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Activists Are Pushing For Consumers To Support Black Businesses. Is It Sustainable?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As protests around the country are drawing renewed attention to racism and police brutality, some people are looking for solutions in their pocketbooks. Activists and influencers are calling for people to start spending their money at Black-owned businesses. The idea is to build wealth in Black communities by keeping money within those communities. And many Black businesses are seeing a flood of new clientele.

Janel Jackson (ph) is the co-owner of Kilwins. It's a chocolate store in Chicago. She says they had a Juneteenth special, and it was the busiest day they have ever had in terms of sales.

JANEL JACKSON: The support has been overwhelmingly phenomenal. Our phones have never rang off the hook that way they do now. Just this past weekend, we had lines out the door from open all the way up until closing.

GREENE: When Ariell Johnson opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia back in 2015, she became the first Black woman to own a comic store on the East Coast. She's also seeing a significant increase in support.

ARIELL JOHNSON: We've had organizations reach out to us solely to donate to support the business. Then in addition to that, we've also had an increase in Web orders - and then as well as having just folks call in, just checking in.

GREENE: Johnson says it is a lifeline because they were hit really badly by the pandemic.

Quincy LeNear Gossfield is a television producer, and he started a Facebook group called 21 Days Black Empowerment Challenge (ph). It is an action plan to support Black businesses.

QUINCY LENEAR GOSSFIELD: It's a way of bringing the dollar back into our communities and helping our businesses grow.

GREENE: So could this movement have lasting impact? Well, we want to bring in Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch team who's been looking into this.

Gene, thanks for joining us.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: This is not a new idea, right? Take us through the history of this.

DEMBY: This idea has been around for a long time - this notion of buying Black - at least since the end of slavery. Black people, then and now, have been cut off from the avenues that created wealth for white people because of things like segregation, because of things like institutional racism. So the idea was that if Black people spent their money at Black businesses and divested from white institutions, it would help generate Black wealth.

And the idea has been championed by everyone from Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X. Even in Martin Luther King's famous "Been To The Mountaintop" speech - literally the one he gave the day before he was killed - he was urging Black people in Memphis to take their money out of white-run banks and insurance companies and invest that money in those in town that were run by Black folks.

GREENE: All right. So that's some of the context. Can you talk about this moment? I mean, the calls for people to buy from Black businesses are particularly loud right now.

DEMBY: Yeah, these calls tend to get louder around racial flashpoints. I mean, in 2016, when incidents of racial violence were in the news, there was a similar high-profile campaign urging people to buy Black. What seems to be different this time is that those calls aren't just coming from or aimed at Black people. Buying Black is a prominent action item on many of the lists circulating around social media explaining to white people what they might be doing to be helpful in this fight for racial justice.

And for better or for worse, in the United States, we often think of our individual consumer choices as an expression of our values. That's why so many corporations might feel compelled to make statements expressing support for Black lives and Black businesses right now, even if those corporations have, let's say, spotty records on justice and fairness.

GREENE: All right. So this idea, though, really does fall on the idea of the people who are buying, the consumers. How sustainable do you think it is?

DEMBY: It's a really big question because buying Black is part of this larger project of, like, Black capitalism. And it's tied to this other notion of Black buying power. Black buying power's often cited at north of $1 trillion, which would be a staggering number if it were real. I spoke to Jared Ball, who's a professor at Morgan State University - and he happens to be the author of a new book called "The Myth And Propaganda Of Black Buying Power" - who said that this huge, often cited figure of $1 trillion isn't just poorly sourced. He says it's a number that was created by the advertising industry, and it's not based in any economic reality.

But he says Black people just don't have enough collective wealth to power a movement like this. And all this thinking about how Black people should be spending their money and investing in Black businesses rests against this notion that Black people individually and collectively don't spend their money wisely or effectively.

JARED BALL: If you're talking about actually addressing the material economic inequality of an entire community, it does very little to have a few Black businesses propped up with some Black consumerism. I advocate Black banking and buy Black - and boy, I'm an advocate of everything. I'm just simply trying to argue that the idea that these will lead to the levels of success that people are expecting or hoping is mythologized.

GREENE: So he's really suggesting that we might hear some voices, like we did earlier, of stories that this sounds like it might be effective but that there are real limits.

DEMBY: Yeah. And it seems like common sense to say, look - there should be more investment in Black institutions and businesses. But maybe we should also be asking, is buying things, buying stuff, the most effective way to create or even redistribute wealth? I mean, the vast wealth gap between white people and Black people is the result of centuries of racist public policy. It wasn't created by consumer spending. And so fixing this deep-seated problem is also a question of policy, not pocketbooks.

GREENE: Gene Demby is the co-host of NPR's Code Switch podcast.

Gene, thanks so much for coming on and talking about this.

DEMBY: I appreciate you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.