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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Black, voting Right
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.
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.''
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?
run the GOP line for general public consumption, Johnson pulled
out his specialty spiel, the one marked, for-Blacks-only.
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!
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
hot for Kansas City
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.
Rightists rebelled. On September 18, the National Review wrote:
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."
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.
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:
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?"
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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,
Bond knew it or not, he was actually addressing Bob Johnson, whose
views are identical to those expressed in the Kansas City script.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
wealth and shame
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.
Parsons, the Black CEO of AOL-Time Warner, is an upfront Republican.
He co-chaired the Bush commission, and voted his class and party
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.
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.
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
of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security
text of the Black anti-Estate Tax letter and list of signers
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