There exists in the African American political conversation a great disconnect on the subject of “economic development.” Among some Black political tendencies, the term “economic development” is thought to be synonymous with individual entrepreneurship. That’s a very narrow definition of economic development, one that reduces most Blacks to the role of mere potential customers, who are expected to support individual Black businesspeople as if the survival of the Race depended on it.
Black entrepreneurship will save no one but the owners and the few employees that work directly for them. We at Black Commentator have nothing against African American entrepreneurs – in fact, some of us have owned and run profitable businesses. But, as businesspeople, we never held ourselves up as a beacon to the community as a whole, or claimed to be leaders simply by virtue of making a buck. In some Black business circles, that is precisely the claim that is made: that somehow, the entire community will thrive based on the trickle-down effects generated by the presence of small Black businesses.
In more extreme cases, devotees of business development as the engine of Black economic uplift even sneer at mass mobilization to create public projects and employment. Demanding that government take the lead in development amounts to begging “the white man” for money, they say – as if public funds were not our money, too.
These guys – and most of them are guys – have it backwards. Economic development in the inner city requires that the residents be employed in good jobs, at a living wage, so that families have disposable income to spend in their neighborhoods. Small businesses cannot possibly create these conditions for large numbers of people. Only mass political action that impacts public policy to the benefit of the people at-large can create the conditions for vibrant urban economies. In fact, only mass action that reshapes public policy can create the conditions that allow Black businesses to survive. The greatest threat to all small business, is Big Business. Minority entrepreneurship cannot survive in an urban environment dominated by big corporations. Far from leading the community, Black businesses need protection from big corporations, protection that can only come from Black public political power.
Small retailers also require thick population densities in order to gather sufficient customers – the poorer the customers, the more that are required to keep local merchants afloat. But population densities are a result of public policy. Black businesses cannot even save themselves without the protection of an empowered Black public.
In the future, we must stop defining Black economic development as limited to Black business development. The best thing that can happen for Black business is a living wage for Black workers. If we are going to have an economic development conversation, let’s get our priorities straight, and stop talking backwards. For Radio BC, I’m Glen Ford.
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