BET founder and billionaire entrepreneur Bob Johnson is calling for $14 trillion for Black Americans as compensation for slavery, part of an effort to shrink the wealth gap between African Americans and their white counterparts.
In an exclusive interview with The Washington Informer, Johnson said he came to the sum of $14 trillion through several factors.
“Your home, your savings, your work income, and how much you would spend for education — we put those things together and it came up that white Americans had about $357,000 in what we call net wealth on average,” Johnson said. “And then when we look at African Americans in those same categories, we are about 60 percent below the average white American.”
Johnson said he arrived at $14 trillion by figuring $357,000 for each of the 40 million African American households. He said this wouldn’t be a lump sum, but a figure that could be paid out over 10, 20 or 30 years.
Johnson isn’t just calling for reparations for the poor, but for the wealthy as well.
“You don’t segregate out and say not the rich, only the poor Black people,” he said. “That’s the whole problem that exists … is that you separate us … that goes back to slavery. Divide and rule.
“Give it to Robert Smith, who is worth $3 or $4 billion,” he said. “Give it to Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z and Beyonce. They are descendants of slaves. When the lash came down on other people’s parents, it was the same lash that came down on theirs.”
Johnson said all Black Americans are due damages, which isn’t to be confused with justice.
“You can’t put a number on what you call true justice,” he said. “How do you put a number on somebody who was tossed off a slave ship in the Atlantic, somebody who was raped, somebody who was whipped every day? … What is justice for that? But it ends up being, is there a number to bring us equal to what everybody else in this country has?”
Johnson said that’s where damages come in. To provide compensation for losses and suffering.
“In the case of slaves, it was loss of their economic benefit and of course lots of suffering. That’s why I’m advocating money, not a social program, not another bureaucracy, not another poverty program. Show me the money.”
In Johnson’s manifesto that he released to the public he asserts that reparations aren’t unprecedented abroad or even in the United States.
“It has been done. The Germans provided reparations for Jews. The country apologized and gave reparations to Japanese Americans when they were in internment camps during World War II. Even the American Indians, the almost total annihilation they suffered at the hands of white settlers and white people … they were given their reservation land.”
“So reparations is a standard thing that is done to repair damages for people, but it’s usually done by the people who have the power to do it.”
The reparations conversation by people in power isn’t new. But up until recently, it’s been what most consider lip service on an issue that divides Americans by color and political party.
Last summer, Congress held a historic hearing to consider H.R. 40, a bill that would create a commission to address the lingering effects of slavery and serve as an “apology.”
Prominent Black figures such as award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written extensively on the topic, actor Danny Glover and Sen. Cory Booker testified to the House Judiciary Committee about the horrors of slavery and its trickle-down effects on Black Americans.
There were also Black witnesses who opposed reparations like retired football player Burgess Owens, a Republican who recently announced he’s running for a congressional seat in Utah. He said that Black people have become successful like no other because of the great opportunity to live the American dream.
“Let’s not steal that from our kids by telling them they can’t do it,” Owens told the panel.
The first form of reparations for Black Americans goes back to 1865 when former slaves were awarded 400,000 acres of coastal land by a special order. But after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated noted racist Andrew Johnson took office and rescinded the order.
Through the centuries the case for reparations would come up for discussion with national lawmakers and fizzle out again.
In 1989, former Rep. John Conyers Jr. introduced legislation to create a commission to develop proposals for reparations every year for nearly 30 years before retiring. But in 2016, former President Barack Obama opposed reparations, calling the idea impractical, The New York Times reported.
Johnson believes most people, Black and white, alike oppose reparations because they don’t get the impact of free labor and how it gave the United States its standing today.
“What they don’t understand is the fact that labor is wealth,” Johnson said. “And if your wealth is taken from you and used by somebody else for their wealth that’s robbing you of equal opportunity and your future and the future of your children. Because when slaves worked, they just didn’t work to work, they worked to build buildings, to plow fields. And those fields grew cotton. Cotton was sold in the north, the south and everyplace else. And that money came back to the plantation owners.”
Johnson said the money generated by slaves was used to buy timberlands, rights of ways to roads and railroads, thus enabling whites to become very wealthy, very quickly.
“So this was an economic tragedy that was imposed upon us as much as it was an emotional, traumatic thing,” he said.
Johnson believes the powers that be are aware of these facts, but racism still stands in the way.
“They think that if I give Black people money they’ll waste it, they’ll spend it and whatever. That’s the issue,” he said. “They can’t face the fact that Black people, if given wealth, will decide for themselves how they will utilize that wealth. The argument that Black people will not be able to manage is just the vestiges of slavery that’s still there in whites and unfortunately in many of our Black brothers and sisters.”
Johnson believes police killings of Black males that have risen to national news coverage including the recent killing of George Floyd is an effect of Black people being locked out of wealth.
“Michael Brown in Ferguson came in contact with the police because he stole cigarillos — property,” he said. “Eric Garner in New York came in contact with the police because he was selling loose cigarettes — state property. Floyd came in contact with the police because they say, alleged he wrote a bad a check or he carried a $20 fraudulent bill — property.
“If Michael Brown, George Floyd had high-paying jobs, like the white folks do, it is very possible that Michael Brown would have paid for his cigarillos instead of stealing,” he said. “It’s the lack of opportunity, wealth and a police force that’s taught to protect property no matter how small it is.”
Johnson said the protests that in some cases have turned into looting are a result of the same issue.
“There are some people out there that are just tired of being treated with injustice. And the injustice is magnified if you have no job, no hope, you see everything on television and the wealth of this nation,” he said. “You read about all of this wealth that you don’t have it. You’re frustrated, you can’t work, you can’t protect your family. You are just demoralized. And you go out and start protesting. ‘They got it. I ain’t got it. I ain’t got no opportunity to get it. I’m gon’ take it.’ And that’s where you get the looting.
“We can sit back and mourn George Floyd’s death. We can insist that they bring those cops to justice,” Johnson said. “But the fact of the matter is that is not going to change the lives of any of those Black folks running in and out of stores grabbing shoes, grabbing cellphones, grabbing liquor, whatever it is. It’s not going to change their lives. And as sure as we’re talking, there will be another George Floyd.”
Johnson said he, a fairly comfortable and wealthy man, is taking up the cause for reparations because he’s not intimidated and he knows the power of investment.
“When you grow up in a capitalist society and you become successful because someone gave you capital or invested in you money … you saw what you were able to do with that money to create wealth for yourself and others,” he said. “It compels you to say, ‘Why don’t I try to make this happen for everybody?’
“I mean, I started BET on a $500,000 investment sold it for $4 billion approximately, so when you see how it works and you say gee as a Black guy who grew up in a family of 10 kids, look what I did,” Johnson said. “So why would I deny that same opportunity to people who are owed that opportunity?”