Are Black "Success Stories" Really Holding Us Back?

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Is it time to critically interrogate the black “success stories” of pro atheletes and near-billionaires? Should we be identifying with the Junior Bridgemans and Magic Johnsons or with their thousands of underpaid and cheated workers? And what would a more reproducible black “success story” really look like?

Are Black “Success Stories” Really Holding Us Back?

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

“...How twisted are we, to abhor Herman Caine while we uncritically praise the black fast food “entrepreneurs” who paid his fat salary?...”

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine, both an actual friend AND a Facebook “friend” posted a link to an online story about Junior Bridgeman. He's a black former NBA player who instead of squandering his pro ball money like some do, used it to build a $400 million dollar “fast food empire” which by now includes about 160 Wendys and 120 Chilis restaurants. My friend offered the link, paraphrasing him only a little, as something inspirational, as a comforting tale of purpose and hard work rewarded, the kind of black-man-makes-good success story that ought to brighten anybody's day.

Except it didn't make me feel all that good. I'd feel a lot better about this success story, I said, if there was any reason to believe the conditions in Bridgeman's fast food empire were quite unlike those in the rest of the fast food universe. Did Bridgeman pay his workers a living wage, say at least $15 an hour? Do his workers have affordable medical benefits? Are his managers trained NOT to steal hours and wages from workers as is pretty common in that industry? As the single biggest Wendy's franchisee I noted Bridgmon likely has paid hundreds of thousands in yearly dues to the fast food restaurant trade associations which they use to bribe – excuse me, I mean “lobby” elected officials to keep his workers' wages low. And it works. For Junior, anyway. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has stayed around $2.31 an hour for more than 20 years now.

At some point I also mentioned that my friend worked for SEIU, because I imagined that being with one of the unions helping the fast food workers demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage should have made him ask these questions instead of me.

My friend didn't exactly welcome the questions. He accused me of “reflexively impugning” Bridgeman, and declared that although he had no idea what the Bridgeman empire paid its workers or what its management practices were, he was inclined to take the story at face value, as good news worth spreading around.

I confess that this disturbed me even more. I believe my friend is a conscientious guy with his head and heart in the right places. Why had it not occurred to him to ask these questions before offering his “good news” story about a black half-billionaire who's very likely to have been lifted up on the backs of thousands of underpaid and cheated and disproportionately black workers? Why are poor people applauding the black rich just for being, well, black and rich?

Remember the detestable Herman Caine, a Republican candidate for president in 2012? Caine was the head of one of the fast food lobbying organizations that has labored for decades to keep the minimum wage low. The trade association dues, millions each year collected from Junior Bridgeman and Magic Johnson pay the salaries of hacks like Herman Caine. How twisted are we, to abhor Herman Caine while we uncritically praise the black fast food “entrepreneurs” who paid his fat salary?

“ billionaires simply do not lift up the masses of Africans or of African Americans. Only collective action on the part of ordinary people can do that....”

In the real world of the first black president and unprecedented numbers of black faces in high military, corporate and government positions, black child poverty is rising not falling. Black unemployment is the same double white unemployment as it was 50 or 60 years ago and climbing. In the real world black women's wages are catching up with black men's wages only because black male unemployment is rising and their wages doing the opposite. Given all this, it should be clear to anybody without ideological blinders that lifting up black millionaires, black politicians, black entertainers and celebrating black celebrities does absolutely nothing to improve the lives of ordinary African Americans.

What these kinds of black “success stories” actually do is narrow the boundaries of our struggle to the individualized pursuit of wealth and status and consumption that neoliberal American prescribes. If we cannot or should not throw shade on Junior Bridgeman or Magic Johnson or whoever for their failure to stand up and pay a living wage, for their willingness to fund the lobbying that keeps wages low and makes it easy for employers to cheat workers, and all but impossible to form unions, then we close off any possibility of collective action that benefits the masses of our people.

The historic truth, as my friend upon some reflection will probably agree, is that black billionaires simply do not lift up the masses of Africans or of African Americans. Only collective action on the part of ordinary people can do that. The best example of collective action advancing the real economic status of black families in recent times is the New York City transit workers strike of 2005. That one single strike of less than a week protected the retirements, the medical care, the college educations and the homes of more black families than all the seven or eight black billionaires in the United States have in their entire careers. That is a black success story that corporate media will not tell us, and one that we have conditioned each other to overlook. But it's a success story that is far more reproducible – in the language of business – one that “scales up” far better than the individual success stories of Magic Johnson or Junior Bridgeman, or for that matter, of Barack Obama.

You can't ride someone's back, they say, unless that person bends over. Our unnaturally cramped and bent way of thinking, that refuses to interrogate black “success stories” is holding us back. This ain't the Oprah show, or “reality TV”. There's no new Camaro under your seat, and nobody's going to show up and rehab your house while you're off on vacation, if you can even afford a vacation, if you have a house.

The only ways out of the neoliberal trap, out of growing poverty and the prison state are the ways that traditional “success stories” do not allow us to imagine. They are collective organization, colletctive imagination, collective struggle and collective success. Slavishly worshiping the black rich and their individual “success stories” is truly holding us back.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report. He lives and works near Marietta GA and is a state committee member of the GA Green Party. He can be reached via this site's contact page or at bruce.dixon(at)


"My friend didn't exactly

"My friend didn't exactly welcome the questions. He accused me of “reflexively impugning” Bridgeman . . ."

Your friend is guilty of "reflexively impugning" you.  He's got the ethnoitis, that affliction that says anything/anyone black is "all good" and should be celebrated, supported, and admired no questions asked.   This is why despite being a union member, raising issues about wages and benefits (how about fast food industry lobbying for Medicare for All which would SIGNIFICANTLY lower their health insurance costs and that of their suppliers which could in turn lower costs of goods purchased for sale) was no where on your friend's radar.

There's nothing wrong with celebrating the "success" stories of the rich and famous.  What's wrong is that these stories dominate the headlines and conversations when more attention should be focused on how the average Joe/Jane can build a sustainable (financial, healthwise, educational, cultural) life when a multi-million dollar sports or entertainment contract will not be forthcoming.

The Other 'Issue' about Bridgeman's 'Successful' Franchise

Beside whether he's paying his likely mainly Black & Brown workers any where near a living wage- Is that he's likely put his Wendy's & Chili's fast-food [= junk-food] joints in mainly Black & Hispanic areas, where the people are already suffering from too many health issues due to obesity, diabetes, etc... Our people already have too many damn fast-food / junk-food / greasy-spoon joints in the hood, they need more access to franchises & stores that sell healthy / wholesome food at affordable prices. And/Or Bridgeman might invest in Black [or even white] farmers committed to organic farming, and help them bring their organic produce to the 'Hood'.


PS: Slightly off Topic but Related: When I first heard that another Black ex-basketball star, Kevin Johnson, had committed himself to improving education in Sacramento, I said to myself 'Wow that's Great'. But it turns out that 'KJ' had NOT committed  to improving Black [& Brown] public schools &/or developing truly 'alternative' schools for Black students, but has bought into & pushing the charter school hype- symbolized by his marriage to TFA alumni & ex-DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee[form].


PS-2: One would think that all these Black ex-Basketball stars would get together & start their own Black controlled basketball league since 75% of NBA players are Black. But Pro sports is run by a bunch of rich white guys [most of whom have never been athletes], who 'allow' the Bridgemans & MJs of the World to open fast-food / junk-food joints & movie simplexes in the 'Hoods' & 'Barrios'- as long as those white guys get a piece of that action too. How many NBA teams have a Black majority owner?- Only the one owned by Michael Jordan- which they even made  'Like-Mike' jump thru a bunch of hoops to get!!!


Back in the post Civil War, WWI, WWII, 1950s & 60s era we thought that a few Oprahs, Bill Cosbys, MJs [all 4 of them- 2 in hoops, 1 in track & 1 in music], KJs, Jay Zs & Beoncee's- & couldn't even dare dream of an Obama as POTUS- would surely lift all Black people to another level. Well now that we’ve seen how that movie turns out [a real O-Bummer], it's past time to turn the page to look for a new day & paradigm.

FYI: Oprah, Michael Jordan, & Obama have all adopted from my home-town of Chicago as their home. As far as I know they've done little if anything to help improve the lives of Chicago's Black population. I don't know if MJ has ever even sponsored any Black student sports / basketball leagues in Chicago, or if Oprah has sponsored any Black theater / media / arts festivals / orgs / classes in Chicago [let alone any home-less women’s & kids’ shelters]. But I do know about guys like MJ & his pal 'Chuck-Bark' &  C-Webb going to Vegas & blowing $100s of thousand$$$ in casinos in just one night!