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Big, but no punch: The Black consumer and economic development

By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — With an increasing buying power of nearly $1 trillion annually — $1.3 trillion by 2017, if African Americans were a geographical-fiscal entity, they’d be the 16th largest country in the world, according to a recent Nielsen report.

So then, why is it Black communities meet so many challenges when it comes to economic development?

“A lack of group cohesiveness is the first and biggest challenge” African Americans face when it comes to building business and creating wealth in their communities, says executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), Malik Yakini. “What many ethnic groups have done to build economic power is to patronize their own businesses … we’re not compelled to do that because we lack a sense of peoplehood.”

Yakini says this and limited access to capital oftentimes place African Americans at the bottom when it comes to economic opportunities.

Some local entrepreneurs fear the collapse of an already weakened system of economic development for Black Detroiters after emergency management and bankruptcy.

Richard Clay, founder of Clay Telecomm, says the appointment of an emergency manager in Detroit was not so much political as it was economic.

“It’s really a way of attacking the economic institutions within the city. The fact that we didn’t have a firm grip on economic development has just been heightened by that fact,” says Clay. “The new emergency management plan is bringing out the fact we were negligent and not addressing economic development.”

Clay says in many instances people have looked to community leadership — politicians and clergy — and in a sense these “leaders” have failed, if not refused to address “any type of economic development besides downtown.”

They can no longer depend on this leadership, says Clay, nor can they depend on jobs in the public sector — in education or city government, which once employed over 50 percent of the city’s workforce.

“Contracts have been lost, more jobs are being lost, schools are being closed and those opportunities are being downsized,” he says, adding that it’s now up to average citizens, the grassroots to put together businesses and create jobs to employ African Americans.

Clay says this group is hard pressed for cash to start up retail and franchise businesses, but network marketing and direct sales is a reachable goal for many.

“Direct sales presents the best possibilities and options to benefit the most people, and for providing where we can have the most in business creations,” says Clay, who designed and sells electronic devices. “For example we need our own product lines, products that are popular among Black people and address the daily needs of our community.”

Both Clay and Yakini say Black people need to make every effort to support and hold accountable Black business. They also believe African Americans need to look at what products and or services they consume the most and pursue every opportunity to manufacture and or sell those items or services.

Clay, an education consultant and former teacher, has done just that with the creation of his android tablet.

“The biggest buyers of electronics are African Americans,” Clay said. “If anybody wants to know where to get started, just look and see where we are the number one buyers in that industry. If we’re doing the majority of the buying and none of the selling that means we need to stop being consumers and need to become the marketers, the sellers, the entrepreneurs.”

Within the last 20 years, Clay says the only time there’s been an effort to address Black economic development in Detroit is when Dr. Claud Anderson of Powernomics tried to establish Africantown, a Black business district in Detroit. The proposal created a massive negative reaction and push back by corporate media and business interests that succeeded in killing the idea.

Dr. Anderson told the Michigan Citizen if something isn’t done to address the historic economic needs of the majority Black population in Detroit, the current privatization into the hands of non-Blacks and gentrification will create a permanent underclass structure of beggars and criminals.

“And you’re going to have major racial conflicts in the city,” Dr. Anderson said. “People either work, are on welfare, or they steal.”

Dr. Anderson asked, “Where’s your Black business district in Detroit? You have a Greektown, Corktown, Poletown, Hockeytown (and) a majority Black population that owns absolutely nothing.”

The primary focus should be on the Black majority class in Detroit, not white suburban transplants gentrifying the city, according to Dr. Anderson. “Why not give Blacks these opportunities to build wealth? Don’t try to rebuild the city of people returning from the suburbs, you have to build the city of Black people with needs that have never been addressed. The reason the city went down in the first place was because of a conscientious effort to relocate all the wealth and industries out of the city to the suburbs to avoid social integration.”

“You can’t address unemployment simply by giving Black folks jobs,” Anderson continued. He believes without opportunities to set up cooperatives, for urban redevelopment, or a Marshall Plan to attract back the Black middle class — “measures specifically unique to Detroit’s Black population — we’re looking at going back hundreds of years ago to slavery and sharecropping.”

Yakini says food has to be prominent in any discussion about Black economic development in Detroit. “Capturing even a small percentage of the millions of dollars that African Americans in Detroit spend outside of Detroit on food could be a tremendous economic driver,” he told the Michigan Citizen.

Through D-Town Farm, Yakini and the DBCFSN are modeling the potential to grow significant amounts of fruits, vegetables and herbs in Detroit, designed to encourage the use of portions of the city’s vacant land for agricultural production.

“But agricultural production by itself is not sufficient,” says Yakini. “The majority of the economic value in the food system is in the middle layers where food is processed, packaged and distributed.”

Yakini says an infrastructure has to be developed to do those things and that’s where real economic development comes into being.

“The mindset that we’re in a technological age and agrarianism is a step backward is a view of the world that has proven itself unsustainable. What we believe and what we’re working to prove is that it can be a driver in the economic development of the city overall.”

DBCFSN currently operates the free membership Ujamaa Co-op buying Club, wherein members can choose several thousand healthy foods and household options from an online catalog.

“We are making significant strides toward the development of a cooperatively owned full service grocery store,” he said.


See full interview with Malik Yakini here:

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