Thursday, January 08, 2015


What could be more innocuous than a light bulb? Sure, its discovery careened the Industrial Revolution into hyper drive but, at the end of a modern day, it's just a light bulb. The heart of the porch light. The glow filling the lamp shade above my reading chair. A box to check off on my next trip to the store.

The light bulb. Who would imagine there was a cartel in its history?

Well, there is.

In 1924, several of the world's leading manufacturers met in Geneva to hammer out a pact: they would produce inferior products. Specifically, each company agreed to engineer bulbs with shorter life spans. Prior to this convening, light bulbs burned for up to 2,500 hours. By 1930, bulbs around the world lasted for a mere 1,000 hours. The Phoebus cartel, as they named themselves, was comprised of seven companies hailing from six different countries (General Electric included). This tiny consortium authorized themselves to redesign the industry landscape with the express goal of increasing sales volume. Not only did they snuff out smaller businesses and position their brands to still dominate the market today, the Phoebus cartel is also responsible for introducing the practice of "planned obsolescence."

Who would imagine?

I was a teen when my mother told me how the early American highways ripped though black and/or poor centers of the city by design. The intent, she explained, was to pollute our neighborhoods and lungs with exhaust. I remember feeling distrustful of this idea of deliberateness. To that point, I think I believed "isms" to be biases that people inherited and later learned to leverage, maximize or overcome. It was challenging to find space in my head and heart for an image of stern white men in vests that pulled across their rounded stomachs filling a salon with their cigar smoke, their guffaws and their manufactured wizardry to deliberately dismiss, demean and desolate another community of humans.

Who would imagine?

In college, I learned about the Willie Lynch letters, a printed guide on how to deconstruct human beings into chattel slaves. As a young adult, I learned about the Federal Housing Act, codified agreements between banks, realtors and insurance companies to redline and relegate black families to only the most decayed areas of our American cities. I even learned that the SAT exam was designed by a Princeton and Harvard-educated supporter of eugenics expressly as a tool to prevent blacks from entering college. Year after year, history burps up acrid reminders of the wicked maneuvering to oppress and marginalize people of color. Deliberately at each outset, not as convenient byproducts.

I know. Hard to imagine.

But, this year, we have to. All of us. We have to spread these truths across our national table and peer awkwardly at the mess. Over here, music monopolies collude to recast base and sensational caricatures of black people as accepted characterizations. Over here, black preschoolers are three times more likely to be suspended than little white boys for the same rambunctious behavior. Here, police officers are held blameless for murdering innocent black men and boys. And, right here, we see private prisons invest a decade of energy and $45 million to lobby for stricter sentencing laws in order to increase the volume of convictions and contracts.

Deliberateness. We have to begin our discussion here. Right here. On the inflamed and tender scar that is our American legacy of systemic and institutional racism.  At a casual glance, it's easiest --safest- to think we're only passing a light bulb.  But the histories reveal so much, much more.