National Press Club

BET founder Johnson warns of "wealth gap tsunami" without more jobs for minorities

February 1, 2012 | By Robert Webb |

Black Etertainment Television (BET) founder Robert L. Johnson announced at a February 1 Newsmaker the launch of Web-based OppsPlace as a company aimed at getting more jobs -- and more key jobs -- for minority candidates.

"As today marks the first day of Black History Month, I am pleased to announce that OppsPlace will go live on Feb. 13th, and I am confident that we will make history," said Johnson, the nation's first African-American billionaire as founder and chairman of The RLJ Companies.

WIth his partner, Ariel Friedler, president and founder of Symplicity Corp., he will attempt to get more companies to apply a voluntary version of the "Rooney Rule" of the National Football League (NFL) in their hiring.

Named after Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson said the rule requires the 32 teams "under penalty of a fine, to interview at least one qualified minority candidate whenever a head coaching or general manager position becomes available."

Johnson emphasized the rule doesn't require a team to hire the minority candidate, only to give him or her a chance.

"Since the Rooney Rule was adopted, the league has gone from three minority head coaches to eight minority coaches and six general managers," Johnson said. "Teams led by African American coaches have competed in and won the Super Bowl; of the five minority general managers in place during the 2011 season, four are from playoff teams."

The league also has more African-American quarterbacks since the Rooney Rule went into effect, suggesting it has some impact on the selection of players, Johnson said.

He said that "as a businessman and entrepreneur, I know first-hand the challenges minorities face in today's economic environment."

Johnson founded BET in 1980. RLJ is also engaged in four other companies. Johnson has adopted the "RLJ rule," modeled after the Rooney Rule, for companies that agree to its philosophy. He said many have already, and he named a number of them, including McDonald's.

"I'm calling it the RLJ Rule, not for pride of authorship," he said, "but as proof based on my own experience and success, and for what opportunity can mean for other minority Americans if corporations embraced the RLJ rule philosophy and practice."

Applying the "two-pronged RLJ Rule suggests that companies voluntarily implement a plan to interview a minimum of two qualified minority candidates for every job opening at the vice president level and above," Johnson said, "and interview at least two qualified minority-owned firms for vendor/supplier contracts before choosing a winner of a contract ... the RLJ Rule, like the NFL rule, would make certain that minorities are fairly and fully interviewed."

He said the income gap been blacks and whites increased tenfold the last 20 years with African-American net worth at $11,800 vs. $118,000 for whites. Meanwhile, African-Americans born in 1968 are unable to "attain the wealth of their parents," he said.

"I refer to these facts as an impending 'wealth gap tsunami' whose course, if not altered, will literally wipe out the already fragile financial standing of millions of African-American households," Johnson said. "It is time we reverse this pending disaster by taking immediate and specific action, and that is why I am here today."

He said government is not the answer: "When government gets involved it gets tied up in knots."

"Let me be clear, the reason for the gap in minority employment is not that minorities do not have a strong work ethic; it is not that minorities are uneducated and do not believe in education as a path to economic success; nor is it that minorities are not committed to saving and building sustainable wealth for their families. To the contrary, I know that minority Americans believe in all of these things and can succeed at the highest levels of economic competition if they are given the opportunity to do so."