Friday, April 2, 2010 Rewind - Race Peddling Poverty Pimps.

[Editor's Note: Tavis Smiley's recent dustup with Rebb'n Al has more folks questioning whether or not he's some sorta hater, or merely concerned with the Black community. I still can't call it, but enjoy this Rewind.]

The prevailing notion in the Black community seems to be that Tavis Smiley was sippin' Haterade when he made some incendiary remarks during last year's Presidential campaign. I could sorta understand some of the criticism, given the timing, but I certainly understood and agreed with Smiley's overall notion that folks should be levelheaded and ask questions, as opposed to being caught up in history. I liked Tavis before, and I continued to like him after.

One thing that's always sorta bothered me about Smiley is his sleight of hand when it comes to challenging Corporate America. Folks will likely remember that particularly bad incident when Smiley and Tom Joyner got ahold of a chain email about "non-Urban Dictates", and were asking listers to boycott companies like CompUSA, which allegedly had policies stating that they wouldn't run spots on black media outlets. The whole thing ended up being a farce for which Smiley and Joyner were allegedly threatened with a lawsuit, only to backpedal and drop the issue swiftly. Given that bit of curious activism, the fact that Smiley's once-interesting Negro Soundbyte Olympics™ annual State Of The Black Union has been sponsored by companies like Walmart and CountryWide which don't exactly have the of cleanest records. To the casual viewer, it's quite reasonable to conclude that Smiley is talking out of both sides of his mouth.

A recent lawsuit only adds to the issue of perception.
As the housing market began booming in the mid-2000s, Wells Fargo & Co. teamed up with prominent African American commentator and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and financial author Kelvin Boston, the host of “Moneywise,” a multicultural financial affairs show, to host something called “Wealth Building” seminars in black neighborhoods.

Smiley was the keynote speaker, and the big draw, according to Boston and Keith Corbett, executive vice president of the Center for Responsible Lending, who attended two of the seminars. Smiley would charge up the audience — and rattle the Wells Fargo executives in attendance — by launching into a story about how he hated banks, and how they used to refuse to lend him money for his real estate projects in Compton, Calif., and elsewhere. After Hurricane Katrina, Smiley also emphasized the importance of building assets and wealth, saying those who had done so were able to leave New Orleans, while people with nothing had to stay behind, Boston said.

The seminars in some cities drew standing room only crowds, with numerous Wells Fargo representatives on hand, seated at carrels to meet one-on-one with potential borrowers who lined up after the speeches, which were usually held in hotels. The free, day-long events were heavily advertised in the black media, and launched in eight cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Richmond, Va., and San Francisco.

But what appeared on the surface as a way to help black borrowers build wealth was actually just the opposite, according to a little-noticed explanation of the “Wealth Building” seminar strategy, contained in a lawsuit recently filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Wells’ plan for the seminars all along was to target black borrowers for higher-cost subprime mortgages, not for wealth-building, the suit charged. And the seminars were a part of the bank’s overall illegal and discriminatory practice of steering black and Hispanic borrowers into riskier and more expensive loans, the suit said.

Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders and a recipient of $25 billion in government bailout money, has denied all the charges in the Illinois suit, as well as other allegations of unfair lending. The bank did not respond to requests for comment on the seminars.
I have firsthand knowledge of what went on here, because, prolly like some of you, I actually went to one of these seminars about 5-6 years ago. The whole "flip this house" thing was a big novelty at the time, so when a seminar was scheduled in nearby Prince Georges County, I decided to go check it out. Much like the lawsuit seems to allege, the seminar wasn't really about "wealth building" at all, each speaker, including Boston (Smiley wasn't there) kept talking about "homeownership this, homeownership that". In PG County, which is the home of hundreds of black millionaires and the most wealthy majority black jurisdiction in the US, this was sorta like preaching to the choir. Still, I managed to corner one of the Wells Fargo reps during a break and ask her some pointed questions about how to best finance a flip. She was clueless, but have some a brochure outlining their programs to take home. AverageSis (who did home lending before becoming a stay at home Mom) took one look at the brochure and threw it in the trash. Although I clearly didn't know better, she did. And you wonder why I married this woman.

I'm not saying the lawsuit is valid, that's waaay above my paygrade. But I certainly walked out of that seminar feeling a bit mislead, given how the agenda was described beforehand. And I lost a wee bit of respect for Kelvin Boston, a guy whom I used to idolize when I tuned in to MoneyWise, for seemingly getting himself in bef with the wrong folks. I assume many who were duped are feeling far worse about Smiley right now.

The sad thing is, this sort of situation can easily overshadow all the good that a guy like Smiley's done throughout his career. It also makes you wonder why folks who've done so much good take silly chances in the name of just making another buck, apparently not realizing that people will likely remember your screw ups more than anything else positive you've done. Like the Al Sharpton's payday loan commercial. Or Jesse Jackson shaking down beer distributors. Or Magic Johnson pitching Rent-A-Center and its outlandish $2,700 13" TVs.

Or this monstrosity.


Seriously, folks, is it really worth all that for an extra buck? I think not.

Question: Does the "bad" you do outweight the good you've done? Did you go to one of those wealth building seminars? Is it sorta sad that guys like Jackson, Sharpton, and Smiley have to do this sorta stuff for money?

Suit Alleges Trusted Blacks Drew Minorities to High-Rate Loans [WashIndy]

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