- The Color of Money: African Americans, Economic Development, and Identity in Kentucky
The February 1, 2010, edition of Louisville Business First featured a profile of Anthony Mathis Sr., president of Mathis & Sons Construction Company. Mathis, an African American, took over the company shortly after he graduated from the University of Kentucky and grew its annual revenue from less than $300,000 to roughly $9 million by 2009. His firm helped to build several impressive structures in downtown Louisville, including the KFC Yum! Center, the Muhammad Ali Center, and the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage. The article referenced Mathis’s strong relationships with local professionals or elites like the former mayor of Louisville, Democrat Jerry Abramson, and the former chairman of the Louisville Arena Authority, Jim Host. The author spent a fair amount of space on Mathis’s brief tenure on the University of Kentucky (UK) basketball team; he was a “walk-on” player who rarely saw time on the court and left the team after a season to focus on his studies. Further, the article mentioned how hard Mathis worked at creating opportunities for his firm and how he and his wife preferred spending their downtime with each other and their children; a spotlight section at the end of the article listed his “greatest achievement” as “remaining happily married for 11 years and raising godly children.” Although the piece lacked substantive detail on the inner workings or history of Mathis & Sons, it [End Page 161] provided a window into the ways in which economic history might shape our understanding of the past and future of the commonwealth.1
Importantly, the article said something significant about Mathis and his place within the realm of economic development in Kentucky. The business profile pivoted around the irony of a former UK basketball player working on the construction of an arena for the basketball team of his alma mater’s greatest rival. Because basketball appears to have been only a small part of Mathis’s college experience, it seems as if his short-lived stint on the team simply provided an opportunity for the writer to pique the interest of readers. More to the point, the piece identified Mathis with the iconic educational institution in the state, implied the significance of his access to Democratic Party officials, and described him as an industrious and sober family man. In this manner, the profile on Anthony Mathis did more than show how an African American firm can succeed; it showed how wealth creation and/or business ownership may help determine identity and privilege in the new millennium.
A number of scholars have articulated certain qualities that are essential to entrepreneurial activity and wealth creation; among them are: 1) resilience, 2) creativity and innovation, 3) initiative, and 4) diversity of activities to protect against unforeseen circumstances. Several scholars and business owners argue that these qualities are found in abundance in black communities. In addition, a new school of thought argues that economic development and success emerge in large part from access to networks that provide information, mentoring, and opportunities. As historian Pamela Laird has argued, “The America of our ideals rewards merit, and only merit . . . In the real America, however, opportunities have never been distributed evenly. Even in the nineteenth century heyday of new industrial and financial fortunes and so-called rugged individualism, most business leaders [End Page 162] came from privileged origins.”2 As Shelley Green and Paul Pryde have noted:
From the fictional creations of Horatio Alger to real-life John D. Rockefellers, Andrew Carnegies, and Steve Jobs, Americans have spun indelible myths about their larger-than-life entrepreneurial heroes. . . . Yet real-life entrepreneurs are as much a product as producer of the societies in which they live and operate. . . . [Therefore] we are behooved to understand the unique economic culture that has evolved from the relationship between black Americans and the larger American society.3
A deeper exploration into African American economic development in Kentucky suggests that racial stereotypes and retrograde cultural arguments fail to explain the lack of wealth accumulation and business development among people of color in the state. As Laird has noted, the “rule” that claims people...