The petite empire of Dr. Boyce Watkins is presently experiencing a bit of a legitimacy crisis.
This past week, a 2017 video surfaced in which Charles Wu—precisely the sort of execrable creature you’d expect to find writhing and wriggling around in the wet soil when you lift up the stone of the Marketing Copy world—could be seen videoconferencing with a colleague and congratulating himself on having stumbled upon what’s probably the most basic and elemental principle of marketing: emotion sells products.
In recounting his experience trying to develop a marketing concept for Dr. Boyce Watkins’ line of financial literacy products geared toward producing black wealth, Wu appears at an utter loss to be able to describe the actual products themselves as anything other than painfully ordinary, uninspiring, and offering effectively nothing beyond what is already available in the market. On the other hand, Wu becomes absolutely gleeful—literally giggling at one point in the video—talking about the moment he realized how, despite the products’ innate shortcomings, there exists a rich source that can be tapped into to reliably drive sales. That source is Black desperation.
“This was exciting for me as a copywriter,” he says, describing what must be the obvious thrill of realizing for oneself the long and profitable tradition of “selling hope,” as he puts it, to African-Americans. “We basically sell [Boyce’s products] as religion,” Wu continues, and in doing so, he not so subtly implies that the target consumer here is one whose exceptional and very real condition of economic desperation must be understood as highly favorable to exploitation. And that insofar as he can effectively use Boyce Watkins—and get his products to represent a particular idea of salvation—then they both stand to be the beneficiaries of that very desperation.
Despite his evident giddiness at the strategy, there is absolutely nothing less innovative than what Wu here describes. And to be honest, since Wu has opted to make a living writing marketing copy, it’s pretty unreasonable to expect him to have anything other than the most patently empty, predatory, and foul conception of human beings as things that exist only to sell stuff to. “They buy [Boyce’s products] just to feel good,” Wu says smugly, in a self-satisfied tone that reveals not only how enamored and impressed he is with his supposed savviness and mastery of the African-American “market,” but also the total disdain he possesses for the very people who comprise that “market.”
None of this should register as a shock. What should, and rightly has, excited loathing and disgust among a lot of people is how that attitude of basic contempt for black America has been easily and nefariously packaged in a very pro-black, public-facing component: a readymade, African-American financial ‘guru’ who goes out into the community and tries to sell them on the idea that by investing in his products, it will lead to a financially-secure and thus liberated future for themselves and their children.
This idea of black advancement—of black liberation without an attendant political component that can provide a sound foundation for even the possibility of meaningful black economic empowerment to occur—is one that is the very antithesis of what Yvette Carnell is advocating as a way forward for the African-American community in her work over at Breaking Brown.
In the aftermath of the video, Yvette Carnell has pointed out how the business relationship between Charles Wu and Boyce Watkins is in effect little more than the two having entered into an agreement to prey upon the extremely desperate situation of black America. She has rightly raised the critical question of how the African-American community should regard someone who publicly promotes an individualistic course of black self-determination, but whose private business dealings nonetheless involve, and depend on, a multicultural cast of capitalists whose very presence appear to give lie to Watkins’ notion of black self-determination. What does it mean, Breaking Brown asks, to give what little money exists in the black community over to a businessman whose own consulting firm sees him as being merely a cipher of black hope? Boyce is just a “character,” Wu says, a “pitch guy…my info-product guy.”
This juxtaposition of ideas—one that tirelessly pursues the claim of economic justice for the entire African-American community, and the other that explicitly rejects any such claim and encourages those people who are overwhelmingly the biggest victims of the economy (and thus the least equipped to endure its shocks and trappings) to try and build wealth for themselves in it anyway—is in many ways the central ideological choice facing black America today in their continued struggle for equality.
The deficiency of the latter choice should be obvious enough, as Breaking Brown has exposed the major contradiction of white capital being at the controls of an ostensibly black capitalist enterprise, and how this arrangement ultimately serves the interests of business by manipulating the emotional fragility that exists in the African-American community. Moreover, that fragility must be seen and understood as existing as a result of precisely the absence of the sort of large-scale, agenda-driven political activism that Boyce Watkins would have his community believe is an unnecessary corollary to obtaining financial security. In fact, as Yvette Carnell has been consistently educating her audience through the Breaking Brown project, collective politics is not so much a corollary as it is the very precondition for meaningful black economic advancement. And that the hidden costs of the community becoming or remaining depoliticized—seduced by the illusion of financial stability without having to do the very difficult but essential work of politically organizing around a black, reparative agenda—ensures their being targeted by opportunists and their willing utility in perpetuating their disadvantage.