Black Underdevelopment: Observations and Recommendations

Ron Watkins
Ron Watkins
“Without commerce and industry, a people will perish”
Marcus Garvey

Racism and the effects of living in a racist society is the most common reason given by many Black leaders for Black America’s economic underdevelopment. This argument is no longer valid. Racism has, and will be a part of the human condition for the foreseeable future. The fight for civil rights has been won, and In today’s computer and communications driven global economy, the world is open to all willing to take the plunge. Then there are those who ascribe to the grand conspiracy theory. The belief that there is a grand conspiracy on the part of some white people to keep Black people forever enslaved. The grand conspiracy theory only holds up if we buy into it and choose to deify the conspirators. We need more Black elected officials who can affect public policy is another reason given for Black underdevelopment. There is absolutely no evidence showing that electing more African Americans to political office has any real effect on job creation and poverty reduction in the Black community. The wealth and income gap between Blacks and whites appear to be widening in spite of the increased numbers of Blacks holding political office. Some say the Black church should be more involved. The Black church is involved. From a purely economic development point of view, the Black church is the most visible and successful business enterprise in the Black community. They provide a service, they generate revenue, and they employ people from their community.

The primary cause of Black America’s economic underdevelopment lies in our failure to produce what Marcus Garvey called “Black Captains of Industry” and what Booker T. Washington described as, “A Gospel of Wealth.” We have not built upon the traditions of these early visionaries and placed the necessary emphasis on creating what I call a “Culture of Entrepreneurship” in the Black community. A culture that promotes entrepreneurship and creates the commercial and social enterprises that provides the jobs and a higher standard of living in the Black community.

Before coming to the U.S., Garvey was a great admirer of Booker T. Washington’s wealth building philosophy. They communicated regularly and Garvey saw in
Washington's work the foundations for economic advancement. Garvey saw the accumulation of wealth as the true path to eliminating racism. "Wealth is power, wealth is justice, and wealth is real human rights." Garvey's dream was for blacks to become a "rich and prosperous people," and he taught that nothing was worse than ending up as a "hobo race that lingers by the wayside." Garvey and Booker T. Washington both recognized the opportunity for economic advancement in spite of the racism and discrimination Blacks faced. Often left out by nationalists who espouse the Garvey philosophy is the fact that Garvey was an unapologetic proponent of Democracy and the capitalist economic system. “A democracy is the safest kind of government to live under for persons of individual initiative who desire to go into business, because it gives every man a chance to do business more safely. The man who wants to go into business commercially, industrially or agriculturally and win a fortune for himself, to achieve the things he aims at, cannot and should not be a Communist, because Communism robs the individual of his personal initiative and ambition or the result thereof. Democracy, therefore, is the kind of government that offers to the individual the opportunity to rise from laborer to the status of a capitalist or employer”.

Throughout my 30-year professional career, either as a community organizer organizing block clubs, tenant unions, demonstration marches, or food co-ops; or as an economic development specialist for the State of Illinois and providing consultant services to municipalities and businesses throughout the state; ; or as an entrepreneur, starting and operating three businesses in Chicago; or while living and operating a business in the West African countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone; or researching and studying world economic development trends, one fact remained constant. Those communities and ethnic groups that promoted and encouraged entrepreneurship as the primary vehicle for eliminating poverty in their communities were far more successful towards achieving these goals than those that depended on government or philanthropic programs.

Ethnic groups where entrepreneurship occupies a high social status tend to beget more entrepreneurs. The Black community can no longer afford to ignore the role of entrepreneurship and the entrepreneur mindset in driving economic development for our communities. Once an entrepreneurial culture takes root, it typically spreads, as people learn about business and feel attracted to it. The path to eliminating poverty in Black communities is through the development of strategies and action plans to replace a culture of victimization and despair with a culture of entrepreneurship and opportunity. The economic success of any group is in direct proportion to the number of people in the group who think and act as entrepreneurs. If my observations and conclusions are correct, and there is an abundance of empirical and research data supporting this fact, much of which I cover in my new book, “Thinking Globally, Black Economic Development In The New World Order.” But wherever you are, you only have to look around you. The more economically successful your community or group is, the greater will be the number of people who behave like entrepreneurs. Individuals who possess the mind set, organization and management skills to perceive an opportunity, create an organization to pursue it, assemble the required resources, implement the plan, assume the risks and the rewards, all in a timely manner, thereby creating jobs and a higher standard of living for their communities.