Give Me Some Wheels: Breaking Brown and Overcoming the Black Media Crisis

The accusation that either Yvette Carnell or Antonio Moore have been somehow deficient in providing a solution for the black community is a lot like complaining about a gas station attendant who, after filling up your tank, didn’t then convene a meeting with multiple agencies to coordinate municipality-wide road closures and personally escort you on a swift and hassle-free route of passage toward your destination.

In the analogy, it’s important to recognize what a veritable desert black-owned media has become in the U.S. since the 1970s.  And how on a very basic level, the existence of an entity like Breaking Brown—by which information and matters relevant to the black community can be promulgated and discussed—is a vital, agenda-creating plank of the multi-institutional structure that, if full equality is to ever happen, will most certainly be the thing that produces it.

As Antonio Moore, co-author of a recent report which effectively laid to rest the persistent myths surrounding the racial wealth gap, had noted back in 2016: “Joseph Torres and Derek Turner of the media watchdog group Free Press put the current grand total of black-owned and operated full-power TV stations in the United States at zero.” Also declining apace has been a national black-owned radio presence, which, over an 18-year period— from 1995 to 2013—saw a 53 per cent decrease in company ownership.

To understand how this relates to one of Breaking Brown’s central arguments; namely, the essential role of government in creating opportunity for black businesses to be successful by protecting them from being shoved out by larger capital holders’ ever-expanding capture of marketshare, it’s significant to note the year—1995—in which the national presence of black-owned media began to vanish.

The decline coincides with a landmark Supreme Court case, Adarand vs. Peña, in which a minority-owned business had been awarded a subcontract for a guardrail construction project along a highway.  Adarand, a white-owned business and the lowest bidder in the guardrail project, argued that the Department of Transportation—which had offered the primary contractor of the highway certain financial incentives if they subcontracted to disadvantaged (i.e. minority-owned) businesses—violated equal protection under the unconstitution.

The Court sided with Adarand, maintaining that “these programs stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority and may cause them to develop dependencies or to adopt an attitude that they are ‘entitled’ to preferences.”  And so going forward, the Court’s notoriously difficult-to-meet standard of “strict scrutiny”—which had heretofore applied to (and hampered) local and state affirmative action efforts—would, for the first time, also be applicable to federal affirmative action programs.  Consequently, this ruling then directly challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s having established race-based provisions in its competitive bidding procedures for obtaining broadcasting licenses, a decision which was intended to help “disseminat[e] licenses among…businesses owned by members of minority groups and women.”

According to a 2000 reportWhose Spectrum Is It, Anyway? A Historical Study of Market Entry Barriers, Discrimination and Changes in Broadcast and Wireless Licensing, “From 1978 to 1995, the FCC granted approximately 356 tax certificates to promote minority broadcast and cable ownership (287 radio, 40 TV and 30 cable licenses).”  Post Adarand, though, the FCC did away with all of its race-based provisions in competitive bidding, and those credits and deferrals on capital gains taxes that had once been available exclusively to members of minority groups were now made available to all small businesses.

The effect—like all colorblind policy in America—was to simply abandon to their fate black people whose unique history of centuries of wealth exclusion made them disastrously ill-equipped to withstand such exposure to the brutal forces of the market, and to couch this new form of anti-black discrimination in the race-neutral language of equal opportunity.

This legislative pivot away from race-specific corrective measures, and toward an apparent principle of impartiality embedded in the constitution, ensured the vitality of an economic system that to this day depends on the legacy of race-specific punitive policy being left intact.  That legacy—a vastly economically-underdeveloped class of people as a result of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining—is the successful design of  U.S. capitalism’s permanent underclass, the repository and source of its necessary failures.  And while an earlier phase of American capitalism required a fantasy of race to crudely and murderously forge this group, its latter and contemporary phase merely needs that group’s descendants to remain mired in the swells of economic privation.  To be—in other words–overwhelmingly represented and pooled in the category of high financial risk: the modern, ‘race-neutral’ disqualifier for access to wealth in the Adarand-era, wherein the discourse around policy became fully unanchored in the wealth-depriving realities of the past.

Greg Davis, a black radio station owner and industry veteran, speaks to how those historical realities—even if one is able to overcome the initial barriers to access—make obtaining the capital to then invest in the company a grueling endeavor and a stark reminder of how blackness in America signals, above all, financial liability:

“I found it extremely difficult—and even with my 25 years in the business, and even [with my] proven record [of] having been there for 12 or 15 years—it was still very difficult to get conventional financing.  So the cost of capital has always been a very strong deterrent for minorities participating in the broadcast industry…I want that to be very clear: that it’s not only the accessibility, but it’s also the cost of doing business. It’s been extremely difficult for us to come ahead.”

James E. Wolf, Jr., another black radio station owner who secured a broadcasting license in 1983 and who eventually sold his business, has a story that’s also consistent with the obstacle of capital acquisition being a matter of perceived credit unworthiness.

“(W)e tried unsuccessfully so many times [to raise capital]. . . . (T)hese are the pressures really that made me actually sell at this time, you know. It’s because I just got tired of begging people, even though you prove yourself over and over. I’m on the Chamber [of Commerce’s] Economic Development Board. I’ve won the pinnacle award of the Chamber of Commerce. I’ve won the small business award. I’ve won every large award—industry award—that you can win here, but I’ve never proved myself to banks.”

For Mr. Wolf, the reason is obvious: “The color of the skin I am in is the problem. It has been and still is.”

In this light then, the ‘badge of inferiority’ is not a thing ‘stamped’ post-factum by the programs aimed at ameliorating the legacy of being black in America, as was suggested in the Court’s Adarand decision.  The badge of inferiority—which is to say what black skin was made to economically signify in America—was branded onto slaves and their descendants as an economic necessity from the nation’s very inception. Crafted as such, race became the most prevalent and observable feature of what poverty and instability look like in American society, rather than—as it must necessarily be understood in order to fully eradicate the divide—the conceptual tool behind those conditions.

It is in this framework that the sheer paucity of black-owned media—that is, how virtually all of what black America watches, listens to, and reads on a daily basis is all increasingly being curated by and manufactured from a non-black perspective—is entirely correlated with decades of government deregulation and the legacy of capital-exclusion.  Critically, this deregulation is undergirded by the insidious idea that by giving preferential legislative treatment to a group of people who were for so long the victims of explicit, discriminatory policies, we sustain and keep alive certain notions of inequality rather than work to materially close them.  As a black-owned media company, Breaking Brown stands as not only an actual entity in opposition to the collapse of its kind, but as a vehicle that can work in concert with other black institutions—ones that also recognize the complete impoverishment of modern efforts at improving the material conditions of Native Black Descendants of Slaves—to intervene in the apparent collapse of the black community more broadly.

For those critics of Breaking Brown who characterize its position on the need for reparative justice as beggarly—that is, insofar as black institutions are pipelines into the community, then government must be understood as the primary valve through which subsidies and policies flow and fundamentally decide whether those institutions are able to adequately provide their services for the community—or that such a position is somehow unbefitting of a group of people who were for hundreds of years deliberately deprived of securing the chief means to make a dignified life in America—access to wealth—it’s worth considering the words of Erskine Faush, a black television station owner who acquired his license in 1989:

“. . . (I)t’s that access to capital. It’s that barrier. And, you know, you’re not necessarily looking for preferential treatment—and, yet, I could make a strong case to justify some [of it] because of past practices in the marketplace. I could make a strong case for that, but I won’t do that. What I will say is this: that once you remove the barrier that’s there, without help, you cannot move.  And that’s the one of capital.  You know, everything else, once you do that—give me the wheels to put on my chariot.  Do you understand what I mean?  I’ll drive it. I’ll run it.

“I don’t mind getting in the race with anybody else at any other level.  And let it be on initiative, your drive, and all those things that you ought to have to be a good, viable business enterprise, you know.  You don’t have to do that—you don’t have to go out and get the business for me.  I’ll go get it.  Do you understand what I’m saying? But the one thing I can’t get over is the fact that I’m starting at the starting gate and I’m expected to make the chariot go and there are no wheels on it. Give me some wheels and I’ll get at the race line with everybody else and line up, and let’s see who can run to the finish line.”