- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

NEW ORLEANS The stories pop up like a man-bites-dog piece: "Minority businessman gains foothold," "Black-owned businesses spread" and "Local black merchant seeing revenue."
Suburbanites sipping their morning coffee understand these stories. The headlines almost declare black success an anomaly.
It isn't.
Unprecedented strides are being made on the economic ladder in black America. In the 1940s, one in 100 blacks had incomes that approached those of middle-class whites. Today, one in six blacks lives at the poverty line.
Mainstream black magazines, such as Ebony and Essence, trumpet these triumphs, but most white Americans know few well-to-do blacks other than leading sports figures and entertainers. Sure, Robert Johnson gets plenty of ink in Forbes magazine: That's because the outspoken founder of Black Entertainment Television is a photogenic and articulate man worth more than $2 billion.
How about the Johnson family of Chicago?
Johnson Publishing Co., which puts out Ebony and Jet magazines, is worth more than $450 million.
But many in the black community are beginning to resent its conventional image as oppressed and economically disadvantaged.
"Yeah, we can ride the bus, yeah, we can go to school, yeah, we can eat in the restaurant," says Shannon Reeves, head of the Oakland, Calif., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in the dining room at New Orleans' Le Meridien Hotel. "Can't we move it on from here? I don't see why the media buys this notion of the poor, repressed black."
Eight blocks south, outside the Hilton Riverside, luggage carts groan under the weight of bags from the local designer shopping boutiques Saks, Kenneth Cole. The expensive goods belong to the thousands of mostly black men and women attending the Essence Music Festival.
"I bought so much stuff I need to be another passenger just to check it," says one young black woman, who, with her DKNY jeans and Calvin Klein blouse, is carting home three Saks bags loaded with high-end finery.

A coveted market
As consumers, blacks are one of the most targeted markets today. They spend $571 billion annually on consumer goods $270 billion more than a decade ago.
A tourist city such as New Orleans was smart enough to know that while travel overall in the United States increased 1 percent between 1997 and 1999, the number of blacks traveling increased by 16 percent during that same period.
It can be a hard sell the notion of the upwardly mobile black American to those born and raised in poverty.
Wayne Ward Ford, a garrulous, charismatic 50-year-old gentleman with a criminal past and a political future, insists, "Anybody who can say they are responsible for their own success is egotistical."
Mr. Ford, an Iowa legislator, is executive director of Urban Dreams, a 16-year-old tax-exempt program for urban youths that he began with $10,000 seed money from the local city council. He loves to talk about his past in Southeast Washington, where he grew up. He talks of strong-armed robbery, of cocaine use, of his escape from a violent world of crime.
Today, Mr. Ford, who makes around $250,000 a year through his political career and the numerous causes he champions, dons a gray suit and a red tie and bristles with hope as he ventures into the day. He has made it.
But like many well-to-do blacks, he wrestles with the reality of his success while many in his community are still disadvantaged.
"I wouldn't consider myself affluent if I had $50 million," says Blair Walker, a journalist who lives in Columbia, Md. "There are so many families hovering around the poverty level in this country. Granted, there seems to have been a remarkable boom in black affluence over the past couple of decades … ."
He trails off, as if perplexed by his own realization.
The Baltimore native lives comfortably with his wife and two daughters. He is not wealthy, but he is successful. His parents, both schoolteachers, brought him up securely.
But Mr. Walker still believes his race is not faring well.
"A fair number of African-Americans are starting off in the bottom of the eighth [inning] behind by five runs," he says, his voice flat and determined. It is the voice of an assured man.
A black America coming apart at the seams is a certainty among people like Mr. Walker, who appear convinced that the destiny of blacks is determined by the legacy of racism.
"The difference between a poor white man and a poor black man is that the white man can put on a suit and go to the same arenas as the black and he will be viewed much more positively," Mr. Walker says.

'Things are changing'
In Iowa, Mr. Ford is conflicted about his beliefs. He visited his old neighborhood last summer. He blinked his eyes in surprise.
"There are now $400,000 homes in the middle of this neighborhood," he says in disbelief. They are there, though, amid the urban rubble, the strewn trash and the decrepit cars.
A subdivision of three-story homes off Mississippi Avenue near Seventh Street called Monterey Park announces that changes will continue to take place in this six-block area. A quarter-mile down the street, on a ridge looking north, Wheeler Creek offers town homes with no bars on the windows.
"Things are changing," Mr. Ford says. "There is more opportunity, and this is what happens."
He shares this realization with a generation that wasn't born during the civil rights era. The new cast of up-and-coming blacks knows that while athletes and entertainers make vast sums of money, corporate doors are swung wide open and an entrepreneurial spirit is praised in all sectors of society.
But there is still trepidation in some places. Even disbelief.
"A story like 'Boyz in the Hood' sells a lot better than an upper-class entrepreneur who takes care of his family," says Lloyd Lawrence, casually brushing his hand against an $8,000 leisure chair. "There are many more black entrepreneurs than the world knows about."
Mr. Lawrence stands in the swank showroom of Roche-Bubois, his furniture boutique settled in San Francisco's Market district across from Sega headquarters.
Mr. Lawrence, a former Army captain, rejects outright the rhetoric of black victimhood and oppression.
"All my ills were not caused by whites, and I wasn't helped by all African-Americans either," Mr. Lawrence says.
In the garage at his Oakland home is an $80,000 Porsche Turbo he bought recently. It is a gift to himself.
"That was my allowance for working. But I don't want to send any Puffy Combs message; I am not interested in ostentatious surroundings," Mr. Lawrence says.
But he is glad to sell them.
The European furniture he sells is custom-made for the rich and famous, people such as Mayor Willie Brown, members of the Oakland Athletics, musicians and top executives. Athletes are some of his biggest clients, along with the computer entrepreneurs who have fueled much of the economy's growth in the past decade.
Mr. Lawrence worked at his boutique 11 years before he was able to afford a single piece of furniture from his inventory.

'My own earnings'
He started with a showroom at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Van Ness Street in Washington, D.C., in 1979, a store that he sold a few years ago and is now part of the Mazza Gallery glitz. He used the earnings from the sale, along with shrewd investments, to purchase his current boutique.
"This was financed off of my own earnings and the sale of my IBM stock," Mr. Lawrence says.
"By the time I did this, I had 13 years at IBM, I was in the Army, I was confident that I could do any job," he says.
"I would be kidding myself to say that I have not been a victim of racism," Mr. Lawrence says, his face settling into a frown. "But there will always be that person who will reward excellence. While we will never eliminate racism or discrimination, I do delight in proving people wrong."
Mr. Lawrence's affluence also has brought him a happy family environment. His life revolves around his wife, Cynthia, and his pre-teen daughter, Ariana.
"The most prevalent issue in my household is the education of my daughter. We give her computer summer camp, world traveI. … She will have a very well-rounded education."
It's a can-do world for Mr. Lawrence.
When he returned from serving in the Vietnam War with two bronze stars, he didn't look at them for another decade because of his disillusionment with the war.
After the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was erected on the Mall in Washington, he realized "the end of a journey."
"I was pleased with what I did as a human being," he says.

Breaking out
Born to welfare recipients in Detroit, Herb Strather eventually brought casino gambling to the Motor City. The self-described philanthropist is a self-made man. He easily can give a $1 million donation to his favorite cause and he does.
This was not always the case.
"I stuttered, I had bumps on my face, and I had no money," Mr. Strather says of his youth.
Blacks are making money now because the business world realizes that buying power is there.
The civil rights movement brought virtually every black with any ambition to the economic table of America. Now, he says, "We're part of the American economy, no matter what."
Still, he rejects racial set-asides or any system of racial preferences. "I don't want anybody giving me business just because I'm an African-American. All I want is a chance," Mr. Strather says.
The very idea of a handout rankles Tracy Glenn, who had things much easier than Mr. Strather. She grew up in the University City neighborhood of St. Louis, a racially mixed area that is now one of the city's most desirable ZIP codes.
Her folks were working class: Dad was employed in a computer job for the government; Mom stayed at home.
At 31, the Houston lawyer already has made more money than her parents ever did.
Miss Glenn, who earned her law degree at Boston University, anticipates the collective refrain of people who hear her success story and wonder how someone who has been so privileged can speak to any member of the underclass.
"People spend too much time asking why they are in a situation than doing anything about it. There will be people who say, 'That's easy for her to say, she had a decent upbringing,' but, hey, that's not a reason to sit around and wait for the government or the white man to help them out," Miss Glenn says.
She has been involved in landmark civil rights cases. Miss Glenn represented the white plaintiff in a case dealing with Florida's policy of admitting blacks over whites to public universities despite lower test scores. The plaintiff argued that it was a case of "reverse discrimination."
"They called it reverse discrimination," Miss Glenn says with disdain. "But discrimination is discrimination; there is no reverse."
She is a fashionable woman, with designer glasses perched on the end of her nose. She wears an elegant, silky green dress for an early summer evening out.
Miss Glenn drives around the city in her new cream-colored Lexus ES and owns her home. She bought it last year when her income was on its way up.
"I think that most people, and almost all of the people I know, are getting tired of leaning on race," she says.
The sunroof is open, the air is cool and fresh, and she is thinking about a question regarding her race and why it is important to her.
"It is who I am," Miss Glenn says, "but it is not what I am."


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