Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture

Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture

Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture

Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture

Synopsis

What does it mean to be young, poor, and black in our consumer culture? Are black children "brand-crazed consumer addicts" willing to kill each other over a pair of the latest Nike Air Jordans or Barbie backpack? In this first in-depth account of the consumer lives of poor and working-class black children, Elizabeth Chin enters the world of children living in hardship in order to understand the ways they learn to manage living poor in a wealthy society.

To move beyond the stereotypical images of black children obsessed with status symbols, Chin spent two years interviewing poor children in New Haven, Connecticut, about where and how they spend their money. An alternate image of the children emerges, one that puts practicality ahead of status in their purchasing decisions. On a twenty-dollar shopping spree with Chin, one boy has to choose between a walkie-talkie set and an X-Men figure. In one of the most painful moments of her research, Chin watches as Davy struggles with his decision. He finally takes the walkie-talkie set, a toy that might be shared with his younger brother.

Through personal anecdotes and compelling stories ranging from topics such as Christmas and birthday gifts, shopping malls, Toys-R-Us, neighborhood convenience shops, school lunches, ethnically correct toys, and school supplies, Chin critically examines consumption as a medium through which social inequalities -- most notably of race, class, and gender -- are formed, experienced, imposed, and resisted. Along the way she acknowledges the profound constraints under which the poor and working class must struggle in their daily lives.

Excerpt

For most of its residents, New Haven, Connecticut, is a patchwork of clearly delineated neighborhoods that can veer quite suddenly from the abjectly poor to the fabulously wealthy. Largely divided along lines of black and white, these groups often regard each other with mutual fear and suspicion. One day as I was walking through a white, middle-class area toward Newhallville, the predominantly African American neighborhood that is the focus of this book, I ran into a woman who had been a classmate of mine in the fourth grade. the daughter of a Yale professor, she was now a banker living and practicing in Germany. When she learned that I was on my way to Newhallville, she made a stunning admission. For years, her father had driven her through Newhallville in the mornings on the way to school, and for her it had always been a frightening neighborhood that they moved through swiftly, with the doors locked and windows closed. Her admission was that she still had nightmares about driving through that neighborhood; she was ashamed about the symbolic terror the place still held for her, at least in her dreams. Several weeks later, as a winter evening was descending on the 'Ville, a Newhallville woman asked me where I was walking to. I told her I was headed over the hill—into the neighborhood where I had run into my childhood friend. “You walk over there?” she asked with incredulity. “It's dangerous in that neighborhood! There's never any people around!” Most middle-class white people might be surprised to think that a poor, black woman would think of their quiet, tree-lined neighborhood as dangerous. of course, perhaps the woman meant dangerous for someone like her—that a black woman walking in a white neighborhood . . .

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