Why is Oprah the Only Black Person on the Forbes 400?
by Mazher Ali
This column originally appeared on CommonDreams.org on November 16, 2012
Oprah Winfrey is the only African American on the Forbes 400, a list of the wealthiest people in the U.S. In fact, she's one of only six known Black billionaires in the world, and she's the only Black woman with a fortune worth more than a billion dollars.
Let's take stock of how truly remarkable it is that Oprah became OPRAH— "Queen of Talk," media mogul, widely-heeded librophile, heavy-hitting do-gooder, and one of the world's richest people.
First, note that the Forbes 400 isn’t terribly representative of the U.S. demographic. While Blacks comprise 13 percent of the total population, the Forbes list is only one quarter of one percent Black. The Forbes 400 is a men’s club, with women—the majority of whom inherited their fortunes—making up just 10 percent of the total list. And, with well over half of the Forbes 400 having inherited a substantial fortune and 17 percent having family members on the list, it should be clear that financial success isn’t just a product of intelligence and strong work ethic—often privilege and birthright are all it takes.
Racism and white supremacy have been hallmarks of this country since the original colonists washed ashore, and that legacy, which continues to this day, is evident in the current racial economic divide. The median Black family, for example, has only 10¢ of wealth for every dollar of white wealth. Based on the rate of progress Blacks have made over the past 30 years, it would take over five hundred years for them to reach wealth parity with Whites.
Women have long waited for opportunities to participate as fully in the economy as men. Though women have worked outside the home since the 1800s, they were, throughout history, systemically barred from resources and institutions that could have helped to move them more quickly toward economic parity with men. Today, women earn but 77¢ for each dollar men earn, and there’s no rational argument for why that should continue to be the case.
Class barriers restrict the economic mobility of those born poor. The rules of our economy heavily favor the wealthy, making the adage, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” truer by the day. Over 40 percent of those born into the bottom fifth of the economy are likely to stay at the bottom. Over 40 percent of those born into the richest fifth are likely to maintain or enhance their socioeconomic positions.
Our country isn’t a beacon of opportunity as it’s so frequently depicted. Neither is it the cradle of democracy that those in power would have us believe. There are similarities between our current system and the nobility and family dynasties of the past. Money has poisoned the well of democracy. The richer you are, the louder your political voice—an idea made more literal with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that equated political spending with free speech.
In this post-Civil Rights era, white supremacy has adapted to function in insidious ways and continues to undermine our social order. Discriminatory policies and practices may be less visible, but the millions of minority victims of predatory lending, citizens who face systemic disenfranchisement by conservative voter suppression efforts, women whose freedoms and self-determination are under attack, and poor communities that are wading through the sludge of poverty can attest to their influence.
Post-racialists, on the other hand, argue that race is no longer a factor. To “pull the race card” is to be divisive. Let the past be the past, they say. If you’re thinking, Well, if Oprah did it…, consider that some people, because of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status or anything else beyond their control, have to work harder than others to realize a life of economic security.
As an African American and a woman and a person born in poverty, Oprah has faced more obstacles to financial success than most, if not all, of her contemporaries on the Forbes list. But, as we celebrate her miraculous rise, we can’t deny the existence of those burdens for members of racial and ethnic minority groups and for millions of poor Americans. Oprah is the exception, not the rule. Public policies are intended to govern the masses, and they should be designed to ensure the well being of the masses, rather than overfill the cups of the few.