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.
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?