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Politics Mondays: Toward Hagar Activism by Cedric Muhammad

In several hours of viewing, I have watched Gwen Ifil, Rev. Al Sharpton, The National Association of Black Journalists, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Conrad Tillard, Angela Burt Murray, Armstrong Williams and countless others either complain about, beautifully articulate, make demands and/or analyze the problem of the quality and quantity of Black images on network and cable TV, courtesy of corporate America. There is only one person, however, who I have heard indicate they understood what action it would take to ensure that the broadcast image of Black people – in terms of numbers and substance - permanently improves.

Only, Ms. Jennifer Lewis Hall, motivational speaker and co-host of BET-J's "My Two Cents,” nailed it on the head when she challenged those appearing on BET’s special program, “Nappy Headed Who? Inside The Imus Controversy,” by saying that they should get their own show to secure what they desired the corporate media to do. Ms. Hall’s blunt exhortation is the antidote for the problem of inadequate or negative Black images on White-controlled corporate media.

Let me explain.

Essentially what Rev. Al Sharpton’s demand for a “federally regulated standard” of decency; Rev. Jesse Jackson’s call for more Black programs on MSNBC, NBC, and CNBC; Armstrong Williams’ critique of BET and’s Kim Osorio’s defense of Hip-Hop that it not be a scapegoat for Don Imus; all boil down to is either an appeal to the benevolence of corporate America and/or the acceptance of responsibility on the part of individual Blacks.

That will never work or accomplish what all of these concerned Blacks are seeking.

Protests for firings, demands for higher standards, and appeals to individual artists are nothing compared to the potential ultimate weapon sitting in the arsenal of the Black masses, professional classes, entrepreneurs and the Black artistic, intellectual, and activist communities – the ability to pool their resources and build institutions, platforms and business ventures that will present the desired images, and in the quantity that is hoped for.

Why will this work?

First, because it will allow Blacks to control content, personnel, and sponsorship. And Secondly, because it creates a viable alternative to Viacom, General Electric, News Corp. and Miramax Films for the Black consuming dollar. Boycotts are certainly a powerful means of shifting Black spending power away from the worst offenders in the area of projecting Black images and hiring talent. But ultimately they result in a Whites-only competition for the destination of those dollars.

In other words, when Rev. Sharpton and Rev. Jackson threaten to, or actually pull Black viewers away from CBS Radio or MSNBC; or when Black consumers are pulled away from Denny’s, Cracker Barrel, or even a state, like South Carolina, there are very few or no Black-owned or controlled institutions or platforms to which they can direct the masses or dollars they are pooling. And this has always been the Achilles Heel of the Black civil rights, progressive ideologue, and reactionary grassroots activist community. Because it values social and economic integration on equitable terms more than it does autonomy and sovereignty, it does not spend adequate time – if any – in actually spending the time, effort, and money necessary to build independent economic power.

Superficially viewing such economic nationalism as a call for Blacks to separate from White America into a land of their own (remember in 2006 how Professor Cornell West constructed a straw man’s argument out of Minister Farrakhan’s challenge to Tavis Smiley’s ‘Covenant With Black America’, and called it a ‘pipe dream’), the civil rights, progressive ideologue, and reactionary grassroots activist does not realize that ‘do for self’ is their best friend in negotiating with corporate America. While building Black media businesses (or supporting and challenging existing but struggling ones like Radio One) that can compete with Viacom’s (rather than be bought by them, like BET), News Corp,’s and General Electric’s and BET, CBS, MTV, NBC, and Fox News is not what the civil rights leader really wants (remember their primary value is not self-determination, but rather equality and acceptance by Whites and justice from them) it is the act that will strengthen his or her hand in negotiating with the corporate establishment.

While civil rights leaders, progressives, and grassroots activists are effective in periodically bringing corporations into line (as was the case in the Imus controversy) all of the corporations understand that they will not lose market share because of it, if they offer a diversified public offering and make the right donations. After all, the same corporations that advertise on Don Imus’ program, MTV, BET, and CBS Radio also are cutting checks to the National Association Of Black Journalists, NAACP, Urban League, and Rainbow Push Coalition. And the same companies that promote negative Black images in media, or hardly hire Blacks, also offer other products and services that Blacks do purchase.

The wisest of White businesspersons understand that Blacks can run away from, shun, avoid, boycott, or protest any one particular service or product that corporate America makes, but because Blacks, collectively don’t have any institutions that they control that can compete for their own dollars, there is only so far they can go from the consumer plantation.

In arrogant fashion, this is a point that Edgar M Bronfman, Sr. tried to impress upon Minister Louis Farrakhan, when the two met in 1996. Describing a moment in their meeting when Mr. Bronfman was trying to impress Minister Farrakhan with his wealth (and control of Black consumption), the Minister told Jewish reporter Mr. Jeffrey Goldberg, “…when I sat with Edgar Bronfman in the first maybe 10 minutes of our discussion, he said would you like a drink. I said no sir, I don't drink. Do you drink orange juice? Yes sir. Well, we’re involved in that. You go to the movies? Yes sir. Do you listen to music? Yes sir. He was letting me know that even if I didn't drink alcohol, [I was supporting products of his company, Seagram’s].”

From what I understand Minister Farrakhan then effectively shut down the conversation, silencing Mr. Bronfman, Sr, on this point, by brilliantly referencing Surah 22 verse 73, in the Holy Qur’an, which reads: “O people, a parable is set forth, so listen to it. Surely those whom you call upon besides Allah cannot create a fly, though they should all gather for it. And if the fly carry off aught from them, they cannot take it back from it. Weak are (both) the invoker and the invoked." The point the Minister was making, was clear – for all of the apparent power you have, you cannot even control a fly; and for all of the wealth you own – you will not be able to take any of it with you, when you die, and neither will any of us.

While, in answering the multi-billionaire, Minister Farrakhan, appealed to a divinely-regulated standard to show the inevitable ‘equality’ of all men, rather than a federally-regulated one (as perhaps Rev. Sharpton would have); the Minister, and perhaps all Black entrepreneurs understand that a part of the collective response to Edgar Bronfman, Sr.; MSNBC, and any corporation, would be to present black-owned businesses on the scale of MTV, Comedy Central, Time Warner, Universal Vivendi, and Clear Channel, that broadcast the image of Black people exactly the way that we desire.

The story of Hagar, from the Bible and Muslim tradition, revolves around a woman being on her own, with a child, wandering in the wilderness, searching for water, going from hill to hill. It turns out that none of the hills produced or offered what she was looking for. It was only when she gave up on wandering back-and-forth, demonstrating incredible patience and fortitude, that God blessed her to see what she was looking for – a well springing up near her feet. Muslims commemorate this story in symbolic rituals conducted during the observance of Hajj.

Whatever, the belief system or religious preference of Black activists may be, there is something that can be learned from the Islamic view of this story, and it is that sometimes, when you are not getting what you desire from external sources, there may be a reward waiting for the individual who turns inward.

What Black leaders are seeking from Corporate America, if it is consistently obtainable, may only be possible, if they turn inward and do some heavy lifting of their own.

Only when Corporate America realizes that Black activism is seriously including institution-building, entrepreneurship, and cooperative ethnic economics (as the Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrant communities historically have) along with its political protests, boycotts, grievances, and complaints, will it realize it is perilously close to losing the $800 billion annually in Black spending power that it has come to depend upon.

Then, will we truly give new meaning to equality and the power to define.

Editor's Note: This commentary was originally featured in April at The Black Coffee (

Cedric Muhammad

Monday, May 7, 2007

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