Shaun King hit the spotlight again with social media buzzing after news reports that the political influencer lives in a “lavish” house on a lake in New Jersey with a price tag of more than $800,000.
Right-wing tabloids the Daily Mail and the New York Post each reported that the home was actually purchased last November by King’s wife, Rai King. The revelation added a new layer to the internet’s ongoing battle over King and his perceived accumulation of personal wealth and the alleged methods through which it has been attained.
Philadelphia-based journalist Ernest Owens is one of several Twitter users who pointed to a recent post from King encouraging people to send his wife love offerings for her birthday on CashApp or Venmo as an example of his alleged grifting. Once news of the house was made public, Twitter users questioned the framing of needing donations for his wife to feel better when she alone purchased a home costing more than $800,000.
According to Rai King’s Instagram profile, she has her own work and is listed as the COO for The North Star. Seemingly responding to the uproar, Rai posted a message on Instagram about her hope for little Black girls to grow up and make their dreams come true, including homeownership.
“But eventually, I hope you’re in a place where YOUR OWN hard work, determination, education, and gainful employment allow you to purchase the most beautiful, lovely, sweet home YOUR OWN money can buy. Whether it be a city condo, a country estate, or a ‘lavish’ home on the lake,” Rai King wrote in part on Sunday. “See, this world loves to tell Black women and girls how to stay in their place. They drag our character and question our every achievement. No way we can do these things of our own volition. We must be frauds!”
Rai’s message may resonate with many Black women who work hard and are still criticized for daring to achieve their goals. To a casual observer, it may seem like people are just hating on King and his family.
But public responses from both husband and wife often fail to grapple with the actual valid concerns raised, not the conservative nonsense, and why it may seem suspicious to some.
King, himself, responded to the controversy on Sunday with a private Instagram post, telling his nearly 4 million followers that the reports about his home “mean to get me killed.” He said he had to hire security for his home and now forbids his children from playing outside.
The issue with King is complex.
No one wants to amplify right-wing troll BS. Quick to dunk on the so-called left, these outlets and other social media accounts also have issues with accountability and transparency. But they will do anything for the clicks.
On the other hand, there are documented grievances from organizers, volunteers, former board members and other concerned parties that King has dismissed as hate or dissatisfaction. These accounts get thrown together with the conservative abuse instead of being addressed on their face.
Writing for the Daily Beast last Spring, Kali Holloway brought attention to issues with King’s media venture The North Star, including speaking to a few former employees. At that time, Holloway found that celebrity subscribers were donating up to $10,000 a month for access to the site.
According to Holloway’s report, the revamped The North Star, co-founded with independent journalist Benjamin Dixon, was supposed to have “world-class” studios and a staff of 50 journalists. It didn’t deliver on the initial promise. But when faced with failure, King dug in his heels and made excuses about being bad at business.
“Two iterations of broadcast news shows were scrapped, and their staffs and hosts fired before they ever aired, and Dixon was pushed out even as money poured in, and the site remained underpopulated,” wrote Holloway.
Holloway also uncovered discrepancies between the hefty financial accounting released by King in 2019 and reports of grants and other funding that had not been properly accounted for.
In the world of start-ups and venture capital, this might be regular run-of-the-mill stuff. If King and his wife were simply business owners living the American Dream, this would be a different conversation. But the fact that the public-facing earnings of the King family seem to come from movement and political spaces fuels demands of transparency and what some perceive as accountability.
And that won’t be resolved with one report.
Beyond King, there needs to be space for a conversation about the tension between being compensated for one’s labor and platform and when that line is crossed into personally profiting off justice work. This is not a new conversation.
The scene in “Malcolm X” where Minister Malcolm challenges Brother Baines on the accumulation of wealth by leadership comes to mind. Brother Baines responded that the people want their leaders to look good.
Most people would not bat an eye at someone living what could appear to be a lavish lifestyle to the average person at a time when so many are going without the basics.
The Kings, like all people, absolutely deserve to have a thriving, happy and healthy family. But, at the same time, those who make their living in the business of justice and equity may be viewed as having a duty of transparency and care owed to the spaces they claim.
Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, recently hammered home that point when she called social justice leaders for what she called “chasing clout.” She later specifically named Shaun King as someone who she accused of raising money off her son’s name. Calling him “a white man acting Black” and “an imposter that can not be trusted,” Rice said she “never gave” King “permission to raise nothing.”
Top earners in social justice and progressive political spaces are not necessarily the people who “do the work.” Leadership roles and high visibility often skew what work is actually being done.
Countless folks are grinding day in and day out, showing up in local, state and national forums who will never see the same level of compensation and access. The economic models and value systems of traditional organizations spill over into the social justice ecosystem.
Justice and equity work does not mean people have to commit to a life of poverty. And that should be true for everyone regardless of their status or platform.
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