BET's Black Billionaire Trojan Horse

"Democrat" Bob Johnson Fronts for GOP




Bob Johnson, the Black Entertainment Television founder with a personal net worth of $1.3 billion, is a Trojan Horse, an aggressive political operative of the Bush White House posing as a Democrat. He has used his high profile status as one-half of all African American billionaires (the determinedly non-partisan Oprah Winfrey is the other half) to advance the most politically perilous item on the GOP agenda: privatization of Social Security.

In his unseemly eagerness to ingratiate himself with the Bush crowd, Johnson has embraced a far-right cause so hot, the National Republican Congressional Committee has instructed its own candidates to avoid the issue at all costs. Undeterred, and bolstered by what Johnson likes to call "a healthy disrespect for traditional thinking," Johnson helped fashion the party's "Black" rationale for delivering the centerpiece of the social safety net to the tender mercies of the marketplace.

The Social Security Act of 1935 spawned the largest public cash cow in the history of the world. Businessmen tried to strangle it at birth, and the Right has never forgiven FDR for tampering with the market-imposed rhythms of life and death. Social Security is the only enduring step the United States has ever taken toward European-style social democracy. Everybody pays into the kitty, and everyone gets something out in their old age. A range of survivors', disability and other benefits have been added to the system over the years.

Rightwing think tanks have long argued that the shorter life spans of Blacks can be used to turn them against Social Security, if only a credible African American voice were found to articulate the position. Preferably, the mouthpiece should be someone that the African American public believes knows his way around money. Enter, Bob Johnson, Black billionaire, and a man with some favors to earn.

Better still, Johnson is a nominal Democrat, a contributor to the party, perfect for applying two coats of cover to the Republican raid on Social Security. Here was a man who could lead his people to the roulette tables of privatization. If you can't destroy the Social Security system, steal it.

Spinning Black, voting Right

In May of this year, the 56 year-old deal-maker took his appointed place on the Bush-rigged Commission to Strengthen Social Security, a business and ideologue-dominated group carefully chosen to scare the public into surrendering their futures to the stock market. This was not a good year to popularize the scheme, however, as the public observed that Wall Street was filled with fleeing thieves. From his Democratic seat on the supposedly bipartisan panel, Bob Johnson screamed like a Republican banshee.

"We're all on the Titanic as it relates to Social Security and people are telling us it's the safest ship afloat,'' Johnson told the Associated Press. "But we are heading for a disaster.''

Actually, Enron, Worldcom and other scandals were threatening to drag congressional Republicans towards disaster - Bush having not yet soaked up all the news by threatening to destroy the United Nations and Iraq. And, what was all that "we" stuff, spilling from the lips of a billionaire?

Having run the GOP line for general public consumption, Johnson pulled out his specialty spiel, the one marked, for-Blacks-only.

The Johnson privatization argument is standard Right doctrine wrapped up in a Black package - kind of like Johnson, himself. "African Americans who contribute to the Social Security system and payroll taxes also have one of the highest mortality rates, so in the end, they may not receive the full benefits of what they put in Social Security," said the instant expert on such matters. Solution? Let's roll the dice!

According to the official notes of the June 11 meeting of commission, Johnson "wants to improve the program for all Americans, but will focus on giving African Americans broader access to wealth accumulation and enlarging the program equity - particularly among African Americans, who, he believes, receive less from the system because of higher mortality rates, making it difficult for their heirs and families to benefit from their contributions."

Johnson knows perfectly well that there cannot be an "African American" version of the Social Security system. What he and the GOP raiders want is a program in which people can invest more money in the stock market, sooner, something euphemistically dubbed "optional private investment accounts." Johnson's assignment is to stick "Black" and "Democrat" labels on the package, for political sale - an exercise requiring vast reservoirs of cynicism and dishonesty.

As Jonathan Chait pointed out in his August, New Republic article on Robert Johnson's White House intrigues, the billionaire is reading from a script that has been flipped.

Social Security's retirement benefits are progressive: They offer a higher rate of return to lower-paid workers. Since black workers, on average, earn less than the population at large, they benefit from this redistribution. This more than makes up for any loss they suffer from dying younger. On the whole, then, Social Security redistributes money from whites to blacks. Most plans for private accounts do not.... Johnson has his racial analysis backward.

Social Security can and should be made much more progressive. But the Right has always opposed such measures, because it abhors the very concept of income redistribution. So does Bob Johnson, who once told C-Span, "If I help my family get over and deal with the problems they might confront, then I have achieved that one goal that is my responsibility to society at large."

Too hot for Kansas City

By now, the summer was almost over; war season would begin promptly after Labor Day. Republican troops were ordered to shut up about Social Security, and just ride the patriotic wave to full dominance of Congress. Kill Saddam first, Social Security, later.

Hard Rightists rebelled. On September 18, the National Review wrote:

"The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has urged candidates to disavow their association with the concept of privatization. This is dreadfully bad policy - it could stunt the movement toward reforming the biggest entitlement program in the federal budget by 5 to 10 years. But it is also questionable politics. Optional private investment accounts are a political winner that can attract a new generation of voters to the GOP."

Thanks largely to Bob Johnson, the Hard Right had been encouraged to believe that a significant number of Blacks might become part of that "new generation" opposed to Social Security.

Freewheeling GOPAC had already broken silence on the Black front. The propaganda committee's media men ordered a full schedule of ads for Black radio in Kansas City, including this 60-second script:

Unidentified Woman: "You've heard about reparations, you know, where whites compensate blacks for enslaving us. Well, guess what we've got now? Reverse reparations. Under Social Security today, blacks receive twenty one thousand dollars less in retirement benefits than whites of similar income and marital status. In the U.S. of A., white men live seven years longer than black men. One third of the brothers die before retirement and receive nothing. Almost half the married sisters lose their husbands before they rank Social Security spousal benefits. President George Bush proposed reforms that help our community in three ways. First, we get a higher minimum benefit. Second, our women get their fair share in their spouses Social Security. And, third, blacks get retirement accounts with real financial assets. So the next time some Democrat says he won't touch Social Security, ask why he thinks blacks owe reparations to whites?"

This is the unalloyed Bob Johnson argument, a combination of grossly misapplied numbers, fantasies and false promises, and a few very hard truths that privatization cannot address or ameliorate. The Republican appeal to Reparations sentiments is the most cynical ploy imaginable, a rank insult to Black people's intelligence. The ad presumes that African Americans are political ignoramuses who know nothing about the GOP's absolute hostility to Reparations of any kind.

All hell broke loose in Kansas City. The ad, one of seven booked, was pulled on September 12, after having run for several days. Black former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver demanded that GOPAC apologize to the community. The outfit that scheduled the radio time claimed the ad was a "mistake" and that "GOPAC didn't pay" for it. A spokesman for the political action committee announced, "the language in this ad is misleading and offensive."

So, GOPAC suddenly decides that its party's Black spin on Social Security is "misleading and offensive." Could it be that the shameless use of the Reparations theme was a bit too much? Far more likely, GOPAC's rogue ideologues had been balled out for breaking discipline during Bush's declared Time of War; there is to be no talk of Social Security until after the elections.

The Star treatment

That didn't shut up Star Parker, a hustler who feeds at the very bottom of the GOP's Black stink-tank. The author of "Pimps, Whores & Welfare Brats" put the issue back in play. "The Social Security system has proven to be an injustice against African American men," said the former welfare mother turned Hard Right speaking circuit maven. "Reparations are to repair an injustice. But rather than the reparationists looking back 200 years, they should look at the current Social Security system. It is a reverse reparations system against African-American men today"

Parker, president of a Washington outfit called the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, cannot be faulted for violating the White House embargo on Social Security speech. She learned her lines from her hometown billionaire, nominal Democrat Bob Johnson.

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond found himself responding to Star Parker and the Kansas City commercial. "The Republican ad attacking Social Security as the equivalent of 'reverse reparations' that African-Americans must pay to white people is wrong on the facts and outrageous in its intent" said Bond, in a September 13 press release. "Social Security is not unfair to blacks. Social Security has helped promote equal economic opportunity and it has benefited all Americans, including African-Americans, for generations"

Whether Bond knew it or not, he was actually addressing Bob Johnson, whose views are identical to those expressed in the Kansas City script.

The crusading billionaire

The racial Social Security bailout was Johnson's second major White House rescue mission. The Death Tax, as Republican euphemizers dubbed it, ranks with Social Security on the Hard Right hit list.

Bush was having trouble. During his first year in office, a bunch of rich white people kept insisting that the nation's social contract required that some portion of inherited wealth be returned to society. Led by Bill Gates, Sr. and including several members of the Rockefeller family and billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the group took out an ad in the New York Times. "Repealing the estate tax would leave an unfortunate legacy for America's future generations" and "would enrich the heirs of America's millionaires and billionaires while hurting families who struggle to make ends meet," said the 100 signers.

Up steps Bob Johnson, who had directed almost half-a-million dollars to Bill Clinton and other Democrats in the Nineties, only to see a stranger take charge of the White House. In 2001, Johnson was expecting an insider gift of his own airline, the by-product of a planned industry merger in need of Black political cover. However, the deal was caught up in anti-trust and regulatory problems that only a President could fix.

Seeing an opening to the Bush White House, Johnson threw his "strategic asset" into the game: The Black Race. The way Johnson figured, African American millionaires on the make trump rich, white bleeding hearts. Johnson rallied 48 Black business types, including executives from his own holdings, to concoct an African American spin on repeal of the Estate Tax.

Less than one-half of 1 percent of Blacks are wealthy enough to pay federal estate taxes. Taxation cannot be based on race. Johnson demanded that rich Americans of all races be exempted from the Estate Tax, so that the tiny Black group might pass on larger inheritances. The fantastic letter, published in a number of newspapers, read in part:

The Estate Tax is particularly unfair to the first generation of the high net worth African Americans who have accumulated wealth only recently. These individuals may have family members and relatives who have not been as fortunate in accumulating assets who could directly benefit from their share of an estate as heir. Elimination of the Estate Tax would allow African Americans to pass the full fruits of their labor to the next generation and beyond.

There has never been a special pleading quite like this. In fact, Johnson's petition-like document is not really a special pleading, at all, but the request of a minuscule, Black fraction of the wealthy on behalf of the entire wealthy class.

The document represents an outrageous insult to the common sense and sensibilities of the people whose interests are invoked: the 99 ½% of the Black public that is not rich. Robert Johnson's gamesmanship is both shameless and breath-taking.

As for the overwhelming majority of Blacks and whites who are untouched by the federal Estate Tax, but are in need of the services the tax on the very rich pays for, Johnson's formula is the same old, trickle down Reagan dogma, with a cruel and ridiculous Reparations-scented twist.

Elimination of the Estate Tax will help close the gap in this nation between African American families and White families. The net worth of an average African American family is $20,000 or 10 percent of the $200,000 net worth of the average White family. Repealing the Estate Tax will permit wealth to grow in the Black community through investment in minority businesses that will stimulate the economic well-being of the Black community and allow African American families to participate fully in the American Dream.

Johnson's gall has no bounds. He demands that white millionaires - there are more than two million of them! - be exempted from the Estate Tax so that a few tens of thousands of well-off Black families might benefit and, presumably, pass on some of the cash flow to unrelated Blacks.

Bush loved the show, and the ringmaster. In April of 2001, the President had cited Johnson from the podium of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "As Robert Johnson, of Black Entertainment Television argues," said Bush, "the death tax and double taxation weighs heavily on minorities who are only beginning to accumulate wealth."

Bush killed the Death Tax. With Johnson's help, Republicans won passage of a bill that first scales back the Estate Tax, then eliminates it entirely in 2010.

Of wealth and shame

Johnson committed an unpardonable sin. He used - no, he callously abused - Black people as a group to advance his own, personal interests and those of his class, rich Blacks and whites alike. But that's not what makes him a Trojan Horse. He earned that distinction when he sat as a Democrat on the sham Commission to Strengthen Social Security, this spring and summer.

Richard Parsons, the Black CEO of AOL-Time Warner, is an upfront Republican. He co-chaired the Bush commission, and voted his class and party interest. Fine.

We are not denouncing Bob Johnson because he is a billionaire but, rather, for being among those stealth Democrats who act as Republican operatives. Johnson is the most powerful Black Trojan Horse in the nation, by virtue of his wealth.

In pursuit of more billions, and while invoking the interests of The Race, Bob Johnson sold us all out, and the Democratic Party as well. Black Democrats should be outraged - that is, if they think they can afford to be.

What political damage can be done by a Black billionaire Trojan Horse, a phony Democrat in the service of the Hard Right? That's difficult to say. We never had one before. It will be interesting to watch - closely.

Contact: [email protected]

Members of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security

Full text of the Black anti-Estate Tax letter and list of signers$253?print-friendly=true

Your comments are welcome. Visit the Contact Us page for E-mail or Feedback.








Bookmark and Share
Issue Number 13
October 3, 2002





If someone passed along to you make sure you visit the Free Sign Up page.

Don't miss anything!


Other commentaries in this issue:

Lantern of Liberty:
Harriet Tubman Mural Replaced by a Parking Lot

Black Children Still Victimized by "Savage Inequalities":
Public education amid racism and isolation
by Elena Rutherford, Guest Commentator

Black political self-financing
Senator Ed Brooke mislaid
Hip Hop and heroin
Anglo-Saxons beware

A letter to our readers:
Black America and Bush's New World Order

Commentaries in Issue 12 September 19 , 2002:

The Trojan Horse Watch:
Identify, expose and defeat Black stealth candidates

How Sister McKinney Lost
and what we can learn from it by Bruce A. Dixon, Guest Commentator

Misreading the Zimbabwe Crisis: by Bill Derman and John Metzler, Guest Commentators

e-MailBox: Watergate, South?... Move over, Oprah... Return to sender

A letter to our readers: CIA-Crack website is back... Coca-Cola kills... Smallpox: none of the nurses' business... Victory in St. Louis, Setback in New Orleans

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety on the Past Issues page.

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.