Du Bois, Kwanzaa & Black Cooperation in 2019

Du Bois, Kwanzaa & Black Cooperation in 2019

by Think Tanq

December 29, 2019 / 6319 AFK

Habari gani? Joyous Kwanzaa and happy Solstice holidays to all the business owners, financial services professionals and others advancing cooperative economics! This season marks the Ujamaa Works Accounting & Finance Network’s second Winter Solstice. This year, our small, budding network of CPAs, MBAs, corporate finance experts, bookkeepers and students acquired members on both coasts of the US. Collectively, our members made two dozen client referrals amongst one another. And we’ve been educating ourselves about the financial skills and resources that are required for businesses to implement cooperative economics.

Tax season is around the corner, which means that tax planning time is now. Send us a question about your business or personal taxes or about your business plans for 2020. I’ll introduce you to a member of our network for a conversation about fine tuning your tax situation, your financial organization or your strategic decision-making. Employers who are preparing to sell their businesses can talk to an accountant in our network about selling to their employees. By selling your business to your employees, you may benefit from potential savings on capital gains tax.

This time of year is a season for honest, critical reflection. Critical reflection can be uncomfortable, but it is the only basis for evolution. Reflecting on the dominant management systems in the US and their relationship to black people reveals uncomfortable, systemic failures. But those failures motivate this network to look for solutions. Our measured optimism is rooted in the understanding that fundamental change in black economic health can come from critical reflection upon the dominant economic philosophies and behaviors.

One year ago, the Ujamaa Works initiative convened a series of six, open invitation gatherings at the Baltimore Urban League to discuss the economic and environmental crises affecting black people and how black financial services professionals might respond. Business owners, financial services professionals and others discussed not only the problems, but also cooperative economics as a framework for potential solutions. We talked about the environmental racism that allows industry to disproportionately pollute black families’ air and water. We talked about the further decline of black families’ already-minimal net wealth. We also talked about the failure of “black capitalism” to enable most of us to consistently meet our basic needs. Research by United Way shows that in 2014, 40% of households in the US could not afford “the bare-minimum cost of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and taxes.” And we talked about the imminent, global, ecological breakdown due to the fossil fuel industry.

Dr. W.E.B. du Bois famously asked if black people in the US should pursue the path of capitalism or cooperation. He said, "We unwittingly stand at the crossroads - should we go the way of capitalism and try to become individually rich as capitalists, or should we go the way of cooperatives and economic cooperation where we and our whole community could be rich together?" Theoretically, we could make an honest assessment of this question once both of these economic frameworks had been implemented over extended periods of time. Black economic cooperation has always been there, but since the era of Columbus, it has taken a backseat to capitalism and to black capitalism. So, while we may only anecdotally consider the impact that cooperation has had on the African diaspora, the data on capitalism is in. Here is a brief, cursory review of most (again, most) black people’s relationship to capitalist enterprise.

Dr. W.E.B. du Bois (1868-1963)

The Scoreboard

Throughout Europe’s colonial era, black communities in west Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean were forced to defend themselves from becoming or remaining labor inputs to slavery-dependent, capitalist enterprise. In hundreds, possibly thousands, of battles, black communities around the world defended themselves from enterprising capitalists in Africa, at sea, in the Caribbean and in the Americas. These communities made a warrior’s choice of death or freedom, violently resisting the option of life-long, hereditary, color-based exploitation. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Africans in Haiti even led the first, successful revolution of enslaved people in known history. Others who were less fortunate were forced into labor for the benefit of capitalists. So were their children, grandchildren, etc. This means that from the 1400s to the 1860s, the “enlightened,” liberal economics of Luca Pacioli, John Locke, Adam Smith and Andrew Jackson never translated into prosperity, only pain, for most black workers, for at least four hundred years. Capitalism was so weak in the Americas that labor markets couldn’t persist without stealing black people’s agricultural skills and natural resources. Nor could it survive without legal white nationalism and genocide against black and indigenous people. As of 1865, the capitalist framework of business management had a lot to prove to black people in the US. But maybe legal slavery was the only thing preventing capitalism from moving black wealth forward instead of just stealing black wealth. Once legal slavery was eliminated in the US, then maybe black capitalism would start to work for most black people.

By the first few decades of the 1900s, black capitalism was working arguably well for a few black communities. Unfortunately, un-prosecuted, racist terrorism destroyed many of those communities.

A few decades later, in the 1960s, when my dad was an elementary school kid in segregated Baltimore, the United States finally recognized us as legally equal humans. (Of course, the private and public sector institutions that benefitted from centuries of stolen wealth refused to address the harms and legacies of three centuries of legal, white nationalism.) Maybe overtly racist, legal inequality was the only thing preventing capitalism from moving black wealth forward. Once that was eliminated, then maybe black capitalism would work for most black people.

If there has ever been a time to show that the correct answer to Du Bois’ question was black capitalism, then the past fifty years would be it. But in 2019, the Institute for Policy Studies says that 37% of black people in the US have zero or negative net wealth and that "the median Black family today owns $3,600 - just 2% of the wealth of the median White family." Black American households' median wealth has been projected to fall to $0 by 2053. In 2019, fifty years after the end of legal white nationalism, the Urban Institute reports that most black households' net wealth has been virtually immune to growth (diagram below). The invisible hand of the market never seems to find it profitable enough to stop polluting black people's air nor to stop putting lead in black people’s water. How many of us are being held in for-profit prisons or being held hostage by for-profit bail bondsmen because of an ongoing, racist Drug War? On the "upside", the most economically privileged or exceptionally talented black people manage to breach the de facto economic and environmental apartheid to enter the “middle” and upper classes or move into less polluted neighborhoods.

This is how capitalism affects most black people in the US. These are systemic failures that cannot simply be attributed to the “deficiencies” of black people, black cultures or to any other racist rationale that would somehow justify our obstructed access to clean air, clean water, a livable global climate or reasonable financial wealth. We have thoroughly tested the capitalist option in Du Bois’ question. The magnitude and duration of the systemic failures that it has yielded black people are apparent to us. Neoliberal economics is not a few, Harvard-derived policy tweaks away from changing the course of black wealth or supporting the ecosystems on which we depend. It's not even close. That ship is sinking, black wealth is sinking and life on Mama Earth is sinking. The results are in and they’ve been screaming, “Try something else.” Reflecting upon this, our network hears the screaming results and is educating itself to implement financial solutions that are fundamentally different. We are with Du Bois and we choose cooperation.

Ujamaa in Full Effect

On this day of Kwanzaa, we recognize the principle of ujamaa, Kiswahili for “cooperative economics.” One popular interpretation of this principle is “buying black.” Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification of the concept that reduces a complex principle of economic democracy to black consumerism within black capitalism. As important as it is to identify and patronize black-owned businesses for our consumer needs, the principle of ujamaa means more. In recent history, this term was popularized by the anti-colonial Tanzanian movement for independence and the Tanzanian political party, Tanganyika African National Union. Led by former President Julius Nyerere, this party implemented systems of economic democracy across many sectors of newly independent Tanzania. In rural “ujamaa villages,” agricultural land was democratically owned and controlled by the people who worked that land in cooperatives. Businesses in several other sectors were similarly organized in a democratic fashion. In 2019, real manifestations of ujamaa continue to develop throughout the African diaspora.

  • As always, “susus,” or rotating savings groups, continue to be a popular, informal means for black people to accelerate our savings democratically. Link up with some trusted friends and try it out.

  • In Minneapolis, black finance professionals are establishing a black-led credit union, Village Financial Cooperative. Credit unions are banks whose ownership and management structure is intended to be democratically owned by the depositors.

  • Black workers in Jackson, Mississippi are developing structures and processes for a solidarity economy called, Cooperation Jackson. They are acquiring land and placing it under communal ownership. They’re forming democratic worker cooperatives to provide services and create incomes for black workers. They’re also developing educational institutions for technological training and political education.

  • In Rwanda, over the past 14 years, the number of cooperatives has grown by an astounding 914%. 43% of the country’s population over 16 years of age is a member of a cooperative. During roughly the same time period (2005-2018, excluding 2019), data from the World Bank shows that Rwanda’s gross national income per capita has increased by 278.6% from $280 USD to $780 USD (in 2019 dollars).

  • A few years ago, actor Danny Glover reported on how the cooperative sector was serving Afro-Venezuelans. He wrote, “I conversed with community leaders descended from the "maroons"—Venezuelans who had escaped slavery and created self-sustaining communities over 400 years ago. Youth leaders described the educational missions and government programs that provided them with unprecedented access to higher education. Members of workers' cooperatives discussed new state cacao processing factories co-managed by managers and workers that had helped lift the local economy and offered fair prices and social support to poor farmers.”

  • BitMari is a black-owned digital currency wallet that accommodates BitCoin. Their purpose is to facilitate international transactions among the African diaspora and in particular, remittances to Zimbabwe.

  • In Baltimore, Maryland, I’m proud to have contributed my efforts to the Cherry Hill Food Coop initiative. Visionary, Eric Jackson and leaders including Lee Jordan, Saché Jones, Faith Cunningham and others are responding to the lack of healthy food suppliers in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood by organizing the unmet demand for healthy and culturally relevant foods into a democratically owned and controlled consumer cooperative.

  • This year, Ron Hantz, President of the Network for Developing Conscious Communities launched the Cooperative Baltimore Academy. They train worker cooperatives and startup worker cooperatives whose members reside in Baltimore City.

  • Breaux Capital is a national cooperative of primarily black and male Millennials in the US who save and invest together.

In conclusion, the purpose of ujamaa was and still is about creating institutions of economic democracy that are owned and controlled by black communities. Genuine democracy cannot be limited to choosing politicians every two years. When it’s genuine, it’s practiced daily, not just politically, but economically. As they say, politics without economics is symbol without substance. And ujamaa is not simply black capitalism or black consumerism. Only through the tension of critical reflection and a willingness to change can evolution come about. Ujamaa is about systems-change and the genuine spirit of democratic cooperation to go with it.

We wish your families and ours health, wealth and the fundamental change that they require.