The slogans “Buy Black” or “Support Black Businesses” have existed for some time as clarion calls for black consumers to patronize black owned (or seemingly black owned) establishments. We see it hashtagged and sprawled across graphics calling for exclusive 30 day “buy black challenges” to spur economic growth in Black communities — often touted as the best vehicle for closing the US’s racial wealth gap.
While we may have generally accepted this as compulsory duty for racial solidarity and community investment, the critical conversation interrogating the effectiveness of the “buy/support black” call to action is long overdue for reexamination.
During the Great Migration, six million African Americans moved from the rural south to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West. Signs designating that businesses were ‘Black owned’ were common place in segregated cities to help newcomers locate safe spaces to patronize. Black business directories like the Negro Motorist Green Book, and the Simms Blue Book listed Black businesses and services available in Chicago and other major cities. While everyone from Booker T. Washington to Richard Nixion cited black business ownership as the best vehicle for Black self determination, the earliest known coinage of “Buy Black” as a slogan and economic development campaign can be attributed to Black Nationalist and Marcus Garvey mentee Carlos A. Cooks.
In his 1955 public lecture Hair Conking; Buy Black, Cooks unveiled his multi-step “Buy Black” campaign which was to be implemented to ensure black communities controlled commerce, business life, and politics in their own neighborhoods, similar to that of other insulated ethnic communities. In his lecture, Cook said “The Buy Black campaign is the key, it will transfer business in the Black community from present alien parasites to their rightful owners — Black people.”
Cook’s plan that also called for a 30 to 60 day boycott of non-Black businesses, and was primarily centered on controlling and monitoring the consumption behaviors of black people. His focus was so zealous that Cooks characterized any black person patronizing a business not owned by black people to be guilty of an “unforgivable crime and sin” to be punished by a 2,000 manned division called The African Legion.
This African Legion was to be responsible for ensuring the success of the campaign by any means necessary. In addition to handing out circulars, leading meetings, and picketing, Black Soldiers of the legion were to make peaceful appeals to discourage any black consumer they saw patronizing non- black businesses. If the peaceful appeal failed, these consumers were then left to the “Surveillance Squad,” who would monitor the black consumers shopping habits and subsequent crimes. Then the Tactical Squad, also known as The Lead Pipe brigade, was to move in on the serial transgressor on their way home, destroy their merchandise, and as Cooks plainly stated, they would literally “break a rib or two or crack the Negro or Negresses head open slightly….the Black consumer will be convinced to only patronize Black businesses in Black communities.”
Cooks believed his plan to be the cure-all for unemployment, crime, exploitation facing black communities, and heralded it as the righteous path to self determination throughout his career.
While other black leaders and organizations may have not adopted Cooks’ more violent approaches, the ethos of hyper-focusing on black consumerism as the key to self determination and looking to other minority communities as models for black people to replicate still remain tenets of the campaign. As does the pernicious belief that black capitalism and a self created private sector are the keys to liberation. However, more recently, several black economists have been pushing back on what they call the myths and fantasies propagated by Buy Black campaigns that are presented as solutions to what are ultimately structural obstacles faced by black businesses. In the report What We Get Wrong About The Racial Wealth Gap, researchers from the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University highlight and dispel 10 of the the most damaging myths.
Of the calls to “bank black” and “buy black,” the report asserts:
“For instance since black families have minimal liquid wealth, their bank accounts tend to hold money for day-to-day and week-to-week expenses. Small and unstable deposits due to continued economic penalties forced upon black workers and households makes profitability a significant challenge for these banks. In the end, if black banks and businesses are a proposed solution to the racial wealth gap we must address a basic math problem that arises; to close the gap black banks and enterprises must earn a much higher rate of return than white businesses. Without this condition being met, that gap will only be perpetuated rather than ended.”
Much of the out-sized attention placed on black spending habits can be attributed to a widely held belief in a thinly supported claim that Black America’s “spending power” totals roughly $1.5 trillion dollars — a claim that Dr. Jared Ball asserts has no basis in sound economic data or research and is a myth largely maintained by poor interpretations of Nielsen surveys and marketing reports. Similarly, there is also the reductive view of other seemingly insulated ethnic communities as self sustained economies that don’t involve “outsider” investment. Chinatowns and Koreatowns are often cited as model minority examples for black communities to emulate, but their economies depend largely on outsider tourism and public sector investment.
The misinformed calls to look to Asian, Jewish, and other communities as economic pillars to emulate also ignores America’s racially constructed capitalist hierarchy. This is best explained in F. James Davis’ Who Is Black, in which he writes: “When a group with an in between position has special occupations and mediates between above and below it in status it is a middle minority. Many racial groups with an intermediate status have been middle minorities, meeting occupational needs the dominant group is unwilling or unable to fill and often achieving considerable economic success in spite of much discrimination.”
Even once-flourishing black American communities looking to establish similar models to attract tourist dollars find themselves unsuccessful, at times even looking to rename themselves Africatown or “Wakanda” to convey a brand of exoticism afforded to immigrant communities.
What further complicates ‘Buy Black’ as a present day plan for economic independence is applying it to the current e-commerce industry. Whereas our predecessors were focused on brick and mortar establishments and more granular community return of investment in employment opportunities, current black entrepreneurship, while frequently celebrated as progress, is largely e-commerce sole proprietorships and micro firms, with little scalability. Only 4.2% have paid employees, with 62% having fewer than 100 employees. Further muddying this dialogue are black celebrities like Diddy and Jay Z branding their business endeavors and black billionaire aspirations as “revolutionary” —exploiting calls for black community support while producing no measurable material benefits for their black fans beyond a vicarious taste of “black excellence” on Instagram and an end goal of “diversifying” the 1%.
The exclusively celebratory conversations surrounding black entrepreneurship neglects tackling the reasons black people are flocking to self employment — to escape racist treatment in the workplace, wage gaps and prolonged unemployment. The obsessive and often anti-black focus on black consumerism obfuscates substantive assessments of the largest obstacles facing black business owners, which is lack of access to credit and start up capital.
Ultimately, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to support black-owned businesses. It’s a time honored tradition for black communities who since slavery have often survived off communalism. But it’s time to ditch placing the onus on black consumers to correct the disadvantages and barriers they were never in power to erect.