The Black Bourgeoisie: The Chief Propagators of "Buy Black" and Black Capitalism

Noah Tesfaye

Introduction

Following the murder of George Floyd, there was a resurgence in a phrase all-too-common in the recent US political zeitgeist: “Buy Black.” Instantly, Black businesses received an overwhelming outpour of support as many non-Black people sought performative or material actions to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Centering the narrative and vision behind these ideas of “Buying Black” was not only affluent white people but the Black commercial media and the Black bourgeois at large (1).

Amidst claims to defund and abolish the police, wealthy Black people called, as rapper and activist Killer Mike said in reference to Atlanta, “to not burn your own house down” but to instead support Black businesses and seek justice righteously (2). In this press conference with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the stark contrast between the masses of Black people who own little to no land in the city and the select few bourgeoisie celebrities who proclaim “Buying Black” as a liberatory practice for Black people was evident. Therefore, developing a framework of a political economy of racialization allows us to view the racialized motivations of capitalism to diversify and maintain power with a critical lens. For instance, revolutionary scholar Cedric Robinson attributes the origins of racism to “the ‘internal’ relations of European peoples” (3). He maintains that racial capitalism arose from “the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society [that] pursued essentially racial directions” (4). There is a vested interest in subverting claims of Black liberation by the Black bourgeoisie to build up the “myth and propaganda of Black buying power,” as Jared Ball coins in his book of the same title, to maintain their capitalist interests. It is through the collective efforts of the Black bourgeoisie to propagate Black capitalism that they accept the continued exploitation of working-class Black people.


A Relevant History to US Racial Capitalism

To develop a political economy framework of racialization and examine how Black people have assimilated into capitalism, it is imperative to center the conditions of Black Americans more broadly today. First, we will look at how race has played a role in the justification of the exploitation of Black people in America. Then, we will investigate how wealthy Black people have been able to exploit these conditions to further perpetuate such inequality within a racial capitalist hierarchy.

Race is integral to understanding the economic position of Black people, not just because of the way Black people arrived on the continent but also in the legacy of government policies that have contributed to the economic segregation of today. As a result, Black people have next to no wealth in the United States; by 2053, it is estimated that median Black household wealth will be zero (5). The asset that many Americans often associate with wealth-building is buying a home. However, for decades, Black people have had little access to affordable housing and loans at market interest rates. Established in 1933, the Home Owners Loan Corporation institutionalized abstract criteria, such as “desirability,” to fulfill a loan (6). Furthermore, “the HOLC’s actions attributed property values to the racial or ethnic identity of residents then helped codify it into a national housing policy” (7). This resulted in the creation of domestic colonial projects through restrictions on the purchase of real estate and allowed for the “economic serfdom of Negroes by its reluctance to give loans and insurance to Negro businesses” (8). Meanwhile, mortgage lenders redlined neighborhoods by deeming populations as having “detrimental influences,” as a means to justify offering conservative loans with bad terms or no loans at all to Black people (9).

Practices executed by the HOLC as well as state and local legislators to justify redlining also expanded into the creation of what is known as the “ghetto tax,” whereby grocery and convenience store items in inner-city communities were sometimes more expensive and sold under exploitative installment plans (10). It is not just that the economic conditions of Black people have been poor or fraught with challenges, but that with that context and contrast, a vision of “Buying Black” is hollow. Today, instead of focusing efforts towards highlighting the much higher risks Black people have faced concerning eviction since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black bourgeois have asked Black people to build and support Black business (11).


Origins of Black Buying Power & Black Capitalism

The origins in this rhetoric about Black capitalism and “Buying Black” in more modern examples are not from Black Americans but from the US government. Corporate America, in conjunction with the Black bourgeoisie, further developed the rhetoric of Black capitalism to exacerbate racial inequality. As discussed in Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, it was the Nixon administration that began to prop up this vision for Black capitalism as a means towards suppressing radical movements. The author Marcia Chatelain notes that “[i]n lieu of supporting critical civil rights protections for fair housing and school desegregation, Nixon promoted legislation that provided business loans, economic development grants, and affirmative action provisions on federally contracted projects as a means of suppressing black rage and securing black endorsements” (12). Amidst Nixon’s efforts towards building his Southern Strategy and winning the 1968 presidential election, he ran on the premise that Black capitalism would ensure racial equality (13). Yet, due to the logistical restraints of there being so few Black entrepreneurs along with the clear intentions Nixon had in stifling revolutionary activity, Black capitalism was, from the outset, designed to selectively help Black people (14).

What is more surprising than the Nixon administration seeking to subvert and crush Black radicals is the way in which wealthier Black people began to propagate Nixon’s agenda. As fast-food restaurants were being established in areas where Black people were offered franchisee licenses during the 1970s, Black “franchise pioneers believed that business would save the day and the days to come for their people” (15). Franchise owners were complicit in letting the federal government and those in control of capital across the country use the support of their businesses as a justification to divest from public programs and instead invest in less accessible resources. In the 1980s, Black fraternities and sororities, one of the more prominent symbols of the Black elite class, even went so far as to partner with McDonald’s on an advertising campaign commercial called the “Fraternity Chant” (16). If corporate America could get the Black bourgeoisie to more openly endorse and support policies centered around Black capitalism, instead of seeking people’s programs or organizing with Black liberation groups such as the Blank Panthers, US racial capitalism could persist.


Significance of Race to Studying the Bourgeois

There is no shortage of books, New York Times articles, or 60 Minutes segments on the racial wealth gap. Texts like How to Be an Antiracist or articles that imply that racial inequality is simply a matter of a “battle between the souls of America” do not adequately address, with nuance, the Black bourgeoisie’s influence on upholding racial capitalism (17). Rather than seeking to identify how and why these conditions continue to be perpetuated, many point to “the government” or “Republicans.”

As Cedric Robinson theorized, race has been integral to capitalism since its foundation. Due to the development of neoliberalism in the US and the heightened sense of individualism in a consumerist society, Black neoliberal politics manifests into upholding the status quo of American politics rather than taking significant measures to directly address inequality. Amidst the advancement of globalization spearheaded by the Clinton administration, the Black working class was abandoned even further due expansion in the prison industrial complex, aided by the passing of the Crime Bill of 1994. This, in conjunction with the rise in the commercialization of hip hop and mainstream Black art writ large, helped propel Black individualism to its prominent position today as an antagonism to the “superpredator” attitude the likes of Hillary Clinton and other politicians had for Black people.

Black people can also utilize and exploit racial capitalism to their benefit at the expense of others. To really understand how Black people continue to be exploited and disincentivized from seeking collective organization and liberation, we must look beyond Black entrepreneurship, Twitter, and Black real estate Instagram pages, for these are individualized success stories within racial capitalism.

In their article “Black Politics & the Neoliberal Racial Order,” Michael C. Dawson and Meghan Ming Francis attempt to trace through the ways in which Black people have assimilated into neoliberalism and diversified capitalism. As they see it, Black neoliberalism emphasizes “self-reliance, excessive consumerism, and individualism” (18). To buy into capitalism, Black people must shed their traditions in collectivism and community-building. Neoliberalism demands Black people to concede grassroots organizing and to instead make the most of society as it is currently constructed. That became the central mindset and rhetoric espoused as the Black bourgeoisie began to take shape. Former President Barack Obama once equated “raising one’s children, paying a decent salary,” and other private, voluntary acts to “marching” (19). Rather than proposing Black people seek to remedy the conditions they face, the same conditions that are routinely echoed throughout mainstream media, Obama implied that mere existence was a form of fighting for one’s rights. This is an example of individualizing systemic oppression; instead of calling to dismantle the entire class system that exploits poor Black people, the Black bourgeois would rather make poor Black people feel as though they are largely responsible for their class position. Obama is asking Black people to focus on their own immediate conditions as a form of struggle, instead of demanding for a greater fight for Black liberation because that call protects his class interests and not poor Black people.


The Black Bourgeois and their Propaganda

What makes this development of Black neoliberalism so insidious is how “neoliberalism often allows small segments of communities to be helped through community/voluntary action and activists’ searches for best practices and policies” (20). The emphasis here is “small segments.” It is not that a Black business would not benefit from more financial support as we saw in the summer of 2020, but the larger ramifications of supporting Black businesses can only go so far when correcting for centuries of irreparable harm done to Black people in and by America. Black people can and continue to receive small wins amidst the continuously shrinking wealth within the population as a whole. If Black people are truly building power and seeking to create cooperative businesses that sustain communities instead of cultivating resources within capitalism, corporations would not advertise or publicly support Black businesses like they have since June. Are we supposed to presume that Oprah or Tyler Perry or any prominent members of the Black bourgeoisie are unaware of the centuries of inequality and believe that “Buying Black” will be a substantive fix for the plight of the Black masses? No.

It is not to say that wealthier Black people are acting completely with malicious intent; however, Black bourgeoisie members collectively are helping sell and deliver this Black capitalism, “Buy Black” propaganda to the masses of working-class Black people. They continue to perpetuate and oftentimes expand on rhetoric that upholds Black capitalism by blaming individuals for not working hard enough or not being smart enough to make more money. “The Story of O.J” by JAY-Z, a song released in 2017, breaks down how Black people are not building enough wealth and how Jewish people spent money on real estate while Black people would spend it at the strip club. The song in short “is a metaphor for opportunities wasted due to poor individual choices and is meant, as Jay-Z has said, to be more than just a song, saying that it is really about ‘... we as a culture, having a plan, how we’re gonna push this forward...’” (21). In reality, “The Story of O.J.” symbolizes revisionist Black history - of the centuries of exploitation Black people have faced. As JAY-Z continues to profess that the only means towards freedom is to flip buildings, buy paintings, and “Buy Black,” his words limit the scope and imagination of the masses for a politic beyond the present conditions. Even if JAY-Z is from a working class background and he was lucky to attain massive success with his music, his current class conditions prevent him from adequately calling for more substantive changes to correct for centuries of Black inequality.

To a similar end “the expressed ‘plan’ is to eschew politics in favor of a sole focus on economics, Black capitalist economics with buying power as a central philosophy as the ‘only hope’ for freedom, and all presented as progressive, pro-Black, empowerment messaging” (22). If there exists any chance to adequately analyze the US through a comprehensive political economy framework of racialization and come up with solutions to free people of such dehumanizing conditions, it must be with the consideration that even those of oppressed backgrounds can uphold racial capitalism. The Black bourgeoisie has shown through their actions that they are not interested in engaging substantively or seeking to liberate the masses because they themselves have become comfortable with the comforts of capitalism evenwhile the rest of their “people” suffer.


Looking forward

Black radical organizers in America today are not “interested in making capitalism fairer, safer, and less racist. They know this is impossible. Rather, they want nothing less than to bring an end to ‘racial capitalism’” (23). The policy proposition that rose to prominence again this summer, in spite of uprisings and more imaginative visions for a just world, was instead to “buy Black” and “support Black businesses.” It was through the likes of Killer Mike, Beyoncé, and other members of the Black bourgeoisie who touted such demands rather than stand in line with the movement-building going on in the streets. Rihanna, for example, benefits from Black capitalism because her consumers consider supporting her business as “woke” even as it is financed and backed by white capital. “Buying Black” can act as a means not just towards individualizing the ends of this policy plan, whereby the owner of a particular business will reap the benefits of sale, but it also individualizes the way that we as citizens need to behave. We are asked to consume and spend more rather than create and collectively stand together. It is not that the Black elites are unaware of the conditions that working-class, poor Black people face, but rather they collectively have sought to propagate this vision of “Buying Black” as a means to an end to centuries of state-waged war against Black people - an end for which there is no economic policy that could help the masses. There is a reason why James Warren coined this group in 2005 “The Black Misleadership Class.” The Black bourgeoisie traffic misinformation and are purposefully complicit in the continued strife of the masses of Black people in the United States.

If we hope to build a political and economic vision for a world where Black people are no longer exploited, oppressed, marginalized, or silenced, it is crucial that we seek to contextualize both the race and class position of Black people within American society to then mobilize against the Black bourgeois and against US racial capitalism. If history is anything to go by, we must be prepared to stand and organize together, collectively, against the Black Misleadership Class to build a world where Black people can truly be liberated.


Endnotes

1 The term “Black bourgeoisie” used here is not directly related to E. Franklin Frazier’s text Black Bourgeoisie in which the term is used to refer to the Black middle class rather than the Black capitalist class. Along these lines, by the capitalist class, I am referring to the class that does not earn money solely through labor but also through the accumulation and exchange of assets.

2 Emmrich, Stuart, “Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s Press Conference Shows True Leadership During A Crisis.”

3 Robinson, Cedric, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 2.

4 Ibid, 2.

5 Asante-Muhammad, Dedrick et al, "The Road to Zero Wealth: How the Racial Wealth Divide Is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class,” 5.

6 Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta, “Back to the Neoliberal Moment: Race Taxes and the Political Economy of Black Urban Housing in the 1960s,” 189.

7 Ibid, 189.

8 Ibid, 191.

9 Ibid, 189.

10 Ibid, 195.

11 Thomas, Taylor Miller, “Coronavirus Relief Favors White Households, Leaving Many People of Color at Risk of Being Evicted.”

12 Chatelain, Marcia, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, 14.

13 Weems, Robert E., and Lewis A. Randolph, “The National Response to Richard M. Nixon’s Black Capitalism Initiative: The Success of Domestic Detente,” 67.

14 Weems, 68.

15 Chatelain, Franchise, 15.

16 Ibid, 177.

17 Kendi, Ibram X, “A Battle between the Two Souls of America.”

18 Dawson, Michael C. and Meghan Ming Francis, “Black Politics and the Neoliberal Racial Order,” 46.

19 Ibid, 48.

20 Ibid, 48.

21 Ball, Jared, The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power, 2.

22 Ibid, 2.

23 Robinson, Black Marxism, xi.


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