The recent slew of highly-publicized police on black shootings, the Confederate flag controversy and the South Carolina church massacre highlight the difficulty inherent in a 400-year battle to eradicate the vestiges of America’s original sin. These bigoted acts of cowardice and ignorance must be addressed, but we have an equally insidious, but less apparent stain to deal with — the perception that the black community is financially bankrupt.
I met with my favorite college professor and dear friend for lunch last week. We engaged in a lengthy discussion about a business proposal aimed at satisfying the demands of the black consumer, and the relationship with one of the world’s top industries. It’s a win-win for an industry that survives on thin profit margins. I won’t divulge my proposal just yet. I’m still waiting for the ink to dry on my business plan.
According to multiple studies, the economic impact of America’s black community is expected to reach $1.3 trillion by 2017. Of the 14.5 million black households, nearly 23 percent have incomes in excess of $75,000 annually. I continued to share my knowledge of black economics for five minutes. Looking back on our conversation, I streamed enough information from my memory banks in those few short minutes to freeze the best super computers money could buy.
Then, all got quiet as my professor sat, pondering my data dump. After a moment of deep reflection, we made eye contact. In his calm, reassuring voice, he said, “all I hear about is poverty in the black community.” Now it was my turn to reflect. His comments weren’t just from any old person; it was from someone I truly respect, with a thirst for knowledge second to none. If he had that perception, what did some of the less learned people I deal with on a daily basis think?
While it’s true black unemployment is double the national average, and many black men are incarcerated for petty crimes; there is a swath of black America that proves daily that we have what it takes to work and compete in a system that hasn’t always honored or appreciated our contributions to society and American capitalism.
My professor’s perception was well-rooted in a common false meme that has followed black America since slavery — the idea that we lack financial acumen, don’t know how to build businesses, need to be told what to do with our finances, or else that we’re overly reliant on government handouts. Those memes were meant to keep us in “our” place. It feeds the narrative that blacks are inferior. I wanted to explain the success of Black Wall Street in the 1920s, but thought the better of it, and steered the discussion back to my proposal.
Next, came a discussion about the industry my business plan targets — travel and tourism. One in every nine jobs in America is related to travel and tourism. It’s one of the top 10 industries in 49 states and the District of Columbia, yet African-Americans have such a small footprint in the business side of the industry its startling. As an example, there are over 52,800 hotels in the United States as of year-end 2013. Just over 500 are black-owned. That’s .9 percent.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been involved with travel and tourism since the mid 1990s. I started producing local news segments in Los Angeles for a noted travel expert. I went on to become a senior producer at the Travel Channel, and later served as one of the original marketing/advisory committee members for Brand USA. Brand USA is a public/private partnership formed when President Barack Obama signed the Travel Promotion Act in 2010. Brand USA’s charge, to promote the United States as an international travel destination.
I’ve consulted many locales, resorts and businesses that having nothing to do with travel, on their lack of outreach to the black community. Some chief marketing officers feign ignorance; others simply refuse to consider there might be some affluent people of color who, collectively, spend $50 billion annually on travel.
My professor’s innocent comment struck a nerve, in a good way. It forced me to face a reality. False perception more often than not, trumps reality, even in business. In my exuberance to convince these CMOs they were missing out on a golden economic opportunity, I missed their reality — they drank the Kool-Aid handed down to them over generations.
Whether conscious, or not, this stereotype has been allowed to fester so long, many accept it as truth. Outside the arenas of athletics and entertainment, successful people of color are often considered an enigma without financial resources. One needs to look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for proof.
This false impression has a lasting ripple effect. This byproduct of slavery and Jim Crow damages community relations and feeds the bigots. Those born into privilege have stacked the deck at the expense of others for so long, they don’t even recognize their own privilege. You want to help minimize the ugly affects of racism; lets start by destroying this myth that black people lack financial know how, or that we’re not worth investment dollars. We’re not financially bankrupt. We’ve managed to accomplish a lot with a little. What we really want is to be treated as equal partners in this experiment called America.