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demanding accountability from others while strengthening our communities with our dollars

Call it what you want—a buy-in, a cash-mob, conscious consumerism, reparative or restorative economics,
the fact is that supporting Black businesses and spending money with our own still works.
by Anitra D. Brown

 

Customers visit Sheaux Fresh, a Black-owned fresh produce vendor that takes part in a regular pop-up market on Bayou Road.

When those pictures of Donald Rouse having a grand old time at the Jan. 6 pro-Trump protest turned riot, turned treasonous insurrection at the nation’s capitol surfaced on social media, the call was swift for a boycott of the Louisiana-based grocery store chain. Things began to roll almost immediately, with many embracing social media to not only spread the word of the boycott, but to track its progress, posting pictures of empty aisles, empty checkout lanes and empty parking lots at the grocery retailer.

Even now, social media is being used to encourage friends to find and share the locations of Black-owned alternatives for the goods for which boycotting consumers would normally turn to Rouse’s.

And the call was answered—by Black bakers flaunting their own delectable-looking versions of the Chantilly cake to pop-up produce markets featuring Black vendors. And that is because even more important than the boycotts is the deliberate and concerted act of Black consumers using their considerable economic power to support, build and strengthen their communities by keeping more of their hard-earned money within the same.

Call it what you want—a buy-in, a cash-mob, conscious consumerism, reparative or restorative economics, the fact is that supporting Black businesses works. And it is not new.

Nothing New Under the Sun

In fact, it is a call to action that can be documented as far back as the end of slavery by an ad placed by shoemaker and minister Pharro Benson in the Colored Tennessean, calling for a “new arrangement.” More directly, Benson announced he had employed a quality saddle and harness maker and he himself still made the best shoes and boots at good prices and that as far as he was concerned it was the duty of all of his “colored” friends to “patronage” their own people, including  included his shop on Gay Street. Rev. Benson, who also happens to have been the great-great uncle of The New Orleans Tribune’s publisher Beverly Stanton. McKenna, made this bold declaration 155 years ago—in 1865, six months after the end of the Civil War.

Advertisement placed by Rev. Pharro Benson in the Colored Tennessean on Oct. 14, 1965, just six months after the Civil War ended. Rev. Benson lived in Nashville, where he was a boot and shoemaker and minister. He was the great-great uncle of Tribune’s publisher Beverly McKenna, who proudly shares the story, saying that the legacy of doing for self and supporting Black businesses is in her DNA.

The idea of supporting our own dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when organizations like the National Negro Business League formed in 1900 to not only promote Black-owned businesses to African-Americans, but to American society in general. The group also spoke to the need for Black businesses to support one another in an effort to grow collectively.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., broached the topic during his famous “mountaintop” speech in Memphis in 1968. King first encouraged listeners to boycott companies whose hiring practices and treatment of Black workers were unfair. And then he said this:

“But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen Black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a ‘bank-in’ movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you to do something that we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven Black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an ‘insurance-in’. Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.”

To be sure, you would be hard-pressed to catch someone quoting that part of King’s speech today. But the civil rights leader called on the Black community to circle its wagons by corralling its buying power.

In the 1980’s, national journalist and businessman Tony Brown launched his “Buy Freedom” campaign when he founded the Council for the Economic Development of Black Americans. Through the “Buy Freedom” slogan he encouraged Blacks to patronize businesses displaying the “Freedom Seal,” which let consumers know that the business had a Black owner who had agreed to be courteous, offer competitive prices, provide employment, reasonable prices and stay involved in the community.

Closer to home, local Black-owned media like New Orleans Data News Weekly, The Louisiana Weekly, WBOK 1230 AM and Think 504 have used their platforms to encourage support of Black-owned businesses.

For nearly 36 years, The New Orleans Tribune and The New Orleans BlackBook have promoted the importance of buying Black—supporting Black businesses and entrepreneurs while also encouraging those businesses to find ways to give back to and support the community. Through the monthly Tribune and the annual BlackBook, McKenna Publishing profiles successful Black businesses and their owners, highlights emerging entrepreneurs, encourages consumer support and urges business owners to provide quality goods and services, offer competitive wages and share business opportunities. And just a few years ago, McKenna Publishing, in conjunction with WBOK 1230 AM and Liberty Bank, launched the Missing Piece—a year long campaign urging Black New Orleanians to support Black businesses.

So in a way, what seems like new calls to support Black-owned businesses are merely the latest incarnations of an old clarion that has now been amplified by social media and the newest technology.

Recently, organizations like NOLA Black Wall Street have used social media platforms to spread the word about Black-owned businesses in the area and encourage members and others to support them. The organization’s website details its mission to “ . . . serve as a powerhouse model of cyclical support through encouraging community investments and stimulation of economic redevelopment in traditionally African-American communities.” And the group’s Facebook page has been one of several promoting the boycott of Rouses stores in the wake of the Donald Rouse’s presence at the Jan. 6 Trump rally/protest, which turned into acts of sedition by domestic terrorists against the government in an attempt to undermine a free and fair election.

Buying Black is Buying Freedom

Black-owned hair salons and barber shops are not only businesses, but they have been cornerstones of the community. (Editor’s Note: This photo was taken pre-COVID-19 restrictions.)

Still, as one Facebook user posting on the NOLA Black Wall Street Page notes, the reasons behind the push to not only boycott Rouses, but also to actively seek Black-owned alternatives—though propelled by the latest examples of racism—go far beyond them. The commenter, Pepper Roussel, posted that there should be a Black-owned grocery store in the New Orleans area “not because Black people are angry with any particular business owner and want to make them less overtly racist. There should be one because there is no Black liberation while we need the system of our oppressors in order to provide basic needs.”

In 2019, Black buying power in America reached $1.4 trillion and is expected to reach $1.8 trillion by 2024. While the growth rate of Black buying power outpaces that of Whites in America, Whites in America still wield over $12 trillion in buying power—a number that is expected to grow to nearly $14 trillion by 2024. In other words, while Black buying power grows, our money is not a great equalizer all by itself. It is how we use it that matters. The call for Black consumers to support Black-owned businesses is best used as a tool to build and strengthen Black communities—not for weakening others.

Boycotting Rouses is one thing; and it is important as a matter of accountability. But building and supporting our own businesses is about sustainability, viability and true freedom.

As the boycott of Rouses began, several social media posts noted that the New Orleans metro area did not have a full-service Black-owned grocery store that consumers could turn to. But there was no way to make that observation without recognizing that this has not always been the case. To be sure, the area has been home to Black-owned grocery stores that, for one reason or another, could not seem to garner the support they needed from consumers—particularly Black consumers—to sustain their place in the market.

Circle Food Store struggled to remain open after its post-Hurricane Katrina rebirth. The store has now been sold. And while several, Black vendors operate inside, the grocery store itself is no longer Black-owned. Meanwhile, an effort by native New Orleanian and actor Wendell Pierce and his business partner Troy Henry to open a chain of grocery stores across the region seemed to flounder before it could get off the ground. While one Sterling Farms opened in Marrero on the westbank of Jefferson Parish several years ago, with plans for at least three others in the New Orleans area, the store closed its doors within a year of opening and plans for others never materialized.

Oddly enough, a Rouses in Marrero at the corner of Ames Boulevard and Lapalco is located directly across the highway from what was the site of the now closed Sterling Farms’ Marrero store. It is worth noting that the Marrero Rouses is roughly the same distance from other grocery stores now as Sterling Farm’s was then—a site surrounded by largely Black neighborhoods and subdivisions. And up until Donald Rouse’s pro-Trump protest appearance, the Rouses Marrero store never seemed to lack customers despite its proximity to at least three other grocery stores, including a Super Wal-Mart, a Winn Dixie, and a Budget Saver.

To be sure, Black buying power in the New Orleans area is wasted if we cannot use it to keep one or two Black-owned grocery stores open.

Why Buying Black Matters

Coalitions across the country are calling on Black consumers to not only recognize the magnitude of their spending power, but to use it as a tool to address other issues that impact the Black community, particularly as a new generation finds itself protesting against issues such as police brutality and is faced with how to turn these civil demonstrations into transformative movements with long-lasting impact.

Black people want change. And as it turns out, the “change” we have been seeking is still in our pockets.

For example, one statistic tells that if Black consumers, who only spend an average of six cents of every dollar they spend with Black-owned businesses, would double their spending to 12 cents per dollar, Black businesses could create nearly 600,000 new jobs, helping to address the disproportionate rate of Black unemployment.

So the question is how can the momentum of protests and the calls to support Black-owned businesses be used to create solutions that improve the conditions of entire communities?

Yes. We have talked about the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses before in the pages of this publication and it bears repeating. We have to do more.  In other words, this cannot and must not be a trend or a fad. It must be consistent, deliberate and unapologetic in order to have the desired impact.

And we aren’t just talking the talk. Deliberate spending is a way of life for The Tribune’s publishers.

“We have to be purposeful and intentional with our dollars,” says Tribune publisher Dr. Dwight McKenna. “Whenever I spend, buy or invest, I use my resources to do everything I can to uplift and empower my community. No matter what it is, if I can support a Black business or service provider and strengthen the Black community and Black families in the process that is what I am doing.”

African-Americans currently spend about six percent of their money with Black owned businesses. That means the other 94 percent is being spent outside of our community—with many of the very people, entities and organizations that we identify as our oppressors. We have said it before. We will say it again: We cannot spend 94 percent of our money outside of our community and then blame others for 100 percent of our problems. That does not make sense. It doesn’t make dollars either.

The change that we are looking for can begin with us and how we strategically spend our money to build and protect our communities.

Here are four ways that the long-term support of Black businesses by Black consumers can help the Black community:

Help Close the Racial Wealth Gap
The origins of today’s racial wealth gap can be traced back to Jim Crow-era practices like redlining and job discrimination—government-sanctioned policies designed to marginalize African Americans and keep them from higher paying jobs and homeowner ownership opportunities that ultimately prevented wealth building. The Social Security Act of 1935 also excluded many Black domestic and agricultural workers, and its requirements for residency and payroll information also excluded the large number of African Americans working “off the books” jobs and migrating North at the time.
However, small businesses and entrepreneurs have been longtime wealth builders in our society. By supporting more Black-owned businesses, we can create more opportunities for meaningful savings, property ownership, credit building and generational wealth.
Strengthen Local Economies
When Black businesses flourish, so do our communities. If consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the entire US economy, imagine what directing some of that spending power to Black-owned businesses across the country can do. Supporting Black-owned businesses in turn supports families, employees, and other business owners, as well as attracts community investors who provide banking services, loans, and promote financial literacy–all things that build economic strength.
Job Creation
Black-owned businesses account for less than 10 percent of all businesses in the country. And the vast majority of those businesses have no paid employees. Only about 124,000 Black-owned businesses—have at least one paid employee. Somehow, these businesses still manage to employee more than 1.2 million people—the vast majority of which are African-American. In fact, Black-owned businesses, as a whole, are the second largest employer of Black workers —second only behind government agencies. Since Black-owned businesses are likely to hire from the local community, supporting them can foster the job opportunities people need to achieve financial stability. So when Black consumers increase their buying with these businesses, the businesses can increase their revenue and, ultimately, their hiring—which could be a significant step toward addressing the disproportionate unemployment rates that plague the community.
Offers a Space for Accountability for Both Business Owners and Consumers
When you choose a Black-owned business instead of other problematic companies (such as Rouses), you use your dollar to hold those companies accountable while empowering successful minority-owned businesses that in turn help support and grow Black communities. So instead of just complaining about and boycotting Rouses, the real power comes when we support each other.