For several years, I published a newsletter, “The Vanguard,” for Arkansas Baptist College, a historically black college in Little Rock. The newsletter dated back a century, and I assume I was its first editor who was white. It was an honor.
The school was in the midst of a resurgence under its visionary president, Dr. Fitz Hill. It’s now facing some challenges, but this column is not about that. I attended many events there, often as the only white person in the room, or one of the few. When it came time to publish, I would email a rough draft to my contact hoping she would like it, and when she called to sweetly make corrections, I would be disappointed in myself if I made many errors. She was the one writing the check, and I wanted to please her.
The nation needs more minority business owners. It spreads the wealth the way wealth is best spread. It breaks down barriers, creates respect, and makes everybody better. It made me better. When two people are doing business together – one performing a needed service, the other providing a needed paycheck – then it’s a lot easier to get past all the terrible things that have happened the past 400 years.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 Survey of Business Owners, of the nation’s 27 million businesses then, 1.9 million were owned by African Americans. That’s about 7 percent in a country where 13.2 percent of the population is “black or African-American alone,” according to the Census Bureau. The 1.9 million companies employed less than 910,000 people, so most had no paid employees. But those 910,000 people had jobs because of an African American business owner.
At one time, Little Rock was home to many minority-owned businesses – 102 on West Ninth Street in 1959, according to the Mosaic Templars Center, a neat museum in the capital city. But that would soon change. Integration put those businesses in competition with larger and more resourced businesses owned by white people. (The same dynamic occurred with colleges like ABC.) The construction of Interstate 630 cut through the business district, pretty much destroying it. Today, what’s left of West Ninth Street is in decay.
Traditionally, many small businesses owned by African Americans have served mostly African American people – funeral homes, hair stylists, etc. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, it is bad if it stops at that. According to the Pew Research Center, median incomes for African Americans in 2013 were 59.2 percent of whites, and the wealth gap between members of those two races was growing. One way to address that is to circulate dollars throughout the entire American community. The best way to make that happen is for more African Americans to own the means of production.
When I told my wife I was thinking about writing this column, she asked, “So what’s your solution?” Unfortunately, I don’t have a good one. I’m not sure if any more laws need to be passed. I think affirmative action in government contracts and scholarships is helpful, though it should be based on class and background, not race.
Undoubtedly, progress is being made in race relations, which should increase opportunities for African American business owners. Regardless of what you think about President Obama, his election was a ceiling-breaking event unimaginable not long ago. Young people are not color blind, but they are color blurry, which is good, because they’ll have to be. While the Census Bureau considered only 2.4 percent of us to be “two or more races” in 2013, that number will grow in the coming years. In 2010, 10 percent of opposite sex married couple households were interracial or interethnic – an increase from 7 percent in 2000. A 2013 Gallup poll found 87 percent of Americans approved of marriages between white and black people. In 1958, just 4 percent did.
Please keep all this in mind as we watch the unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri. Certainly a scab has been ripped off an old wound there. I’m not sure what to think about all of it, except this: An officer shooting an unarmed man is bad, and rioting is also bad.
But honest commerce – that’s really good. Many things must still happen on this long march to justice. One is more diverse people doing business with each other. After all – and I usually hate this expression – but in business, the only color that matters is green.
(Follow Steve Brawner on Twitter @stevebrawner)