By any conventional measure of success, Byron Allen has achieved more than most Americans can dream of. He currently heads the most successful Black-owned media group in history, with ownership of the Weather Channel as well as 36 ABC, CBS, and Fox television stations. And his current bid for the Denver Broncos could make him the first Black owner of an NFL team. But as he told Harvard Law School Lecturer on Law Stephanie Robinson ’94 in a Zoom talk Wednesday, he didn’t get there without overcoming some racial barriers.
“Being the lawyers that you are, you need to understand how this game is being played,” he said. “They kill us in the schoolroom by making sure we don’t get a proper education. They kill us in the boardroom by making sure we don’t get real economic inclusion. And they kill us in the courtroom by making sure we don’t have equal justice.” His advice to his audience: “Make sure that you close that gap.”
A media figure in her own right and the former CEO of the Jamestown Project think tank, Robinson engaged Allen in an informal talk that touched on his experiences with the law as well as his career path, beginning with his roots as a stand-up comedian and stretching to the formation of his media empire. “I tell everybody I’m a 60-year overnight sensation,” he said.
Allen also discussed recent lawsuits in which he went up against major corporations for racial discrimination. Last February, he settled a $10 billion case against Charter Communications, which alleged that the company was not carrying some of Allen’s stations due to racial bias. He is currently pursuing a $10 billion lawsuit against McDonald’s, accusing the ubiquitous burger chain of engaging in racial stereotyping by refusing to do business with Black-owned companies. A federal judge denied McDonalds’ request to dismiss the suit in late January, allowing it to move forward.
Allen said that he’d never realized institutionalized racism existed until he experienced it firsthand as he began his business. “A number of my salespeople said that TV stations were telling them ‘I will never do business with you as long as you work for that N’,” he said, not saying the word. “These are things that were just shocking to me, because I never had these thoughts and my mother never raised me like that.”
What he saw, he said, was a pattern of the four D’s: “They dismiss you, they discredit you when you speak up, they demonize you, and they destroy you. They perfected that on women: She’s a witch, burn her at the stake.’ Then they dropped it on Black people. That’s the matrix in which we live. And how do we get around that? Litigation. We have to file lawsuits.”
Today, he said, he is undefeated after filing $50 billion in legal claims. “You can’t demonize it because I’m happy. And you can’t destroy it because even if you get rid of me, the lawsuit lives forever.”
One key to this, he said, was section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. “It was put on the books to protect newly freed slaves, to make sure we had economic inclusion in commercial and government contracting. White people forgot that it was on the books, and Black people never even knew we had it. And I said, ‘Okay, the biggest trade deficit in America is the trade deficit between white corporate America and Black America. And I have to help close that because if we don’t, we will always have two Americas– and one of them will always suffer from economic genocide.”
Responding to a question from a student, Allen cited another example of injustice, the 1995 repeal of the Minority Tax Certificate Program, which gave a capital gains tax incentive to those who sold broadcast stations to minorities. This, he said, ended after Sumner Redstone bought Viacom and aimed to settle debts by selling his cable systems to Black entrepreneur Frank Washington, who would then have become one of the largest cable operators in America. “Certain white people in Washington got wind of that and said ‘Hell, no’. So, they went to President Clinton and said, ‘We’re going to mess up your health bill unless you get rid of this minority tax certificate’.” Clinton, he said, even agreed to make it retroactive by nine months, which killed the Washington deal.
Allen said that he once considered becoming a lawyer himself and recalled his youthful admiration for the style of Johnnie Cochran. Instead, he threw in with the entertainment world, writing a spec script for television’s “Sanford & Son” at age 14 and going on to write for the popular ‘70s comedian Jimmie Walker. But as he moved into entrepreneurship, he came to realize the importance of legal and business acumen.
“I quickly realized it’s not ‘show business,’ it’s ‘business show.’ And if you master the business, you can do all the shows you want. What I didn’t like was the scenario where I was being told what my value was, what I deserved to be paid — especially when compared to my white counterparts who were getting three, four, and five times more than me. That didn’t sit well with me, and I decided that I’m going to build my own entity, the way I watched my grandparents build it [with a roller-skating rink], and the way I’d seen [Motown Records founder] Berry Gordy build it.”
This led him to introduce himself to television producer Al Masini, who was then creating the wildly successful Entertainment Tonight. He jokingly recalled attaching himself to Masini, who became a friend and mentor. “He said he was taking some clients to an Italian restaurant that night and I said ‘Great, I love Italian food’.”
He also recalled a pivotal moment at age seven when his parents drove him through the most affluent section of Detroit. “We saw where the Ford family and the Chrysler family were. And then they said, ‘… And there’s where Berry Gordy lives’,” he recalled. “That statement changed my perspective forever– that this Black man that looked like me was living in this unbelievably super-wealthy white neighborhood, among the world’s biggest industrialists … He built something, and he built it from scratch. And I said, ‘That’s my hero, that’s what we’re going to do.’ It was the very first time I thought I may not go to the factory with my daddy and granddaddy. Maybe I will do something bigger that hopefully impacts the world.”