Prominent black conservative political activist Ali Akbar couldn’t contain his right-side-of-things glee. Just moments after a random reporter’s tweet described Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s dismay at the loss of more than 200 “minority-owned” local businesses in the Baltimore unrest, Akbar grabbed the Twitter mic in a May 3 burst of awkward black outreach.
“So terrible. Thank you for speaking out and standing with black-owned businesses, @LarryHogan.”
The problem, though, is that Hogan wasn’t talking about black-owned businesses.
Not only has this stirred slight confusion in Charm City, but it also raises key questions about which businesses were destroyed or damaged, and whether those receiving help truly represent the interests and complexion of the folks who live in Baltimore.
Multiple news reports highlighted the quickness with which corner-store conglomerate CVS is rebuilding two gutted West Baltimore locations, as if the spots were already dynamic oases of economic prosperity. Sure, that’s great: for CVS. But few ask why these neighborhoods appear dangerously reliant on big, corporate convenience stores in the first place, as both primary grocery source and job hub. There are no questions as to the lack of black-owned businesses beyond barbershops, hair salons and churches. And no aggressive action on what’s being done to empower and finally revive a Baltimore corridor that once flourished during back-in-the-segregated-day black economic booms between the 1940s and 1960s.
Such questions also drape a dark cloud of mystery over the highly abused term “minority-owned.” Local, state and federal politicians have long used the phrase as a misleading characterization of their outreach efforts in economically mangled and mostly urban black communities.
But a “minority-owned business” is not what it seems—the term rarely means “black-owned business,” even though embarrassed government officials and companies escaping regulatory ire have long reached for it like comfort food when race issues explode. In the case of West Baltimore, it’s not entirely clear that when the Maryland governor’s office and the federal Small Business Administration announced disaster-relief assistance to unrest-rattled businesses, that they also meant they’d be lending a helping hand to black businesses.
As it stands, the city of Baltimore, the state of Maryland and the federal government can’t or won’t give a straight answer as to how many black businesses are being helped. No one is actively tracking the number of black businesses in that part of town or elsewhere. Multiple calls and emails to the Baltimore mayor’s office went unanswered. When The Root turned to the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce for some expert insight, it was told by GBBCC’s call service that the phone number was disconnected. The GBBCC had not responded to an email inquiry by the time this story was filed.
Maryland Office of Minority Affairs’ spokeswoman Alison Tavik did respond with some data regarding the state’s investment in what are called “MBEs,” or “minority business enterprises.” In fact, Baltimore received the largest share, 12.8 percent, of state MBE-focused contracts. Still, we don’t know how much of that went to black businesses in Baltimore. And with Hogan’s new administration just several months into a first term, it hasn’t really collected much beyond what previous Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley handed it. “My office isn't collecting that kind of data,” Tavik replied.
It’s also unclear whether the federal SBA is tracking the exact number of black-owned businesses in Baltimore or if there were any black-owned businesses affected by the unrest, especially as it doles out disaster-relief loans for hampered businesses (the SBA didn’t return phone and email requests for comment). However, Albert Shen, deputy director of the Minority Business Development Agency under the Department of Commerce, did tell The Root that “historically, [we, the MBDA,] have not done that kind of tracking.”
However, Shen notes, “we are seeing a lot more minority businesses coming up, and we’re making sure minority businesses are wealth generators.”
Still, the Maryland data available (pdf) show a questionable picture of investment in black businesses proportional to the size of the Free State’s black population. Black businesses in the state received 20.7 percent of the state’s $2.1 billion investment in MBEs, but 83 percent of those were all subcontractors—which means they were largely attached to white-owned businesses receiving the bulk of “prime” contracts. The state’s population is 33 percent black.
There’s no clarity on what levels of investment there will be in West Baltimore’s black businesses—we’re not even clear, from the get, on how many black businesses there are in that area and which they are. Census Bureau figures only examine Baltimore as a whole. We do know that African-American-owned enterprises make up nearly 35 percent of all city businesses. But while that might sound good compared with other major cities, it’s actually not, considering that Charm City is 63 percent black.
In passionate and sometimes expletive-filled reflections, Baltimore Black Business Directory publisher and city native Henru-Ka Anu describes the entire situation and the government officials responding to it as being “full of s—t.”
“The area we’re talking about, those thoroughfares go right through the heart of Baltimore’s black community,” Anu tells The Root. “It’s all been neglected up to this day. There is no real white community there, obviously. And Asians own more of the businesses than African Americans, especially food and cosmetic stores.”
Anu argues that both state and local officials have not created the sort of infrastructure to support black business in Baltimore. That Black Chamber of Commerce? “Defunct,” says Anu, who was once very active with it. “CVS represents corporate exploitation of those communities—and not just in Baltimore. And the governor and the SBA are using stats to make duplicitous statements about ‘minority-owned’ businesses because, in reality, white women are the largest recipients of minority-business investments.”
Former Washington, D.C., Councilman Kevin Chavous agrees that cities and states “can’t make hollow promises when engaging small and black businesses.”
“You can’t just say you’re giving them opportunities, you have to help these businesses make the connection,” he says. Chavous points out the larger challenge of fewer black businesses having the requisite skill sets, credit or knowledge to secure loans from government agencies. He says that governments should “encourage bigger businesses to mentor smaller enterprises” and, in an effort to target black-business development, should use classifications similar to what D.C. termed “local, small, disadvantaged businesses.”
Still, Anu suggests that government officials are “talking too much in terms of loans, when they should talk in terms of grants.”
“Due to credit and discrimination issues, black businesses can’t secure loans on the same scale as white or Asian businesses,” Anu says. “And all they need, many times, are grants for minor capital improvements.”
Propping up black businesses in distressed black neighborhoods would make sense, right? Ground zero of the unrest, Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, is 97 percent black and perpetually impoverished. Match that with a 2007 Gazelle Index survey of 350 black CEOs finding that over 65 percent of black-owned business employees were black—which means that black businesses are already natural engines of economic growth for their communities.
But as a zero-percent-interest micro-loan effort was channeled into Baltimore businesses damaged in the recent unrest, it zoomed in on Asian and Hispanic small businesses, most described as family-owned and most not likely to hire from Sandtown’s highly unemployed and highly available labor pool.
A photo showing mostly Asians in a crowded conference room of affected small-business proprietors tells the story, a grim sign that West Baltimore’s day-after-unrest recovery won’t be hitting any of its black residents anytime soon.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.