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Why “Buy Black” Ain’t Nuttin’ But A Word (Unconventional Wisdom) (Guest Post)

By Thembi Ford

Maggie and John Anderson, a black couple in Chicago, started the Empowerment Experiment – for the next year they will only patronize black businesses, which so far has meant traveling between four and sixteen miles for such common needs as banking and grocery shopping. So far they’ve spent $45,000 at black owned establishments in 2009.

More after the jump.

Yes, I said $45,000. Maggie, a lawyer, and John, a financial advisor head a family of four but their disposable income is still well above average. Sixteen miles isn’t too far to travel to make sure your dollar is spent well, but it’s certainly a luxury that not all of us can afford. I can’t wait to hear about the experiment’s findings, but in the meantime should the rest of us feel guilty about not buying black? Conventional wisdom says yes, but unless you’re capable of what the Andersons admit is a ‘sacrifice’ (read: charity), my answer is no. Supporting black businesses is ideal, but sadly, on a large scale it’s an economic losing battle with an overly idealistic premise.

It doesn’t take a Harvard economist (which I happen to be) to realize that multinational corporations are taking everything over. Where there used to be Mom & Pop hardware and grocery stores there is now just one huge Target, and that’s not a color issue, it’s a capitalism issue. The Walmartization of America across every industry hasn’t just excluded black people, it’s excluded “the little guy,” and thanks to efficiencies of scale the multinationals can offer everything cheaper and faster, meaning they’re more likely to get whatever pennies we have to spend these days. Burning gas money to get to Costco makes sense economically, but traveling the same distance to get less for you money but put said money into a brown hand – or even into “the little guy’s hand”- just isn’t practical for most people.

National trends aside, the movement of black dollars is especially funky. For example, Koreans overwhelmingly dominate the black beauty supply network (and depending on your city, Chinese/Vietnamese nail salons and corner stores), but this is yet another product of capitalism. The average Korean could care less about black hair; in fact during a trip to Seoul my brassy naps were a curiosity meriting laughs and points from locals. But when I walk into a beauty supply store in West Philly the Korean man behind the counter accurately points to a package of Afro Kinky #33 and if I choose not to enhance with extensions he knows just what shampoo would work best for me. These are businessmen using the same Sneaky Pete business tactics that every other business in this country is built upon – put competitors out of business, lock up the market for insiders, be a product expert, and fix prices so that the customer can’t go elsewhere. Black hair care is not exempt from the laws of economics just because we hold it near to our hearts.

Why don’t more black folks own these businesses ourselves? Aside from being pushed out by what are simply bigger or better businessmen, our work ethic is just not built to compete. Black American economy began with producing for others without pay, so it’s no surprise that we traditionally define “success,” as having a good job working for someone else. Black Working Class parents raise their children with aspirations of becoming Middle Class, black Middle Class parents raise their children to be…mo’ betta black Middle Class. Get a good job at a good company, maybe even become a VP, but not prime stakeholder in a corporation, inventor, or anything with true agency. The focus on entrepreneurship is just not present in our community on a widespread level. I suppose this is why I patronize a black-owned laundromat but otherwise have to ask “what black businesses?”

When it comes to ‘giving back,’ I’m not sure I buy that so much either. Contrary to our belief that beauty supply stores, for example, “don’t give back to the community,” every beauty supply store I’ve ever been into has a handful of black beauty consultants on staff. Furthermore, if a black guy owned Wal-Mart would be he be “putting money back into the community” or just hiring the best people and organizing a charity basketball game here and there? Once I find a black business, what is the brother gonna do with my dough? Hire Mexican migrant workers? Invest it in the stock market? Or, as we fantasize, “give back,” although we’re not really sure what that looks like? Believe me, I’d rather give my money to a black person when all else is equal, but equality and capitalism have simply never mixed.

Thembi Ford is the author of the blog What Would Thembi Do?

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71 thoughts on “Why “Buy Black” Ain’t Nuttin’ But A Word (Unconventional Wisdom) (Guest Post)

  1. April says:

    I hadn’t refreshed this page in a while, so I see some of my earlier points have been addressed. But re: this:"My story is not unique, unless someone can truly debunk conventional wisdom and demonstrate that there’s a plethora of black owned businesses out there that have formed and failed at rate different from those of business owned by any other ethnic group."…I think the link I provided on access to capital shows there are differing rates of failure for businesses based on race, and capital is a key factor in that. I would argue that our history of self-sustenance gives the lie to the notion that we’re just not inclined to create our own wealth.

  2. @AprilThanks for reading, but the idea of lack of access to capital was also addressed as a foundational issue, which is very different than present existence. The excerpt you just took from one of my comments was to another point, which is that black businesses are disparate and require effort to find and travel to. If you live in a place filled with black businesses (which I do not, even hair salons are owned by Asians/Jewish people) I’d love to come visit.

  3. April says:

    @Thembi:I don’t follow. It’s not like capital is something you only use to start a business and then you don’t need any more. What are you saying, exactly?I’ve lived in places with substantial black populations all my life, so it’s never been a problem for me to find black businesses. And most of my black friends and I go to black-owned salons and barbershops…it’s not like black businesses are some anomaly, which this post seems to imply. No, they might not be gigantic corporations, but most businesses aren’t.

  4. @AprilI don’t think black businesses are some anomaly, as Ive mentioned they’ve been in (and still are) in my family, and by no stretch of the imagination do I think that inherent characteristics of RACE (a la 1800s racism) as opposed to CULTURE are a reason for anything. But black businesses are just few and far between especially when compared to how many of us there are. I live in Philadelphia where there are plenty of black people (and black owned businesses beyond barbershops and hair salons, which I have to insist are STILL predominately OWNED – not operated – by non-blacks). Almost half of the city is black but nowhere near half of the businesses are, especially across all industries, and as suggested by mention of the experiment that starts the article, a decision to only patronize black businesses requires considerable effort. The multiple times that I said that Id rather give my money to a black person didnt seem to register with any of those with criticisms, but for example I have only been able to locate ONE black-owned beauty supply store in the Philadelphia area and that is actually outside of the city and a good 30 miles away from my home. Further, I also never said (nor do I believe) that black folks are "incapable" of creating wealth – that is jumping to conclusions. I spoke of *competition* where some people are just outdoing us in entrepreneurship, which is a very far cry from an inability to do anything at all. Again this is not race based, its culture-based. And while I agree that access to capital is a factor, as I also already mentioned, I dont think its the only factor but it IS the one that we can’t control, and therefore not particularly central to my argument. Our mentality about the importance of and how we create wealth is relevant today (just like you mention the collectivism of immigrants, THAT is a business tactic that we do not use, in my opinion because you must to HAVE to collect). Real talk: black folks are outdone in plenty of areas by other groups, and there are some where we outdo them. We are not thriving the way that we should and could. Don’t shoot the messenger.Since many of the comments on this post have been longer than the original piece, Im sure that this topic merits more than 800 words (I aimed for 500) so perhaps you might consider that before attacking it as incomplete or not thought-out.

  5. Anonymous says:

    What America needs is more educated black people. That is the problem. Too many blacks drop out of school too early to become whatever it is they want to become, be it gang members or janitors… they take the easy way out – most of them. This is merley an observation, not a hateful remark. But there are those that can and will make a difference in this country. The same is true for all races, but blacks seem to be the ones that just start feeling sorry for themselves once it’s happened, instead of making a comeback and doing something about it."Black American economy began with producing for others without pay, so it’s no surprise that we traditionally define “success,” as having a good job working for someone else." Get over it, slavery ended in 1865 (ok not instantly overnight) but I think it’s safe to say that the only ones that feel sorry about that today is… you guessed it, the blacks. Yes it is a fact, and yes it is horrible that it happened, but so is many many many other things in this nation’s great history. We have a black president now, I think it’s time to put the "But my anscestors were slaves!" card away and stop feeling sorry for yourselves. And if Mr. Obama can rise to be something as awesome as the President of the United States, there is nothing stopping the millions of other black Americans from bettering themselves and doing something great with their lives. Stop moping about and better yourselves.

  6. Court says:

    "That’s the main purpose. To look at ideas, beliefs, stereotypes, et al, and discuss what is true in your eyes and what is not. The series title is simply a reflection of its purpose."- Danielle BeltonSee this is what I’ve always seen this series as: a collection of ideas, beliefs and (often) stereotypes meant to encourage discussion, however the title just confused me. It suggests that the author is offering an alternative, atypical view of certain topics that’s different to what’s mainstream. For the large part, most of these posts are a rehashing of common threads of thought. Which is fine, but the title "Unconvential Wisdom" comes across as false advertising. I think that’s the problem some of us have.

  7. @ CourtI can see your point about the series title, but I have tried to be open to a diversity of thought from others, including in the comments. And as always I appreciate the feedback. I do read it and do listen.

  8. Irene says:

    @ MonieYou re posted one of my comments, so I’m responding in regards to that.I never said I resent all Black Businesses because of a few "bad apples". In fact I still patronize BB’s. If I receive rude service at anyone’s establishment I either A) notify the mgr of my experience, have the issue resolved, post a review on Yelp B)Notify the Mgr, never return, and post a review on Yelp … either way I treat all businesses the same, and most times show more leniency towards BB’s. I never once said I write off all BB’s… I dunno how you came to your conclusion

  9. Irene says:

    Honestly I think we all can agree that Black Businesses and our people as a whole can do better and need to seriously raise the bar in all aspects of our lives… It’s nothing meant to be offensive or stereotypical, it just is.

  10. April says:

    I’m not trying to shoot the messenger, and being a journalist, I understand word limits very well. But IMHO, this short piece does a poor job of giving an overview of why black businesses are limited in number (and that’s arguable…you still haven’t even acknowledged their fast rate of growth in the past 10 years). Capital may be an external factor, but it can’t be glossed over…it’s essential to any business. With that omission, this piece just comes across as a "black people are lazy"/"it’s their culture" when in actually there is a complex of factors at work. And I think that could have been easily stated in 500 words.And, seriously, saying "we black folks could do better" is not debunking conventional wisdom in the least. Well, yes. So could many groups in other racial and ethnic categories. Are you questioning their work ethic?

  11. BLACK business owner says:

    Black business owner here. I own a high-end luxury service-oriented business. When I started it, I imagined was going to do a great thing for people in our community because no one was doing what I was doing and specifically catered to black people.The first round of potential black clients I had when I first started were -1. very leery of me and my services, giving me the third degree. Afterwards they would go down the street and buy white, for more money, for less product2. ask me for discounts and was insulted when I didn’t3. unreasonably expected me to be their best friend, calling me at all hours, keeping me on the phone for one sometimes two hours, because I was black and female just like themBlack people did and DO support me now. Overwhelmingly they were/are West Indian and African. They come from cultures where business ownership is common among people that look just like them. When I got a few clients under my belt, initially they were of other races, ethnicity and religions. When American blacks saw this they came to work with me, all the while skeptical. To those who have this mindset that black owned businesses are inferior, do you not see that is a reflection of your own self-worth and not the business owner you’re dealing with? I live in a neighborhood of mixed ethnicities. The Jews ALWAYS support other jewish businesses. West Indians other West Indians. Chinese other Chinese. Koreans other Koreans. The lack of support among blacks is CRAZY and embarrassing.

  12. BLACK business owner says:

    LOL, Thembi I find you oxyMORONIC. Your views are MAINSTREAM in the black community. They certainly aren’t ‘unconventional.’

  13. Thembi:Lemme say first: I actually agree with your point that supporting black businesses is not necessarily something that everyone has the time or resources to do. Convenience/accessibility of part of the equation when we think about patronizing any business. My favorite restaurant in Brooklyn, where I live, is black-owned. It’s also not close to me any more, but when it was, I went there once a month or so. The food is ridiculous. The fact that they may be black businesses doesn’t mandate our doesn’t require our undying, unflagging support, either. (I’m thinking of Ebony and Jet, which are boringly written, edited and designed magazines, but whose business models seem to be that black folks should support them anyway. I’m not knocking anyone who chooses to do so, I’m just not that dude. My magazine budget is already way too big and way too limited.)

    I’d love for you to tell me how my piece traffics only in types.

    I was actually responding to Danielle re: the rationale behind this post series, but since you brought it up:

    Further, I also never said (nor do I believe) that black folks are "incapable" of creating wealth – that is jumping to conclusions.

    Actually, what you wrote was:

    Why don’t more black folks own these businesses ourselves? Aside from being pushed out by what are simply bigger or better businessmen, our work ethic is just not built to compete. Black American economy began with producing for others without pay, so it’s no surprise that we traditionally define “success,” as having a good job working for someone else. Black Working Class parents raise their children with aspirations of becoming Middle Class, black Middle Class parents raise their children to be…mo’ betta black Middle Class. Get a good job at a good company, maybe even become a VP, but not prime stakeholder in a corporation, inventor, or anything with true agency. The focus on entrepreneurship is just not present in our community on a widespread level.

    Now, what you meant may have meant "our orientation toward entrepeneurship is different" — still a very debatable and controversial point — what you typed was work ethic, which means something else entirely. And considering "black work ethic" has always been held up by racists to explain everything from wealth inequality to the achievement gap, it’s not surprising that people took issue with that line. (And isn’t that back and forth the point of this series, per Snob?) This whole passage is a generalization which reads like…trafficking in types.And if you think black people are lacking the entrepeneurial spirit, I’d urge you to holler at your fellow Ivy League social scientist, Sudhir Venkatesh, and his book Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.But also, I’m not sure it’s clear that a J.D./M.B.A./whatever and a $150k/yr gig at a big firm means wielding less agency than someone who started their own business. Small businesses that survive take years to turn a profit — and most don’t survive at all. There are a lot of ways to build and transfer generational wealth, with attendant upsides and downsides. Entrepeneurship is just one of them.

    And while I agree that access to capital is a factor, as I also already mentioned, I dont think its the only factor but it IS the one that we can’t control, and therefore not particularly central to my argument.

    Does it need to be ‘central to your argument’ for someone else to raise it in a conversation about the topic, tho? If you make a post about teacher pay and someone brings up expands on the role of unions in response, is that out of bounds? It doesn’t seem like the other people in the conversation need to be circumscribed to the points you raise (or don’t raise). It seems like there’s plenty of room to argue how much of this alleged paucity of black entrepeneurship is the result of structural fetters vs. cultural ones.

    Our mentality about the importance of and how we create wealth is relevant today (just like you mention the collectivism of immigrants, THAT is a business tactic that we do not use, in my opinion because you must to HAVE to collect).

    This. Snob did this look-at-the-immigrants thing in an earlier post in this series. It’s really essentialist and simplistic.Asian American immigrants may have a stranglehold on the black beauty supply industry and Latin@s may hold down all the bodegas in NY, but most new immigrants from any group will find themselves working in the service economy. They may work as domestics for some moneyed family. Maybe they work as cleaning ladies. Or maybe they work in businesses like nail shops run by people from their ethnic group. But they’re not by and large making livable wages; when you factor in the legal and linguistic barriers, it seems like that economic insularity is much more a necessary survival mechanism than it is some sort of advanced sense of economic collectivism.

  14. i know, but for some groups, the educational attainment is very high. it depends on the racial group.

    There are way too many qualifiers here for this statement to make sense.

  15. debdessaso says:

    I agree totally with Irene. Although I try my best to patronize black-owned businesses whenever I can, I refuse to spend my money for bad customer service, and for some reason, too many black-owned businesses have poor customer service down to a fine science! On a related issue, I recently wrote a book for young people. After reading articles about black-owned publishers lamenting the fact that too many black authors prefer mainstream book publishers, I sent my manuscript to several black-owned companies, and all of them rejected it. To be fair, several mainstream publishers did also, and I ended up going to one of the larger print-on-demand publishers (which is owned by a mainstream publisher). The point I’m making is that perhaps black authors aren’t avoiding black-owned publishers–they’re simply tired of getting the same rejections that they get from the mainstream publishers.

  16. alison tofacts says:

    Black households earned anincome of 679 billion dollars in 2004.this is what they spend their money on in 2003Apparel Products and Services . . . . . . . . . . . . . $23.0 billionAppliances. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2.5 billionBeverages (Alcoholic) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2.5 billionBeverages (Non-Alcoholic) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2.5 billionBooks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 326 millionCars, Trucks and Motorcycles . . . . . . . . . . . . . .32.6 billion*Computers and Related Equipment . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.9 billionConsumer Electronics. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3.5 billionContributions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12.3 billionEducation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6.2 billionEntertainment and Leisure . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2.7 billionFood. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56.5 billionGifts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7.9 billionHealth Care . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18.0 billionHousehold Furnishings and Equipment . . . . . . . . . . 11.9 billionHousewares. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 973 millionHousing and related charges . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 145.2 billionInsurance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16.2 billionMedia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6.0 billionPersonal Care Products and Services . . . . . . . . . . . 6.5 billionSports and Recreational Equipment . . . . . . . . . . . . 900 millionTelephone Services. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14.4 billionTobacco Products and Smoking Supplies . . . . . . . . . . 2.8 billionToys, Games and Pets. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2.3 billionTransportation, Travel and Lodging. . . . . . . . . . . . 4.8 billionso i suggest if u want to keep the money in the "comunity" black people should try to combine thier financial power and buy the flats they are living inbut i am not an economist 🙂

  17. Laura says:

    "Why don’t more black folks own these businesses ourselves? Aside from being pushed out by what are simply bigger or better businessmen, our work ethic is just not built to compete." This statement is beyond ignorant. Black people had work ethic from the minute we were brought to America to work in the fields and we had work ethic after slavery since we had to start our own businesses and schools. Black business did not start to decline until the end of segregation. However, if you look you can always find black people running small businesses. I used all black vendors for my wedding and I had no problems because I used references and networking to select good vendors the same way I would have if I were looking for white businesses. It is just a matter of putting forth a little effort to look.

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