- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2002

DETROIT The question puts the brakes on the lunchtime banter. It turns Raymond McLemore and his brother, Andy McLemore Jr., affable and affluent black entrepreneurs, more than a little stony.
"Has anyone ever accused you of betraying your race?"
The query lingers in the dark, red leatherette booth at Mr. Mike's restaurant on Woodward Avenue just north of downtown, a place where the eager parking attendant greets every well-dressed patron with "Good afternoon Mr. VIP, how are you doing today?"
The question triggers a flash in the eyes of Ray McLemore, an intense 38-year-old who is vice president of his father's firm, A-Mac, one of the city's largest and most successful real estate development companies.
But Ray shakes his head affirmatively. Indeed, he has been castigated by his fellow blacks on his way to success.
"One of my counselors, as I grew up, told me that 'A young brother has to understand that every dread isn't down, every suit hasn't sold out,'" Mr. McLemore finally says. He sighs, relieved to have articulated a 25-year-old memory.
"What he meant is that just because you have success as a businessman, or whatever, you are not someone other than black. And this culture doesn't always understand that."
James Weldon Johnson, the black poet from the early 19th century, called a black person who prospered an "ex-coloured man."
The McLemore brothers, along with their father, Andy, have made a living out of trying to make life better for their race and for their fellow Detroiters. Like hundreds of thousands of the other 34 million black Americans, the McLemores are pillars of a race that is now prospering.
Financial figures that illustrate black success today are arresting. Yet they are not widely publicized.
The raw numbers from last year's census show that blacks have made considerable economic and educational progress during the 1990s: Black median household income grew 15 percent between 1989 and 1999, compared with 6 percent for white families.
Median income for blacks grew to $30,439 from $22, 974 in 1993, a 32 percent leap compared with the increase of 14 percent for whites during that period.
The number of black-owned firms increased 26 percent from 1992 to 1997, compared with a 7 percent increase for U.S. firms overall.
The figures undermine the steadfast proclamations of the civil rights industry, that times are hard and racism is thriving and striving to keep black America in poverty.
No one is telling these hard-boiled businessmen and women that they can't make it. In fact, many of these bootstrap entrepreneurs see welfare programs and big government as obstacles to self-help, says Eddie Williams, who heads the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
"I really think there is a new phenomenon out there," he told Newsweek in a recent interview.

'Tougher still for blacks'
Andy McLemore Jr., who was once told by his white elementary school teacher that despite young Andy's knowledge to the contrary his father was not an engineer at Chrysler, is now convinced that the long-standing assumptions of the civil rights establishment are a thing of the past. He refuses to buy into the prevailing belief of the civil rights establishment that blacks are held back because of a racist white power structure.
"I think it is tougher still for blacks, but so many of those limitations are self-imposed," says Andy, who at 46 has attained economic success beyond his wildest dreams.
Mr. McLemore is a trim man with a stylish mustache and a chuckling, easy manner. He was born in the front room of his grandmother's home in Rocky Mount, N.C., and raised in the segregationist South. "Back then, they didn't allow black doctors to deliver babies at the hospital," Mr. McLemore explains.
He lived through the civil rights era, graduating from Mumford High School in Detroit in 1972 and then moving on to college at Wayne State University.
The history of second-class citizenship among blacks is not lost on him, as long as he looks in his rear-view mirror. He knows that childhood friends from the Motor City have not fared as well as he has.
"I still think about how people who were brought up on nothing could only have dreamed about what I'm doing. I feel the same way," he says.
His grandmother worked in the cafeteria of the local bank in Rocky Mount, and during summers young Andy would visit his grandparents.
"My grandmother took me around to see the separate drinking fountains, and the balconies at the movie theater, where the blacks had to sit," Mr. McLemore recalls. "It was a different era that I might never have seen, but my grandmother saw to it that I did. I recall she took me to the cotton field across the street and had me touch the cotton boll, to see how hard the shell was."
Mr. McLemore was appalled by the racism and injustice that blacks had to endure. He wanted to make sure it never happened to him. He would be smart, like his father.

Making it
He worked, went to school and earned a marketing degree. His first paycheck was from Butler Shoes in Detroit in 1972, where he sold women's footwear. "I made anywhere to $130. That was a good week," Mr. McLemore says.
Yet even during his years in college, Mr. McLemore had a flair for entrepreneurship. He was into selling, promoting anything that would make him a buck. Rico Rum. Playboy. Stereo equipment. He moved on to IBM. The first time he felt he was on to something is when he flew on a private jet from Bishop International Airport in Flint, Mich., to Cleveland for a day's work. "I was tickled they would let me do that," he says.
While at IBM, he began to make real money, and loved the idea. He bought a Porsche 924.
Mr. McLemore has achieved the kind of wealth and luxury that Americans of all races aspire to.
On this spring evening, he speaks in the mahogany-paneled family room of his sprawling two-story Tudor house in the ritzy Palmer Woods neighborhood. His garage is full of luxury cars: a black Porsche convertible he bought new in 1997; a white Mercedes with a sun roof; and one of several Land Cruisers with the A-Mac logo on the side.

Questioning success
The Land Cruisers, however, caused a flap in the black community that still rankles Mr. McLemore. He bought several of them for his employees in order to foster team spirit. Yet the purchase of numerous sport utility vehicles angered many blacks in the community, who resented the display of wealth. "The community didn't like the fact that we had a fleet of Land Cruisers," he says, shaking his head.
When asked whether success is viewed as a good thing, Mr. McLemore says, "Not always in the African-American community. Many African-Americans feel that because of the color of their skin, they can't achieve something. They see someone else doing well, and it's jealousy all over," he says.
All over America are scores of bootstrap entrepreneurs, brainy businessmen, and dogged men and women with a vision and little interest in people who tell them that being black is being down and that they should watch out for a society that is not likely to give them a chance.

Selling black trouble
Their successes are mostly overlooked by a mainstream media whose news coverage continues to be dominated by the traditional view of the black community as mired in poverty, drugs and inner-city ghettoes, rather than comfortable in success, prosperity and wealth.
Blacks who have become successful within the media often help to perpetuate the notion of chronic black underachievement and the problem of racism.
"We continue the struggle," is how television personality Tavis Smiley opened an appearance at the Georgetown Barnes and Noble bookstore in Washington, D.C., earlier last year.
Mr. Smiley, dapper in a black designer suit over an olive green button up, sat square-jawed and broad-faced. Unsmiling, he told the crowd of 50 persons that the ordinary routine of living is a fight for most blacks.
Perhaps it is, though, for a heavily courted black broadcaster, a man who, two months after being fired from BET for an ethical lapse, nailed down deals to contribute to ABC News, CNN and National Public Radio.
To sell his latest book, "How to Make Black America Better," Mr. Smiley paints a picture of black America that is struggling and being left behind.
"The trouble is that the media look at black people as either the Huxtables or 'Boys in the 'Hood,'" sighs Reggie Daniel, president of Scientific & Engineering Solutions, his own thriving computer consulting firm in Howard County. "In the end, though, it always falls back on the latter."
Mr. Daniel is a youthful looking 41-year-old who asserts himself as black even if his childhood hero was television's Darrin Stevens, the harried husband on "Bewitched."
"I always wanted to carry a briefcase to work like he did," Mr. Daniel says, a small smile of satisfaction creasing his lips as he looks at his own leather satchel on the floor. He started his firm five years ago with two employees in the basement of his Prince George's County home. His firm now has 110 employees.
Mr. Daniel insists that opportunities for blacks have never been better and are improving every day. "These are not racial issues these days," says Mr. Daniel, who came from a blue-collar background in Milwaukee. "These are simply socioeconomic issues. And all races have them."

Exposing the black upper class
When Lawrence Otis Graham embarked on writing his 1999 book, "Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class," he knew that documenting the existence of a black economic elite would not always be well received by the black community.
"People are uncomfortable with such depictions of blacks," Mr. Graham explained earlier this year. "They have a very narrow definition of being black, where you are only authentic if you are poor, uneducated, listen to rap music and the only way you should make money is to be a rap star or an athlete."
The book was derided by many blacks. He was charged with being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, an Uncle Tom who ignored the prevalence of racism, inner city slums and black unemployment,
The cries came from the other side, one that knows only of blighted neighborhoods.
It is the traditional argument of the civil rights establishment: A small group of blacks may be tied to greenbacks because winning knows no impediment or prejudice or excuse, while the other group the overwhelming majority remains in poverty, bogged down by drugs and lack of opportunities.
A Village Voice review of Mr. Graham's book, by Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of African-American Studies at Columbia University, noted that the premise of the work was that "… black folk can be every bit as coy, sophisticated, snobbish, high-handed, mean-spirited, self-concerned, and pretentious as rich white folk. And hence the danger of seeing racial progress in terms of its density of replication: if we can make black communities more like white communities with the caveat that we can bemoan white racism but rarely decry black elitism then the world will be all right."
In an updated introduction to the book, Mr. Graham despairs of the critical response to his exposure of the secret world of upper-class blacks.
"Folks don't want to hear about rich blacks unless we're playing basketball, singing rap music, or doing comedy on TV," one woman said to him at a cocktail party.
Mr. Graham maintains that black prosperity has every right to sit next to white wealth.
"Things are now changing in a number of black communities," Mr. Graham said. "Black families are moving to the suburbs. They now live and work next to white people and send their children to the same schools as white people."

Living the high life
One example of American black success stories lies only 12 miles south of downtown Washington in Prince George's County.
The dining room of the Country Club at Woodmore is standard upscale, with a sweeping view of the 65-acre lake that is the centerpiece of 18 holes of Arnold Palmer design. Well-mannered matrons dish up crabcakes and Vodka tonics, while golfers try to make like Tiger Woods outside.
A 44-year-old stocky, white- haired, gentle-faced man strides in. He is wearing an impressive blue blazer with gold buttons, cream-colored linen trousers and a polo shirt that has a tiny golfer stitched on the inside of the open collar.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Gingles," exudes an immaculately tailored waiter.
Andre Gingles is a commercial land development lawyer at O'Malley, Miles, Nylen & Gilmore in Calverton and is obviously no stranger at this place, where an annual membership runs around $15,000.
The country club sits amidst a 300-home gated development, a place that might be stereotypically linked to a white, Republican, churchgoing crowd that sends its children to private schools, vacations in the tropics and enjoys juleps by the pool on weekends.
The fact is, this is true except for the white part.
A young black man, sweating in the noon sun, talks to builders on one home site, a lavish 10-bedroom mansion.
Minivans, campers and sport utility vehicles fill the driveways of the wealthy neighborhood.
Prince George's County is truly the black mecca, the wealthiest black enclave in the country. The dramatic increase of black flight to this 500-square-mile county is seen as the place for the richest of blacks to reside, as if the mere ZIP code at Woodmore, 20721, is enough to buy a season ticket to watch the Wizards play basketball.

Parring the hole
"It's a great day for golf," Mr. Gingles says, having settled on the crabcakes.
The Baltimore native wanted to be a journalist when he grew up, attending integrated public schools in the late '60s.
Later, he set his sights on becoming secretary of state. When he saw Colin L. Powell being sworn in as secretary of state last year, Mr. Gingles said, "I was jealous. He was getting my job."
After lunch, Mr. Gingles does what he loves more than almost anything: play golf. The day is clear and he is late for a 3 p.m. tee off. His cart moves a little faster when that happens.
Speaking as he putts, Mr. Gingles says that achieving the American dream and being black have become integral parts of living. His success came through hard work and like most wealthy people, a little bit of luck.
"Let's face it, getting a job has never been about being the best person. It's about connections, who knows who. There's nothing completely fair about America. I think you just have to try the best you can."
His shot is a little to the left of the green. He should par the hole.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide