Something I read the other day brought me back to one of Black poet Jon Kasandra’s most thought-provoking observations: “All poor people ain’t Black, and all Black people ain’t poor.”
That came to mind as I reviewed Forbes magazine’s annual “Billionaire’s List,” which happened to include, this year, the richest Africans on the planet.
Without reminders such as the Forbes list, it’s easy to slip into the grossly inaccurate belief that there’s something peculiar to Black DNA that facilitates poverty, or makes us incapable of handling large economic resources.
Many of the stereotypes about Africans and their “natural inclination” to lack wealth and to be economically incompetent can be traced, of course, to the oppressive impact of the colonizers and the specious “logic” of the pre-colonial slave traders and slave masters. These ruthless businesspeople easily rationalized mass kidnapping, brutal treatment and lifetime bondage of Africans.
They did so in large part by repeating to anyone who would listen that the act of bringing Blacks to America was actually good for the future slaves, as it represented a vast improvement over the “horrible conditions” the “poor savages” would have had to face if they had remained with their own families, in their own homes, in their own countries, in Africa.
To the contrary, the Forbes list, and others like it, remind us that Africans, and by extension African Americans, much like people on all the other continents of the world, have a keen understanding of economic issues, and are no strangers to wealth-building, or to caring for their own people, left to their own devices.
In fact, unencumbered by the stereotypes of Black incompetence foisted on African Americans, African immigrants have created an exceptional record of achievement — perhaps most notably in academic pursuits.
Despite the fact that about 15 percent of the people on Earth are Africans, over the past 45 years the U.S. has only taken in only about 850,000 Africans, or 3.3 percent of total U.S. immigration. Perversely, prior to that time, from 1965 back to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, the U.S. imposed a quota on non-Egyptian African immigrants of 1,100 persons per year, which was subsequently increased in 1952 to 1,400 Black Africans annually.
So during the “glory years” of European immigration, Black Africans were essentially excluded from having opportunities for U.S. citizenship.
Despite all that, those who were admitted have made great strides toward eliminating the “inherent Black lack of intelligence” stereotype that even today has been far too widely accepted by the American people.
For example, if the American people had been paying attention, they would have noticed that 48.9 percent of all African immigrants hold a college degree — that’s more than twice the rate of U.S.-born white Americans. They might have also noticed that by 1997, 19.4 percent of all adult African immigrants in the U.S. had attained a graduate degree, as compared to just 8.1 percent of adult white Americans.
Forbes also disclosed that there are now 1,210 billionaires worldwide, who hold a collective $4.5 trillion in wealth. Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is that increasingly the wave of global billionaires is not flowing from the U.S. and Western Europe. Instead, as a reflection of the overall shift in global economic influence, they’re coming from emerging nations.
Indeed, in 2011 one in four of the world’s 1,210 billionaires are citizens of one of the BRIC nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China — a group that recently sometimes has also included South Africa.
Five years ago, by comparison, just one in ten billionaires lived in those countries. Even more to the point, of the 214 new billionaires added to the Forbes list in 2011, 108 came from one of the four BRIC nations.
There are lessons to be learned.
The first and most obvious lesson is that when we compare the wealthiest Africans with the wealthiest African Americans, the wealth of rich Black Americans appears to be almost paltry. The five African billionaires, for example, have an average net worth of $8.3 billion.
They earned their money “the old-fashioned way,” and they include people such as Nigerian Aliko Dangote, ranked as the world’s richest Black person, and the 51st wealthiest person on Earth, with a personal net worth of $13.8 billion. Dangote generated his billions through sugar, flour, textiles, real estate, oil and gas.
Following Dangote, at $12.3 billion, is Mohammad Al Amoudi, he of the Saudi Arabian father and Ethiopian mother. Mr. Al Amoudi, who ranks as the 62nd wealthiest person on the planet, derives his wealth from the oil business. Third on the list of wealthiest Black Africans is Mike Adenuga, whose initial net worth figure as reported by Forbes was “just $2.0 billion.”
A huge controversy ensued regarding Forbes’ inaccurate report, and new postings have more accurately assessed Adenuga’s wealth at a minimum of $10.1 billion, and perhaps more than that of his countryman, Dangote. The fourth wealthiest Black African, ranking 336th in the world, is Patrice Motsepe, at $3.3 billion. Motsepe, a South African, purchased a gold mine in 1994 as soon as Blacks could legally do so in South Africa, following its “democratization.”
Fifth on the list is the high-profile business mogul Mohammed “Mo” Ibrahim. A self-made billionaire and the 23rd richest person in the U.K. with a net worth of $1.8 billion, Ibrahim is a native of Sudan, and earned his money by founding Celtel, a mobile phone company that now serves 23 countries in Africa and the Middle East. He sold the company in 2005 for $3.4 billion and promptly put $1.4 billion “on his hip.”
To his everlasting credit, Mo Ibrahim has grown to become one of the word’s most important philanthropists. Through one of his foundations, he has created a lifetime award in the amount of $5 million for ten years and $200,000 annually thereafter, to be presented to an African head of state who has retired within a preceding three-year period, and who has left his country materially better off and more transparent.
Clearly, with examples such as Ibrahim, what the world needs now is more Black African billionaires.
By comparison, the richest African Americans, while admirable in their own right, aren’t really operating on the same national or global economic level as those back in the “mother countries.”
For example, the top six wealthiest African Americans (and we have to include six of them because behind the top two, we have four African Americans who are tied for third place, with the exact same reported net worth levels), are Oprah Winfrey, No.1, at $2.7 billion; Robert Johnson, second, at $550 million; and then Sean “Diddy” Combs, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, tied at $500 million each.
That comes out to an average net worth of $875 million, per person; without Oprah’s $2.7 billion in the calculation, the average drops to $510 million.
What I find most interesting is that while each of the top wealthiest Africans earned their fortunes in infrastructure-related pursuits, such as gold mining, oil and gas, agriculture, telecommunications ownership, textile and real estate development, every single one of the six wealthiest African Americans, on the other hand, traces his and her fortune back to either sports or entertainment.
They have gold mines, we have “hip-hop.” They create and run telecommunications firms, we play basketball. They provide incentives to government leaders to improve the quality of their governments, and the treatment of their people across the continent; we’re still working to improve the next talk-show format.
It appears there are great things that African Americans can learn about success and self-determination from Africa.
I hope we do so. It’s getting late.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.