The next time I hear a black person give “reasons” as to why they find it difficult to support black entrepreneurs, I might stab them. The issue is not the quality of the businesses so much as how we unconsciously view them through an anti-black lens; yes, we as black people see the world through such a lens often. When I’m on the subway and a noisy crowd of white teenagers board, I roll my eyes. But when a crowd of noisy black teenagers board I cringe, get angry and urgently want them gone. My harsh reaction to the black teenagers reveals that I, on some level, wear anti-black goggles when viewing the world. Those goggles are hurting our entrepreneurs and ultimately, black power.
A classmate from undergrad tagged me in an Instagram post that asked people to identify reasons why black businesses fail. The IG post had over 30,000 likes and a slew of comments, most of which were laughable. Repeatedly, people cited “bad customer service,” operators who are “rude” or have “bad attitudes” and of course, “high prices.” These are the things we say when we have our goggles on. The irony is I read those comments minutes after reading that Wells Fargo found an additional 1.4 million fake accounts its employees opened without the consent of customers, adding to the initial 2.1 million phony accounts found last year. Yes, Wells Fargo literally stole from millions of their customers but they are the white teenagers on the train.
Overwhelmingly the post comments came from black people who most likely grew up and still live in black neighborhoods (regardless of income blacks still tend to live in segregated neighborhoods). There’s no way poor customer service prohibits them for they have always lived in neighborhoods filled with stores run by foreigners, whom they routinely condemn for their lack of customer service…but still support. At times there are language barriers that complicate the shopping experience. More disturbing, there is often an overt message that while your money is desired, your presence is not. That communication is so prevalent that is was portrayed in Menace to Society and later parodied by the Wayans in the infamous “hurry up and buy” scene from Don’t Be a Menace. The Wayans made light of a hostile dynamic that can even be fatal. Such was the case when Korean convenience store owner Soon Ja Du fatally shot Latasha Harlins in the back of her head as she attempted to leave the store, just 13 days after the Rodney King beating. Du received probation for the killing and no jail time. Harlins was 15.
Let’s assume black entrepreneurs are as rude and poor in customer service as some allege. There still must be a case for why we spend money with other entrepreneurs. As black people we are accustomed to shopping in stores not owned by black people, even in our own neighborhoods. While few of these interactions are as bad as the one between Harlins and Du, how often do we encounter amazing customer service in these establishments? I’ll wait. Whether it’s the local gas station, corner store or the Wal Mart in your hood, please show me all this amazing customer service we are accustomed to receiving and in turn demand before we can stomach patronizing an establishment. Again, I’ll wait while we collectively adjust our goggles.
Let us also assume that black entrepreneurs charge substantially more for similar products and services. Once again, there still must be an argument made for those whom we patronize. The Consumer Federation of America found that the five largest insurers quoted premiums 70 percent higher for predominantly black communities. The average premium for upper middle income, predominantly black communities was 194 percent higher than similar white communities. Black consumers face the same challenges when buying cars and homes — we routinely are charged, after controlling for credit score and income, a hefty “black tax.” Beyond that we all know the day to day markups we face in black neighborhoods. There are the crazy markups on toilet paper at the corner store, the subtle difference in pricing at grocery stores in our neighborhoods versus others and on it goes. As a child I was often told these markups were justified due to “increased security costs” for operators in my neighborhood.
For those who cite pricing as a deterrent to buying black, it stands to reason that they would avoid most other businesses located in or marketing to black communities, based on the facts. But they don’t. It must be the goggles. It must be that we often see the world through a distorted lens that makes all things black unworthy. Indeed, we often pay a premium for products based on the brand while we dismiss goods handcrafted, with love, by black entrepreneurs without even testing them to see whether the quality merits the price. Contrary to what we believe, all these “reasons” come not from objective analyses. Just as I have a distorted view of those black teenagers on the subway, we have a flawed view of our entrepreneurs. It’s time to take off the goggles and see them and all others as they truly are.