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By Dr. Julianne Malveaux —

Americans have always, in equal measure, been more than willing to tear down somebody’s reputation as they have been to applaud a good comeback story.

Take one of the country’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, whose political career was riddled with high-profile ups and downs – from election losses and public bouts of depression to the Emancipation Proclamation and victory over Confederate forces in the Civil War. Or more than a century later, there was Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was widely viewed as ineffective and troubled, but his post-White House career saw him become one of the globe’s most respected diplomats.

While Americans love a good redemption story, not everyone is judged on the same scale – especially when you’re Black. White men in power have historically had a much easier time rehabilitating their public images, or avoiding the worst abuse in the press, than Black men, which holds true in all aspects of public life.

One tragic example is the case of brothers Lee and Dennis Horton. The two brothers spent almost three decades behind bars for a murder they didn’t commit before being granted clemency in 2021. Despite overwhelming evidence of their innocence, no previous criminal records, and a history of becoming mental health counselors in prison, running a prison substance abuse program, and starting a restorative justice initiative, the brothers – who worked on the campaign on incoming Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman – were constantly labeled murderers and had their names dragged through the mud during the election season.

And this type of racial profiling is evident across all class and socio-economic lines. Take, for instance, philanthropist and billionaire Robert F. Smith, who has been unable to escape widespread criticism in the press regarding a federal tax evasion inquiry.

Smith reached a non-prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ), agreeing to pay $139 million in fines and penalties, to forgo claims he made on his tax returns for $182 million in charitable deductions in 2018 and 2019, and to help federal prosecutors in their case against Texas billionaire Robert T. Brockman. Despite this hefty penalty, the media has consistently run stories lambasting Smith as a “tax cheat” and calling into question how he avoided prosecution.

While this is nothing new for a headline-hungry media, it is particularly galling compared to the lack of coverage other private equity firm executives or cryptocurrency fraudsters have received for their misdeeds – especially as Smith’s philanthropic and charitable work continues to be largely ignored.

While Smith does lead Vista Equity Partners, it is not a hedge fund and instead a private equity firm. However, look at the $7 billion in fines that executives at hedge fund Renaissance Technologies LLC agreed to pay to the Internal Revenue Service to settle a tax liability earlier this year. While the settlement was one of the largest in IRS history, it created only minor ripples in the business press and quickly fizzled out.

Meanwhile, Robert F. Smith is in the headlines constantly. This is partly understandable, as Smith has created a much larger public persona than the executives at Renaissance, and is the singular face of his company. But Smith’s persona is much more than just his hedge fund and the media could spend more time covering his philanthropic work – like his donations to HBCUs, paying off the student loans for Morehouse graduates, his work in combatting prostate cancer in the Black community – instead of focusing solely on his legal problems.

Indeed, perhaps the focus on Smith may be a function of his philanthropy. Would he be so scathingly analyzed if his contributions had been made to organizations other than the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) or the United Negro College Fund?

All too often, it is difficult, if not impossible, for Black men to escape their mistakes or the image that has been cast upon them. This is galling, especially when one considers the pass that white men are given for all kinds of questionable behavior. The Horton brothers are victims of that, and so is Robert F. Smith. America loves a comeback story, and everyone should have the opportunity for one, even when it’s a Black man at the center of the story. Supposedly, our country wants to ensure that everyone has a fair shot and the opportunity to redeem themselves for any actual or perceived mistakes in the past. In that case, we cannot let the color of someone’s skin be the arbiter of their reputation.

Featured image: Robert F. Smith

Dr. Julianne Malveaux

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a member of the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), an economist, author and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State University at Los Angeles.