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Why Do People Wear Their Wealth?

The term “conspicuous consumption” was coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in 1899 in his book “The Theory of the Leisure Class”. In his analysis of the correlation between the economy, society and culture, he posited that the wealthy made purchases to signal their economic status and accomplishments. Ostensibly wearing gold jewelry to display one’s wealth to others has been common practice dating back thousands of years across cultures and civilizations. The Incas named it the sweat of the sun and the Egyptians compared it to the flesh of the gods.

Today wearing an insane amount of “Bling” is par for the course for famous athletes and superstars. Among rappers, such as Fifty Cent, Kanye West and Jay Z, conspicuously wearing diamond encrusted gold and platinum cuffs, watches, chains and grills are a symbol of their net worth and status in their industry and its culture. The assumption that being flashy with your fashion and jewelry has always been linked to the African-American urban culture, however the political, historical and socio-economic forces driving these choices are not always apparent.

During the American Civil War, freed and runaway slaves trusted small banks established to be financially responsible for them. After the war, the banks left them with nothing claiming to have lost their deposits thus leaving them with practically no resources or access to capital. The systemic racism driven by slavery and the Jim Crow Laws systematically shortchanged Blacks from accumulating wealth thus widening the wealth and income gap between white and black Americans. Being able to accumulate wealth allows families to save in order finance their children’s education, provides a cushion of financial security in periods of economic uncertainty or invest in business ventures. Blacks were historically blocked from accruing wealth by government policies such as the Homestead Act, The Chinese Exclusion Act and the Social Security Act. Given such adversity to attain wealth, black Americans have developed spending behaviors deeply rooted in oppression and a deep mistrust of financial institutions. Many Blacks resist having bank accounts and prefer to rely on check cashing services and using prepaid debit cards to live an “all cash” lifestyle and instead to adhere to a portable wealth philosophy.

Wearing your wealth is a long established behavior that is not seeped in race or class but rather in the way law impose certain adverse economic agreements on targeted communities. Drug dealers, pimps and rappers are all part of a marginalized group always susceptible to entanglement with the law, the police and the court system. In these events, you may lose your home(s), car(s) and see your bank assets frozen. However, whatever is on your person at the time of arrest is returned to you later. So in essence as much as displaying your wealth is rooted in inciting envy and admiration from your peers it is a well calculated repudiation of a system designed to keep you in a lower standing in society. Furthermore, by projecting larger than life personas, some celebrities are creating a halo effect through which their way of expression becomes part of mainstream pop culture making them even more bankable. The question remains though? Are we better served by thumbing our nose to the system by abnegating its machinations to keep us financially inept or are we in effect perpetuating it?

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