If you’re scared to be Black in public around your White friends, they ain’t really your friends: they’re your overseers. You Negroes aren’t fooling anyone but yourselves. Camouflaging your Blackness with silence doesn’t work. They see you. Infiltration only succeeds when you look like your opponent, and being light-skinned doesn’t count. I used to think that the Black folks in the suburbs were just richer than my family. I found out they’re just broke on a higher level. Just a larger paycheck away from the poorhouse, falling from grace out of the third-story window instead of the first floor!
Specifically, this is article is directed to the kind of African-American who, because of their riches, look with disdain on less financially solvent Blacks. Of course, no one will admit to this pathology, even if their guilt is evident. So, to be more specific, if you are Black and reading this, and your blood boiled a little at these words, take inventory: it’s probably for you. “Bougie Negroes” are a class of Blacks as old as America itself. Malcolm X referred to them as “house niggers”, but this is an oversimplification. The nuances to this behavior are far more subtle that it used to me.
To be fair, I could be considered a part of this group. My story does not read like your average “poor boy from the ghetto.” Sure, my life did start on Martin Luther King Boulevard, but because of my parents’ increasing income, that all changed in late childhood. I know how to ski…well. I am a trained horseman, and no stranger to the symphony. I am a classically trained pianist, traveled internationally by the age of four, and know my way around a rock climbing wall. My bow and arrow game is better than the average brother, I prefer venison to pork any day, and our getaway house in Leadville was most cozy. By the age of 10, I was no stranger to ‘the finer things in life.”.
But there is more to “selling out” than being successful and having nice things. It has more to do with the definition of success one accepts more than the money itself. He who defines success defines the rules of the game. Fundamentally, my mother and father (yes, I had both) never allowed corporate values to supersede spiritual virtue in my upbringing. This was a good move, because when my father lost his job, many of these ‘trappings’ went away. My father, no longer the bread-winner, then ruled the house by the force of his wisdom, not his wallet.
He modeled a powerful lesson to me: to enjoy the trappings of life, but don’t lose yourself in them. Maybe my dad couldn’t shake the lessons from the mean streets of Brooklyn. Maybe it’s because even though we “came up”, we never left metro Denver. Either way, the lesson was clear: if you lose yourself, the trappings become a trap. You’ve got to know who you are, and that knowledge was unfortunately lacking in many former slaves.
The stratification into classes happened before we left the plantation. The well-to-do, fair-skinned Blacks stayed amongst themselves, and formed societies that mirrored and rewarded White values, White features, and White culture. From the debutants balls to the Greek letter organizations, we took our cues from what high society Whites did for themselves.
Diplomatically, I don’t blame our ancestors for doing so. Who wouldn’t want a way out of White supremacy? Certainly, I paint with broad strokes here, over-simplifying for the sake of clarity, but the point remains. We as a people don’t know who we are, and are easily misled because of this. Money is a hell of a misleader.
This is why integration was so devastating. It changed the power base for the wealthy Black man. Dennis Kimbro in his book, “Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice” shows how the first Black millionaires were rich off of Black money. This made them accountable to their financial base, the Black community. They didn’t have a problem bankrolling activists and the equality struggle because no White man could fire them. During the “Cosby Era”, when I was born, a new high-salaried Negro grew to populate the landscape. These ‘high-salary Negroes’ were the product of the Pell Grant, and post-Civil Rights era education and employment policy. By the time I was born, they were forming the ski-clubs and hiking organizations…and I thank them. However, like Cosby himself, this way of life is crashing to the ground.
The housing crisis between 2008 and 2011 robbed many of these Black folks of up to 46 percent of their wealth via plunging home prices, stocks, and retirement plans. Layoffs like the one my father recovered from twenty years earlier were now assailing this upper-class of Blacks left and right. This exposed the fact that many of these Negroes who looked rich from the outside were just posing to be so. Because unlike them, the White middle class has by and large recovered from the crisis. Why is that?
Largely, it’s because of inherited asset wealth that Whites can fall back on if they lose their middle class salary. Sadly, it was this salary that was sometimes hush money for us. When you’ve adopted a lifestyle so expensive you need that job, you’re effectively a slave. Then, you don’t own the trinkets, they own you! Now, you cannot speak up if the boss is racist because the kids’ new skis are too expensive for you to get fired.
I first became aware of the rift between “elite negroes” and the rest of us during the Million Man March in 1995. Farrakhan’s words seemed to clear and true to me, but many in my own community feared him. I would sit at luncheons and banquets, hearing rich Black folk lambast his vision of unity, but their logic for doing so seemed incomplete. Was it more embarrassing to speak loudly about racism to White people, or harbor those same opinions only to fake-smile when Whites came around? The latter gave me distaste in my mouth at 14, and I vowed not to fake the funk – because fundamentally, we are only tricking ourselves. All races have their traitors among them, but only in rich Blacks do you see this much racial escapism. Observe the rich of the Asian communities. They serve as a boon and benefactor to their community, investing in the institutions therein. They are proud to show up and employ the wayward youth of their community. The Jews don’t let anyone forget they are Jewish, no matter how well paid they are. They move into their own communities and buy up the businesses from competitors, not away from their people to be mere patrons elsewhere. They do it for bragging rights. Somehow, this unconscious embarrassment about our people has got to stop.
This self-humiliation issue is why “Bougie Negroes” will often be liked by Whites, but never respected by them. In general, people respect folks who are boldly who God made them to be, period. The truth is you’ll never catch up with “Whitey”…ever. You’re just now arriving at a game he’s been winning for 500 years. He can smell your envy of him a mile away, and he uses it as bait to separate your resources from your community. You might as well pool them and help the ‘hood like every other race of rich people. Not all rich brown folks of other races re-invest in community, just the smart ones. They seem to outnumber you Negroes, exponentially.
As rich as these some of these brothers and sisters appear to be, none of them actually own transnational corporations! I’m talking about power players like Wal-Mart, Staples, and Starbucks. These juggernauts write the rules for international commerce, and without group wealth, we are done. For the rich Black man, his only long term hope for legacy is in raising up the Black (and African) community as a whole so we can preserve and grow what little we have. Other than that, you’re just the richest monkey in the room, and everybody knows it but you!