Magazine article Black Enterprise

The Real Black Power: With More Than $400 Billion in Income, African Americans Have Grown into a Powerful Force. but Are We Spending Our Dollars Wisely?

Magazine article Black Enterprise

The Real Black Power: With More Than $400 Billion in Income, African Americans Have Grown into a Powerful Force. but Are We Spending Our Dollars Wisely?

Article excerpt

Tim Gipson of Los Angeles went to a Bullocks department store in Pasadena to return some extra china pieces that he and his wife, Denise Moret-Gipson, had received as wedding gifts. After waiting as other customers made returns and received refunds, Gipson attempted to do the same. The store clerk stalled, and then told Gipson that he could not get a cash refund but that the store would mail him a check.

"Since my husband didn't remember which branch of the store we were registered in, they couldn't check the registry. Instead, they called around to check every single store to see if this Fitz and Floyd china had been stolen," remembers Denise, a pediatrician at Universal Care Medical Group, an HMO in nearby Torrence, California. Tim is a veteran detective in the forgery and white collar (a.k.a. "bunco") crimes division of the Los Angeles Police Department.

"Imagine my husband's surprise when he conveyed the story at work the next day. A white officer who moonlighted at another Bullocks told him that the store had called to find out if the china was stolen," she explains. "Since then, we've never gone back to Bullocks. Between the two of us, we spent at least $3,000 a year there. Now that business goes to Nordstrom's, and the service is definitely better."

Most African Americans expect, and accept, the fact that their patronage is often not valued in the same way as others. When we are mistreated, many of us, like the Gipsons, are willing to vote with our feet and take our business elsewhere.

And when African Americans are egregiously wronged, we have proven ourselves capable of making companies, cities, states and even entire countries pay via targeted boycotts and economic sanctions as well as the civil court system. Prominent examples include the successful class-action discrimination suit against the Denny's restaurant chain, the boycotts of Miami (after city leaders snubbed future South Africa President Nelson Mandela) and Arizona (after the state voted against a holiday in recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and the economic isolation of South Africa under apartheid. A more recent victory is New York publishing company Essence Communications and the National Urban League's successful effort to get newly elected Louisiana Governor Mike Foster to reconsider his declaration of war against race-based affirmative action policies in the state. The stick: the threat to pull the NUL Annual Conference and Essence's popular music festival - representing a combined economic impact of $93 million - out of New Orleans.

These individual triumphs, though productive, have not translated into a root change in attitude toward African Americans as a critical economic force. Forty years after a tired seamstress named Rosa Parks triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the economic status of African American has improved, but our economic clout has not. Some might even argue that it has declined.

While corporate America benefits from the dollars African Americans spend, we haven't done enough to leverage that spending clout. The fact is that, once harnessed, African American dollars +can be the difference between profit and loss for any consumer product on the market today. Even more important: Given our current socio-political climate, aside from our voting power, our buying power is the only major leverage we have left. If we can't speak to American business' and government's bottom line, they simply will not listen.

"Black spending power has been largely ignored," says Darlene Edwards-Beacham, president of the Black Consumer Organization of America (BCOA). "There has been no voice to take a pulse and provide collective data on the black consumer so that that information gets disseminated. We underestimate the power we do have. We need to figure a way to muscle that power."

Punishing negative behavior, such as with boycotts, is not a substitute for encouraging positive behavior. …

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