Little has changed in the nearly two decades since Rock cracked those jokes. In fact, with the rapid legalization of recreational marijuana and the expansion of gambling, the bit is proving prophetic. Lucrative industries linked to social pain are still leaving Black people out of the picture.
Look at marijuana. The projected profit of the legal weed industry for 2021 is over $24 billion. The percentage of people of color who will benefit from this boom, however, is substantially smaller than their percentage of the U.S. population. In 2017, only 4 percent of marijuana business owners were Black. Meanwhile, those incarcerated for possession are disproportionately Black, and many are still serving sentences even as the industry polishes its new legal shield.
The world of legal gambling is following suit. Once the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on sports gambling in 2018, legalization swiftly spread from state to state. Some are introducing legislation gradually, but others have let down the floodgates entirely to sportsbooks and online betting sites such as DraftKings.
From Bumpy Johnson’s 1930s numbers lottery in Harlem to the brothers on my neighborhood corner shooting dice, Black folks have been instrumental players (and sacrificial legal lambs) in American gambling. Our community continues to over-index as consumers, too. But again, we are locked out of the windfall. Not one casino in this country is Black-owned. Imagine being a Black enterprise that has generated enough capital to bid on a gambling license only to lose out to White-owned companies with generations of wealth at the ready.
To heighten the irony, the revenue for the most lucrative sports gambling is generated by athletes of color and the leagues they drive. It’s yet another American endeavor built on Black ingenuity.
Sadly, these industries are also historically built on Black suffering. I came up in Detroit, and I have lived in Chicago, Philadelphia and across the American South. “Sin” industries have targeted every Black neighborhood I have known, and each is intertwined with the history of race. Some of them could not have thrived without enslaved Black labor; others have contributed directly to the incarceration of Black bodies in the explosion of the prison-industrial complex.
So this is surely no brief in favor of yet more gambling or drug addiction in vulnerable communities. But as the sunlight of legalization mitigates the suffering that can attend these behaviors, and as corporate America reckons with systemic racism, it would be a disservice to let the striking racial disparities of these industries escape notice. The Black people who once bore the brunt of the pain deserve to benefit from a bigger share of the profit under today’s healthier circumstances.
In a word, it’s time to up the ante. What we need is greater than equality. We need equity.
Equity requires not just that businesses have employees of color; that’s critical, to be sure, but often also a fig leaf for White enterprise. No, more Black-operated and -owned businesses must be permitted to flourish, too, via legislation that changes the game.
Maryland is a good example. The state’s new betting law provides licenses and grants to increase the number of Black participants, an effort underwritten by the application fees of industry bigwigs to offset the historic pattern of excluding minority investors and entrepreneurs. It also devotes funds to sports gambling research at historically Black universities.
Enacting the legislation is just the start, though. A “cannabis equity” proposal in Long Beach, Calif., seemed promising at first — it intended, among other things, to grant dispensary licenses to the unemployed and people previously charged with cannabis-related crimes. But since it became law in 2018, only one of 93 applicants to go through the equity program has gotten a license.
If folks can get this right, the benefits are many. Data shows that Black companies hire more Black and Brown people. Plus, they tend toward solid track records of social commitments to communities of color, regardless of what they are selling. Community engagement means something different when it’s coming from those few entrepreneurs of color who get by the gatekeepers of American capital. And maybe Black owners who have seen the suffering these “sin” industries cause can help alleviate it better than anyone else.
If things don’t dramatically change, though, we won’t be laughing much longer at Rock’s comedic insight. The dark joke that only Whites profit from pain will become the sad epitaph for Black enterprise.