The Forbes Top 20 Richest African Americans List: Reflecting on the list

By Michael Vass | May 9, 2009

$8,255,000,000. That’s a huge number. It’s a sum of money that normally only gets mentioned in relation to the actions of the Government, or the largest of corporation. But that also happens to be the total of the net worth of the <a href=
“” target=”_blank”>Top 20 richest African Americans as stated by Forbes.

There is no question that everyone on this list is impressive. There is no question that each person on this list created the wealth they have today (which is reduced just like the wealth of every American these days). They are all examples to follow.

But I was looking through the list, and a few things came to my mind. Observations that probably few notice.

  • The youngest person on the list is 30, the oldest 79
  • 65% of all the people on the list attained the bulk of their wealth via entertainment
  • Every person on this list attended, if not graduated, from college (I may be wrong about Jay-Z and Don King)
  • Only 1 person on the list ran a Fortune 500 company
  • Only 2 were involved in investments as the means of their wealth
  • Only 3 are women
  • 6 attained the bulk of their wealth directly from sports

    I take several things from this list. Some good some bad.

    It’s wonderful to know that Oprah is still a multi-billionaire and tops the list. I am also glad to see that women have done well, having struggled as much as any man on this list. And I note that all the women achieved their success without the aid of sports.

    The entire list includes some of the very best in the world at what they do, or have done. That includes: Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby PhD, Berry Gordy Jr, and you might even include Jay-Z.

    Several people on the list are visibly and actively giving back to the community. I say visibly because everyone on the list has made considerable and frequent donations to multiple charities and causes. But some are very outspoken. That includes: Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby PhD, Magic Johnson, Janice Bryant Howroyd, Alphonse Fletcher Jr.

    The thing that annoys me though is that there are so few that have had major success in business, or non-entertainment fields. Worse yet, the general public would be hard pressed to recognize the non-entertainers names. They are: Sheila Johnson, Quintin Primo III, Janice Bryant Howroyd, Herman J. Russell, Ulysses Bridgeman Jr., Tracy Maitland, Alphonse Fletcher Jr., and Kenneth I. Chestnut.

    The implication is that African Americans main avenue to success is limited to entertainment. That in some way other ventures are unworthy of attempts to grow. That the focus of the youth needs to be isolated to entertainment alone.

    This is reinforced with the media. The media lavishes over singers, rappers, actors/actresses, and athletes. The media pushes images of these entertainers almost exclusively, with shows on television and cable just because of their fame (ie. Snoop Dogg, 50 cent, Flava Flav, Russell Simmons, Xzibit, and several others have shows – not one non-entertainer of color has a show of any type, ever).

    In fact, while everyone on this list has at least gone to college, the media and the entertainment industries highlight the lack of education among those with fame. Rappers are constantly identified for their lack of education, and criminal behavior. The media never discusses the educational background of professional athletes, or most any successful person of color. I mean can you name what degree, in what field of learning and from what college, Tiger Woods has? How about Bill Cosby? Oprah? Quentin Primo?

    My point is that there is too much focus on the narrow field of entertainment. Like it’s a golden path. Everyone in lower income areas thinks it’s their ticket out. Whether it’s basketball, or football, or rapping, or whatever. But the fact that an intelligent mind is the only true ticket to lasting success should be the focus.

    Jay-Z would just be another guy that made records, if he were not intelligent enough to see and groom other business ventures. Michael Jordan would just be another record holder if he were not able to have created business deals that continue to reap more money than he ever made as a player. Magic Johnson grew his wealth and helped communities across the nation because of his mind, not his records or lifestyle.

    I can go on and on. But the fact is that success is more than just playing with a ball, or keeping a beat. It’s more than clothes or street credit. It’s not drugs, or criminal status, or bling. In fact, the people on this list are all almost exact opposites of what is shown off as success for people of color by the media. And that includes Jay-Z.

    Success and wealth in America can be attained by anyone. This list proves that in droves. If there is anything to be taken from this list, it’s the fact that anyone can join them as well. It just takes an education, thought, and determined work.

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