Sound Familiar? Marcus Garvey 1921

With the black unemployment rate almost twice the national average at 16.2 percent compared to 9.2 percent (and 8.1 percent for whites), it’s clear the financial crisis has had a particularly detrimental effect on the black community. This gap has, however, been consistent throughout American history. Unsurprisingly, the lack of employment has been filled by an ever increasing prison population and communities plagued by violence due to the lack of resources available to youth. Consider these words from a speech Marcus Garvey delivered at Liberty Hall in New York City in 1921:

“No community is safe if in its midst there are thousands of hungry men. I do not care where that community is, it is an unsafe community and especially at midnight. Let the big dicty Negroes say, ‘What do I care for that good-for-nothing Negro; he is nothing.’ That poor Negro who has never had a square meal for four days goes to that big dicty Negro–I am trying to picture the conditions later on–he goes to that big dicty Negro and asks for a quarter or 50 cents and he drives him away. That Negro after not having a square meal for two, three or four days, turns away and loses heart and nothing in the world is too desperate for him not to do. To find bread a man is driven to the farthest extreme and at midnight or even in the daylight he resorts to violence and cares not what the result be so long as he finds bread to satisfy his hungry heart and soul.”

When we look at the wave of violence around the Portland area it’s not a coincidence that there is also high unemployment. According to a 2009 report “State of Black Oregon,” the black unemployment rate was around 24 percent. According to the report, “Black Oregonians are losing homes and wealth in what is nationally projected to be the largest loss of black wealth in U.S. history, according to a national report.” This coincides with cutbacks to numerous resources such as extracurricular activities like music and other programs.

At the end of the day, people have loyalty to whoever is feeding them. It’s easy to tell someone not to get involved with any illegal activity but when you can’t offer a sustainable alternative, your words will ring hollow. Economic issues aren’t the soul cause of the violence but they are the source of the lack of employment and activities that give our youth a productive alternative. For example, the fall of groups like The Prospective Gents Club and Imminent Ladies of Virtue, as well as other groups that sought to teach black youth about their history and give a sense of their worth in a society that so devalues black life, has allowed many of us to buy into self destruction.

Since our state and federal government have seemed to lend a deaf ear to the joblessness in black communities, we are going to be forced to depend on ourselves for a turnaround. Consider this excerpt from the aforementioned Garvey speech on white business owners in the black community:

“He knew the Negro better than the Negro knew himself. He knew the Negro would spend every dollar, every nickel, every penny he earned which he was compelled to pay him. He laid the plan by which the Negro would spend every nickel, but the Negro hadn’t sense sufficient to see it and know it. Now, what was the object and purpose of it? To take back every nickel that he paid him… He raised the price of everything; he raised the price of luxuries, for he knew well that, above all other peoples, Negroes love luxuries, and he taxed us in the districts where Negroes live, for you paid more for the luxuries you received in your district than white folks paid for the same luxuries in their district… But you did not subscribe the capital; you paid it out in silk shirts; you paid it out in expensive socks. And who made those factory silk shirts and those fancy silk socks that you purchased and paid for? White men. Who sold them to you? White men. Where is the money you paid for them? Gone back to White men, and you are still the paupers that you were prior to the war in 1914.”

This is just as true today. It costs more to live on the same sized property in Northeast Portland than it does in Lake Oswego (also known as Lake No Negro) because the property taxes and insurance rates are higher in NE Portland. Despite the fact that youth are more or less the same in both areas as far as cliques and drug activity, the stigmas and availabilities of guns in the black community allow the real owners of the land to jack up the insurance and the property tax rates.

In addition, the lack of investment in black businesses has taken all our money and reinvested it among business owners who neither live nor have personal stake in the welfare of the communities. It’s interesting to me when I’ll be riding past a place like Queen Sheba’s Ethiopian restaurant and a friend from another African country will ask, “Why would we go there when we can make that food at home?” I’ve found this to be a prevalent attitude and yet many of the same people will empty their pockets on anything from Taco Bell to Thai restaurants. This is not to suggest exclusively eating food from the diaspora, but our unwillingness to reinvest among ourselves is a direct cause of our lack of capital.

Another major industry in the black community is hair. Black women invest in a number of products from relaxer to weaves, almost all of which is owned by Asian and Indian business people. Similarly, many barbershops and salons that serve a majority black customer base, are not owned by black people.

Is it a wonder that when we don’t own the businesses that serve us, we are the lowest on the totem pole politically and continue to have such high unemployment rates? We are still one of the most consistent consumer bases in the country and yet we don’t leverage that power in our favor and we end up telling the same story year after year. Black leaders have been making the same speech as Marcus Garvey for decades (Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” and writings of Huey P. Newton during the 70s are just a couple of examples) but what good does it do if we continue to ignore them?

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5 Responses to “Sound Familiar? Marcus Garvey 1921”

  1. 4justice46 Says:

    Thanks for always speaking your truth. Keep on writing.

  2. swandiver Says:

    Amen. However, this is all a known factor. Your article states you are from Portland. Are no black people taking part in, what appears from the outside, the great living conditions for struggling artists and craftspeople?

    How are your urban farming initiatives? Are there any farmer’s markets/flea markets in predominatly black areas? Are there directories, online or otherwise, of black businesses to serve as a guide for consumers? Are we utilizing all of the available technology to maximize the potential of small businesses?

    • The easy answer to your question would be not really. The farmer’s markets are more so in the downtown area, which is more white, and other predominantly white areas like Salem and Eugene throughout the state. As far as directories, we have groups like Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs (OAME). Many people have tried to gather black businesses together to pool funds but it hasn’t been very successful. A member of my church actually tried to get a number of black physicians under one roof but it broke apart, supposedly over concerns about the money.

      You are right in asserting that we, as well as black communities across the US, need to make use of the available technology and resources available to us to get the word out about small businesses. Also there is a need to help people understand that an individualist mindset is an institutional barrier because if we don’t pool money and resources in many cases, we simply can’t win. It’s a matter of trust and utilizing the gang mentality in the most positive sense.

      • swandiver Says:

        I believe me and you are thinking on the right track. One of the constant barriers I’ve found to organizing is a fundamental lack of trust between members of our community.

        We are also being indoctrinated, through mainstream media, to believe that any form of self-interest is some kind of reverse racism. Or even that black businesses are subpar and we should not frequent them (which is odd since we seem to function so well in the process of making other people rich).

      • Seriously, we have too much consumer power not to leverage it.

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