Our Black Year: A Odyssey to Support Black Business
I took a break from my busy schedule a couple of weeks ago to attend an event sponsored by the Philadelphia African-American Chamber of Commerce where Maggie Anderson, author of Our Black Year was a guest speaker. I picked up a copy of her book, which I highly recommend, and have just finished reading it. Ms. Anderson is a dynamic speaker and her book is thought provoking, however, given the backdrop of my own experiences both as a business person and as one who’s had a level of involvement in the community, some of her conclusions and observations aren’t particularly surprising.
Our Black Year recounts the experience of Anderson and her family as they went on a buy black campaign by directing much of their everyday spending to black businesses in the Chicagoland area. To accomplish this, the family really inconvenienced themselves by going out their way and traveling far from home to even find black businesses to patronize. Much of this additional effort was the result of the sheer paucity of black business representation in basic industries such as grocery stores, specialty shops and the like. Although studies have shown that African-Americans are forming businesses at a rapid rate, there’s still a very long way to go to build a significant presence in the business world and in local neighborhoods where small businesses normally thrive. The single greatest challenge that the Anderson family faced was just being able to find black owned businesses to patronize and in many instances, they came up with none. The Andersons also found that support for this effort from other African Americans and certain civil rights organizations to be mixed.
Ms. Anderson’s call for upper and middle income African-Americans to “buy black” has not been without controversy. There have been accusations that this call amounts to racism and I suppose that if this is seen as the equivalent of a call to “buy white”, I can see how that argument could be made, but that really misreads what she’s calling for. Anderson is really calling for self help economic development in the African-American community. Unfortunately, the accusations of racism were loud enough to result in a threatened lawsuit from Ebony magazine forcing her to remove the “Ebony” from name of the foundation she developed to study and promote self help economic development within African-American communities. Apparently, the buy black campaign that was being run under the name “Ebony Experiment” resulted in the magazine being under pressure from advertisers who thought that the campaign was being run under the magazine’s aegis and that gave rise to the threatened lawsuit unless the name of the foundation was changed. That experience along with a waivered commitment by some wealthy African-Americans to financially support the foundation introduced a cold slap of reality to Anderson who may have had some naiveté when it came to idealistic notions of what might be possible when dealing with certain elements within the community. Clearly, not everyone is ready to board the bus, so to speak.
That cold slap of reality continued as it dawned on the Andersons just how few quality black businesses existed that could be supported even though Chicago has one of the largest African-American populations in the country. And the few quality ones that did exist struggled to survive due to lack of support, ineffective marketing, insufficient capital and a myriad of other reasons. Anderson describes in depth the situation of an African-American owned grocery named Farmer’s Best. This was a quality black business that was competently managed that wound up folding due to lack of sales and insufficient capital for staying power. Anderson attributes the grocer’s failure to the lack of support from the African-American community, even though she and the grocer went all out with their marketing efforts by holding fairs and free events to build foot traffic to no avail. Particularly galling to Anderson was the brisk business being done by Hispanic grocers while Farmer’s Best suffered.
I’m not so sure that this grocer’s failure can be ascribed totally to lack of African-American support and the comparison to Hispanic grocers may not be entirely valid. First, Hispanics have an ethnic food thing going that isn’t necessarily replicated in major stores while African Americans lack the same entre. The food we eat is more “American” and that means a small grocer without the ethnic hook is competing against the vast marketing and buying power of the major chains. Once you combine the competitive disadvantages on marketing and buying power with lack of capital, a smaller grocer will simply not have the staying power to make it. Having more support from the community might have helped, but the competitive disadvantages would have been tough to overcome even with that. The grocer might have fared better as a scaled down operation specializing in certain products only. The overall trend in the economy towards consolidation makes it tough for smaller business and that ultimately may impact Hispanic grocers also unless they scale up and put a vice grip on their market. So there’s a lesson in the failure of this particular black grocer that’s not entirely attributable to a lack of African-American support. Ironically, in a twist, Anderson describes how the grocer himself felt that being identified as a black business may have actually hurt him in getting black customers.
Unfortunately, some of the other business that the Anderson family patronized during their odyssey also folded due to lack of sales which is almost always symptomatic of something else. Some of the businesses were headed for failure anyway merely as a function of not really being ready for prime time, while others were ready and just simply lacked the capital to make a go of it. Toward the of end of the book, it almost seems that Anderson has gotten so disappointed and dejected by the experience that she ends up with a call for more supplier diversity from larger corporations—which falls outside of the normal buy black mantra, but doesn’t note that the same issues she ran into attempting to patronize quality black businesses will likely be the same ones the supplier diversity people will run into. As a matter of fact, and speaking from experience, that’s guaranteed to be a certainty.
Ms. Anderson reminds me of a modern day Marcus Garvey. Students of history will recollect that Marcus Garvey was one of the first Black Nationalists who called for black economic empowerment. Although I really admire Anderson’s courage and tenacity here. I believe her call to “buy black” is somewhat misdirected. I believe this to be so because economic development of the African-American community isn’t necessarily a function of people buying black– rather it’s a function of people just buying. Once you begin looking at things in the context of the broader market, then there’s some clarity developed around what needs to happen to set that up.
Anderson is really calling for investment in the African-American community through black to black consumerism. I think the call really needs to one for investment of capital. In other words, there’s needs to be an investment of money, time and effort in building the types of businesses that can be supported by everyone. Basically, we need to develop trade both within and outside of the community. The end result of that is the same that Ms. Anderson really desires—the economic development of the African-American community to make a dent in the pernicious problems that exist.
When I think about this call to “buy black”, I’m forced to think about the Chinese or the Indians from the subcontinent. Both of these groups have thriving business communities, yet we’ve not heard similar calls from these groups for others to “buy Chinese” or “buy Indian”. First, they don’t have the numbers where this sort of call would even be viable, but more importantly, they’ve focused their businesses on the broader market by effectively trading their unique ethnic food/culture to those who like to partake of it. African-Americans do something similar in the fields of sports and entertainment, however, we mostly don’t control those industries and that’s the major difference. For example, you’ll notice that Chinese restaurants seem to be never franchised or subjected to the forces that eliminated neighborhood hardware stores and small retailers. As I understand it, this is a function of the manner in which the food is cooked as well as their firm control over all aspects of the Chinese restaurant industry. Essentially, they’ve created a high barrier to entry. On the whole African-Americans lack that sort of impregnable barrier to entry and that key difference accounts for why we don’t hear calls from the Chinese to “buy Chinese”. They’ve got the thing set up where they don’t have to do that. Our focus needs to be along the same lines. So the call really isn’t about buying black so much as creating the compelling reasons for anyone to buy—and that takes serious work and planning.
From my observations, the greatest challenge in developing the African-American community revolve around a few things—a leadership gap, an expertise gap and a capital gap. You can buy black all day, but if those issues aren’t addressed, all that effort will amount to is a study in frustration—which happens to be largely the story told by Anderson in her book. Of these three, closing the leadership and expertise gaps are the most critical. It must be understood that the bulk of the community’s issues arise from the absence of Dubois’ talented tenth. The best and the brightest aren’t deployed or focused on building and investing in the African-American community as they’re pre-occupied with their jobs and the trappings of success that are fueling someone else’s economic success. In effect, that often leaves the second string in control of the politics, the businesses and everything else within and just as you can’t expect to win a basketball game with your second string when the other team is fielding its starters, so it is when it comes to a community. The absence and lack of meaningful engagement of the best and brightest—our intelligentsia—is quite evident and this is the main difference between the African-American community when it comes to any comparison to other communities. It is our best and most talented who possess the organizational ability and the know how to run the businesses, politics and anything else. They’re not on the scene and this figures prominently—very prominently—in the conditions that exist within the African-American community. Basically, we need to take our MBA’s and our training and begin investing and executing within.
This thing is far more complex and is going to require far more work than just calling for folks to buy black. But having said all of that, there’s another notion that must be challenged and that revolves around the idea that black people don’t support black business. I happen to own a business and that’s not been my experience. But black business not being supported by African-Americans is not that the only fallacy that needs to be dispensed with. The other one relates to the fact that racism is so pervasive, that whites will not patronize a black business unless forced to with some diversity program. That has also not been my experience.
Here’s what my experience informs me of—a real business is not about civil rights, buying black or any other romantic notions. It’s about business and that means offering competitive services that the public wants. If you’re not absolutely clear on that, you won’t be in business very long. Now, once you’ve successfully done that, there may be some romantic notions you support—but that’s different, separate and apart from business.
When I started this post originally, my intent was to review Ms. Anderson’s book for the reader rather than insert my own thoughts, but as I began writing, that wasn’t possible. There are a few other things as a business person of color that I can and should share. I’ll do that in successive posts over the next few months.