Black Business’ Role in Breaking the Cycle of Racism, Outrage & Reform
Black Business’ Role in Breaking the Cycle of Racism, Outrage & Reform
July 16, 2020 / 6320 AFK
This spring and summer have seen the crises of racism and capitalism reach a not-so-new plateau. Black casualties of police brutality and racist health disparity have manifested in another round of protests against systemic injustice. Black businesses were also treated inequitably. Congress’ CARES Act asked the Small Business Administration to guarantee, and even forgive, emergency loans to small businesses. However, black businesses were not kept in mind as these relief programs were engineered. Historically and currently fraught relationships between banks and black businesses meant that banks were an impediment to black businesses getting relief. Racism is about systems, not just individuals’ feelings, and the CARES Act exemplified systemic racism.
Understandably, the diversity and inclusion sector of corporate America and some people in political advocacy are repeating - but more loudly now - the typical proposals to challenge racism, but not capitalism. They ask for greater diversity and inclusion in corporate America. They want a greater effort among consumers and corporations to buy black. They want to reform police departments’ budgets and use-of-force policies. However, there is too little public discourse about the underlying economic system of capitalism that has always required police violence against the African worker class.
As a result, the cycle of oppression, uprising, rhetoric, minor reform and continued oppression seems to be endless. This cycle is perpetuated, in part, by the fantasy that apolitical, black capitalism can spontaneously reverse the downward trend of black household wealth and economically empower us to destroy the systems of injustice that have plagued Africans in America for centuries. The problem with this fantasy is that, we’ve been trying black capitalism since at least 1865 and the results are in. Despite producing the occasional CJ Walker, Oprah or Jay-Z, black America is still on track to zero net wealth by 2053. The unsubstantiated dream of liberation through black capitalism is thoroughly disproven and we must wake up from it.
Black entrepreneurs who want to see an end to systemic racism and widespread, black poverty must take some time to learn what capitalism is, how capitalism originated and about capitalism's relationship to African people throughout history. Black entrepreneurs have to consider the collective, economic stagnation and regression of black America since the 1960s. Then, we need to make a politically educated decision about whether or not the business practices of capitalism, George Washington, Jefferson Davis, Wall Street, Henry Ford, the Walton family and Amazon have anything to do with black liberation from systems of oppression.
And why should our entrepreneurs replicate American capitalism anyway? Haven't large numbers of white Americans always been economically marginalized? Isn't the proportion of white people who struggle to meet their basic needs growing? Capitalism requires workers to risk their lives during a pandemic because it doesn’t know how to put lives before profit. Even during a pandemic, capitalism would rather turn a profit instead of recognize the fact that every human body is worthy of medical attention. Forcing people to choose between getting medicine or seeing the doctor and paying rent, paying a mortgage or buying groceries is part of the everyday violence of healthcare capitalism. Capitalism’s need for infinite growth and natural resource extraction cannot coexist with nature. Economic survival, health and global ecology are all necessary casualties of capitalism. Very little of this is worthy of our emulation.
Neither is there an end to police brutality under capitalism. No economic system or theory is flawless, but even on paper, capitalism requires class division between owners and expendable labor. Policing was founded, and still exists, to protect the interests of the owning class, not to protect the people (labor) or our interests. Police officers do not magically materialize just in time to keep everyday people from being robbed or attacked. They were never designed for that. But at any time in history, when the people of any ethnicity rise up to demand justice for black people, justice for native people, dignity for poor people, an end to war or an end to pollution, the police are always there to suppress and ultimately shut down such movements so that business as usual can resume before any meaningful changes are made. Black entrepreneurs need to take the time to learn about the origins of American policing, learn about the relationship between the worker class and the police. The moral truth that “black lives matter” will continue to fall on deaf ears as long as capitalism’s police departments, prisons and military are structurally compelled to protect the profits of the capitalist class before they protect Breonna Taylor’s, or anyone else’s, human rights. Without organizing our entrepreneurship in a fundamentally different way, black capitalism will maintain policing, mass incarceration and a racist criminal justice system with minor reforms.
Of course, not all of us with brown skin hold the same allegiances. Just as capitalism requires class division, black capitalism requires class division between black people, which is the antithesis of black liberation and anyone’s liberation. As such, not all black entrepreneurs care about black liberation. But black entrepreneurs who have a critical understanding of African history, capitalism, class and policing are, at least, able to make politically educated decisions about how we aspire to develop our businesses.
There is an overwhelming asymmetry of business education information that over-represents the ideological superiority of capitalism. So, it is important to know that commerce does exist outside of the narrow, uninspiring confines of capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t deserve exclusive credit for markets, exchange, work, progress, wealth, development or health. The standard advice from MBA programs, entrepreneurship schools, business coaches, the Small Business Administration, SCORE, banks and captains of industry is not all-encompassing. In fact, much of that training has its roots in an economic practice that would not have survived this long without being "subsidized" by the stolen wealth of genocides and slavery. Caitlin Rosenthal's book, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management explains some connections between mass violence and the origins of scientific management that dominate business schools and corporate America today. So, the idea that all "serious" or "real" black entrepreneurs must uphold this particular tradition of commerce is racist and false. Black history is full of examples of our ancestors choosing cooperative economics instead. Economist and author, Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard has demonstrated that black entrepreneurs in America have successfully engaged in people-centered, collective commerce for centuries. That tradition continues today. This must continue and accelerate.
In conclusion, doubling down on politically neutral, black entrepreneurship, "buying black" or black capitalism has never brought us enough economic or political power to protect black lives, health or wealth. Nearly sixty years after the Civil Rights Acts, our declining, collective wealth makes it clear that there is no black power in capitalism or in black capitalism. A small group of powerful capitalists has a profit motive behind mass incarceration, policing (and the brutality that comes with it) and perpetual war. A small group of powerful capitalists has a profit motive for keeping black workers' wages and all workers' wages as low as possible, even when that means widespread poverty. A small group of powerful capitalists has a profit motive to continue industrial pollution which is an existential threat to the planet’s natural balance. Adding a few, black faces to the small, powerful group in the name of "diversity and inclusion" doesn't remove the structural need for racist, classist policing or racist, classist, public policy. At its best, black capitalism elevates a small group of exceptionally privileged or exceptionally talented individuals who's economic and political interests are not aligned with the interests of most black people or people of any color. The time for anything but root-level, structural change in how we organize our entrepreneurship is over. We have viable alternatives. With political education that is centered on African self-determination, cooperative education, skilled financial management services and patient financing, black entrepreneurs can develop cooperative enterprises. This would be a concrete step toward creating a revolutionary economic paradigm that ceases to replicate capitalism's traditional cycle of racism, outrage, reform and continued racism.