when i know billionaires are bad, but do good things

May 20, 2019
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To know me intimately is to know that I’m not impressed by much, especially most events that make the news. It’s not connected to a cynicism or pessimism in either my spirit or politic, it’s just that I personally find a lot of things offered to us unremarkable. When I was younger, I’d perform interest where there was none. I’ve perfected the performance of being impressed or interested when I was not. This is usually in an effort to not ruin things for people. I’ve known for a long time that when I don’t carefully consider the timing or language I use when sharing my opinion on an event, I could be received as someone who is insatiable, someone that finds joys in ruining what others find joy in. This isn’t the case. In most cases, I experience the same emotions of joy that others do. This is unless, of course, I am left totally unmoved in which then I try to stop all communication over the topic, unless in private or through my writing. I’ve learned the hard way that there is a specific hatred reserved for the person that is seen as ‘ruining’ the content that someone enjoys, especially if they find escape or relief from sociopolitical realities inside of that content. Even if the content or moment reinforces the same culture they are seeking to find relief and escape from. 

At the Morehouse graduation on Sunday, billionaire Robert Smith vowed to take care of the debt accumulated by the graduating class of 2019 during his commencement speech. This made it a grand total of a $40-million dollar commitment. For any person hearing this news, but especially any Black person hearing this news, feelings of great joy (and probably envy) overtakes your body. The amount of Americans shackled to some version of debt is astronomical, and it influences how Black Americans live their lives. It changes how Black people dream.

It makes sense that the news would bring great joy to many — including myself. I never attended Morehouse, but I am from Atlanta, and the Morehouse men’s influence on the city, Black culture, and Black possibility is undeniable. Many of the men I hold the closest and dearest have graduated from Morehouse and were shaped by the institution in positive ways. And even down to the announcement, I know personally many of the men’s lives that will be transformed in ways we’ve yet to see due to the economic debt being assuaged.  

With wealth that surpasses our best-known Black billionaire, Oprah, Robert Smith’s gesture can’t be seen as just altruistic. Nobody with the kind of wealth Robert Smith accumulated does much simply because it is righteous; it usually assists other profit-making projects. I’m thinking about tax write-offs, and I’m thinking about the good publicity acquired for the gesture that certainly shapes how Smith and his company are seen, and how this is good for business. Smith’s actions are not unique, even outside of capitalism. Actions done purely out of altruism are far and few between, but recognizing that the Morehouse grant (not the charity or donation) is as much of a business decision and strategy as anything else involving that amount of money does prevent sentimentality to cloud the reality.

The relief Robert Smith created was invented by a system that he has largely, as an individual, benefited from and had to assist in perpetuating in order to make more profit and gain power. I’ve never experienced the type of wealth that Smith has acquired, but I can imagine the guilt that would erode my consciousness knowing that I was living at such an extreme distance from other Black men, just like me and educated, but perhaps less lucky and unable to transcend cruel realities that many Black men face that are social, economic, and environmental. I would feel like the least that I could do was bring some relief to them. 

In short, I was not as moved by the billionaire’s action as I was brought a lot of joy — as I usually experience — when Black folks experience great relief, especially since it’s rarely something that is given to us, not bartered or sold. In the same way I enjoy seeing happy Black children, but I don’t feel warm or benevolent feelings when videos of happy Black children are playing with police officers. I can hold the visceral pleasure I experience from of a thing and the systemic critique surrounding it at once.

The realities for Black students and HBCUs remains dismal at large. The education-for-profit apparatus that America invented has become outrageously exploitative, and as the years go on, the numbers get higher. Leaving some people, like myself, unable to afford a college education. And it left some of my peers with debt so high that American dreams — business ventures, artistic pursuits that live outside of one’s occupation, and families — as pure fantasy. Black students and institutions are hit the hardest by the student-debt crisis, a crisis that we didn’t inherit like one inherits unfortunate genetics that may make you more prone to suffer from an illness. The inheritance of white supremacist capitalism was invented and rooted in the greed and the exploitation incentivized by American culture and systems. It doesn’t have to be our reality.

The exhausting narrative that white supremacist capitalism creates is the one of the altruistic, selfless giver and the lucky, grateful receiver. My problem with this — and the only reason I’d feel compelled to write about this — is that it continues the narrative of wealth being coded as good, and poverty, specifically here when discussing the men of Morehouse, it’s simply not having enough wealth, being coded as bad. Or having a lack of wits and work ethic. It divorces the person who is able to hoard wealth from the sense of responsibility they should feel to  community that looks like them.

The very concept of a multi-billionaire in a country with people experiencing homelessness, where people die because of lack of healthcare, and where there is an entire class of people barred from education and the workforce because they lack the resources and money to either be educated, or accumulate the debt necessary to be educated, should feel ridiculous and embarrassing. Any generous gesture that a billionaire does, including but not limited to Robert Smith, should be engaged as not a moment of glory or altruism, but doing the minimum for a community crushed by the system that you’ve been able to bend to your personal, subjective benefit. It doesn’t inspire specifically positive thoughts about Mr. Smith, I do not know him. It does make me think that if we are going to have an invention like the Black multi-billionaire in our society, the least the person can do is correct the suffering you no doubt benefit from.

Coming from this space of knowingness, I am left happy for the men of Morehouse — and all Black people when moments of relief and joy are produced — and disgusted with the system of white supremacist-capitalism that created this need for relief and the fleeting joy we celebrate. Which is the precise position I was in before Robert Smith’s grant announcement: I am simply not moved.