executives that has dominated the news. I would be remiss if I didn't deal with this here also.

To me, a big part of the problem with the arrogance and greed of corporate America lies in often uttered phrases like "the smartest guys in the room" as it pertains to the so-called financial wizards of Wall Street. I'm sorry but if these Wall Street casino capitalists were actually smart then the economy wouldn't be in the shape that it is in now. The system in place let these idiots run amok, so much so that they ruined everything in sight. They had the green light and they took it, even when the light had turned red. Since the dawn of the Reagan counter revolution the casino capitalists have had free reign to do what they wanted to do. They were never really that smart, though they might have been slick. Now that the world's economy is the hot mess that it is, the smartest guys in the room look like the dumbest clowns on earth.

The first time I remember hearing the phrase in question was in relationship to Enron executives like George W. Bush's now conveniently deceased homie Kenny Boy, Kenneth Lay, and Jeffrey Skilling. They were so smart that they built a Fortune 500 company on sleight of hand, not unlike Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme. The current global economic crisis came about for the same reasons that both Enron and Madoff were eventually exposed, devious crooks with a license to steal bluffed so much that it became evident after a while that they weren't even playing with cards anymore. All of this reminds me of that old Wayans Brothers' Homeboys Shopping Network skit where Damon's claims of mo' money, mo' money, where laughable because his nonsense was so transparent. The difference is, we knew that Damon was clowin', but the casino capitalists could hide behind this smartest guys in the room foolishness until it was almost too late.

Much of what passes for business on Wall Street is nothing more than the equivalent of legal crack dealing. The only difference is, if they catch you with a small amount of crack they send to jail and throw away the key, if you damn near bankrupt the globe, they give you a bonus. Again, it's not about being smart, it's about being slick. These are two different things. If people wouldn't accord these crooks so much deference then maybe we could see clearly that what they are doing is nothing more than what a gambler does at a crap table, play a game of chance where sometimes you do indeed get lucky. Maybe if we raise our standards for what qualifies as smart then we'll avoid investing so much power in the hands of casino capitalists who mistake greed for intelligence.

Mar 9, 2009

The Goon Hand

The story involving pop stars Chris Brown, Rihanna, and allegations of domestic violence has gotten a lot of attention ever since it was first reported the night of The Grammys. Two young successful stars, both with "clean cut" images, who were in a relationship, had a nasty encounter on the night before they were set to perform on the music industry's biggest stage. Such a scenario was most certainly going to generate endless conversation.

Had the people involved been two hard core rappers, for instance, there might have been conversation, for sure, but people wouldn't be experiencing the shock and awe that has accompanied the Chris Brown and Rihanna story. My point is, Brown and Rihanna are supposedly "clean cut" and for this reason it seems that some people bought into the hype of a loving, young, Hollywood couple, so the revelation of truth as it pertains to domestic friction seemed to defy this constructed image.

There has been much said about the incident from a variety of people and perspectives. Recently I ran across an article in the Detroit Free Press by columnist Rochelle Riley. Riley's point, to the extent that there is one, has to do with insisting that Chris Brown be treated like a criminal if he is found guilty of assaulting his girlfriend. The undercurrent of the piece is that Brown may indeed get off easy because of his celebrity.

Did I miss something? When did young black men ever find themselves getting favorable treatment in the court of law? Is there a precedent for this? If so, I need proof, because the last I checked there was a disproportionate number of young black men filling up this nation's ever profitable penitentiaries. I have news for the columnist, if Chris Brown is found guilty you have nothing to worry about, he will be treated like all other young black men charged of such crimes. If Brown does manage to shake free it will be because he has the money to work the court system, not because of his race. Trust me.

Honestly, I have tried to stay out of this. But of course, every time I get out they pull me right back in! I hate what passes for R & B these days. I don't listen to either Chris Brown or Rihanna, which helps explain my general indifference. Further, these celebrity spats are always more than meets the eye, particularly when such shenanigans involve couples. There are so many orchestrated relationships in Hollywood, along with other co-dependent relationships in general these days that it ain't even funny. Not to mention, what really goes on? Rumors suggest all sort of things. Who knows, really, other than CB and his boo?

I am not defending CB for using his goon hand, but I am not immediately making her into a saint either. That old notion about a man should never hit a woman is ultimately rooted in a system of patriarchy which assumes women to be inherently weaker than men. Yet women are not inherently weaker than men and these days many women are indeed quite a bit stronger; physically, financially, emotionally, and otherwise. To automatically default into this type of thinking, where women are perpetual victims, is to recycle old ideas about essential masculinity and femininity without examining the larger issues at work here.

Domestic abuse is wrong, no matter who the perpetrator is. Yet if pictures of Chris Brown had come back looking like those infamous photos of a battered Rihanna, people would be laughing at him for getting his ass beat by a young woman. There would be no sympathy, no mournful cries of utter sadness as it pertains to domestic violence, no, there would be rampant laughter and Saturday Night Live skits. Stand up comedians would have a field day. Brown would never be able to live this down. If you don't believe me, go ask Lionel Richie. The name Brenda Richie still prompts laughter to this day, though it was many years ago that she beat down both Lionel and the proverbial other woman.

Which brings me to this story about Geno Hayes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Hayes was stabbed twice by his girlfriend recently. She stabbed him once in the head with a pair of scissors and then after Hayes managed to wrest the scissors from her hands, she picked up a knife and stabbed him in the neck.

I doubt seriously if Hayes generates the type of coverage that CB and Rihanna have generated. Of course Hayes is not popular and his girlfriend is not a celebrity either, in spite of this, Hayes is going to be a pretty visible target and the source for much clowin' once he gets back to the locker room or stares across the field at an opposing player who wants to talk trash. There will be no sympathy for Geno Hayes. None. Why, because most people are not going to feel sympathetic for a 6'1 226 pound NFL player getting stabbed by a 19 year old woman. In the end, many will probably assume that he deserved it.

Let me be clear, because I already know that some people are going to try to make this out to be something other that what it is. I am not condoning domestic violence against women, nor am I making it out to be less than what it is. If CB is found guilty of attacking Rihanna he will be dealt with accordingly. I know that for many Rihanna represents abused women everywhere and again I understand and can appreciate the sentiments. But I am also saying that domestic violence against women won't stop until we rethink our whole approach to the issue.

To put hands on anyone is problematic in my book, be it parents using corporeal punishment on their children or men abusing their wives. In a perfect world, one wouldn't need violence, but in an imperfect world like the one we live in, violence is a reality, an unfortunate one, but a reality nonetheless.

Violent actions often occur in the heat of an emotional moment. Chris Brown shouldn't be using his girlfriend as a punching bag and Geno Hayes' girlfriend shouldn't be stabbing him either. Yet situations like this happen all the time, it's just that the people involved are not always celebrities or professional athletes so it doesn't always make the news.

Violence is learned behavior. The only way to stop it is to unlearn it. Yet until we figure out how to move away from old ideas about gender roles and start to rethink the way that violence factors into our personal and familial lives nothing will ever change on this front.