Black Cohesion: From Black Wall Street to Beyond

By Manuel Bernal

Diversity is not enough, we need equity and collective power. We may be placed into an institution but we are still being forced to carry out white supremacy. We need to transform existing institutions and create our own. We need black dollars flowing into a black economy. A special person in my life always told me that voting with our dollars is just as powerful of a tool if not more than voting once every four years. Voting with our dollars in anti-oppressive ways is incredibly powerful. Each dollar you spend on a local black business signifies the neighborhood commitment to strengthening the black economy. Each dollar you spend on a corporation means less revenue for local black businesses. You are directly voting, through your dollar, for that corporation to remain in business and taking support away from the local shop.  Imagine black community members solely purchasing goods from black-owned grocery stores, investing money in black-owned banks, staying in black-owned hotels, attending black-owned schools, and supporting black owned communication and media. Several of these elements are already in place but the continuation of strengthening and encouraging black ownership is crucial. The flow of revenue circulating inside black parameters generates a strong economy. But once those dollars start flowing outside that parameter, that neighborhood, the economy becomes weak. Despite this analysis, it is crucial to understand that Black capitalism will not save the black community just as others colors of capitalism will not save communities of color. This economic system is designed with the intent of serving the interests of elites and creating inequalities that will be justified in the name of economic freedom. Black capitalism will serve as an incubator for greed and as a system for privatization and profit thus further marginalizing black communities of lower-income. We are needing a different system from which to operate from to better serve and represent our communities.

In honor of Black history month and as a fuck you to all the white supremacist history textbooks and schools that never mentioned Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma or otherwise known as “Black Wall Street”, I want to highlight the importance of this moment in history. Greenwood is a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma where following the Civil War, reconstruction efforts to rebuild the neighborhood was significantly successful. During the oil boom of the 1910s, many Blacks moved to Tulsa where Black Wall street was built by black hands through the creation of businesses, entrepreneurial spirits and the relationship of being dependent on each other for survival. At the core of Black Wall Street was an organic community-oriented ideology. Not only was this community-oriented ideology deeply engrained within the black community but it was against the law for blacks to purchase from white businesses. The black community was community oriented in the sense that most people were loyal and dependent on one another for the access to resources. It was a relationship among community members that occurred naturally; their economic survival and empowerment were contingent on this community-oriented ideology. The conditions fostered for the creation of a thriving black economy and black multimillionaires. Scholars explain that the black dollar circulated 36 to 100 times, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community. After years of creating Black wealth at exponential rates, Black Wall Street was eventually destroyed in the Tulsa Race Riot. The Tulsa Race Riot was the heinous destruction of a thriving black economic community. Tensions were increasingly rising between this black community and surrounding white neighborhoods and the economic boom that  Greenwood was experiencing was only intensifying white jealousy and anxiety. In a classical stereotypical white racist conjured fable, a white woman accused a black man of rape leading to a series of cascading events that resulted in the mass property and symbolic damage to black institutions and the literal burning of Greenwood. White infliction of terror and violence forcefully pushed back against black economic inertia.

We have current institutions held by white hands that need to be transformed; transformed into self-identifying anti-racist institutions that allow for people of color and other marginalized groups to have a seat at the table but we also need those same people to have equal power within those institutions. This is what it means to go beyond diversity; obtaining equal power at that table in order to be able to share that power. Anti-racism organizations are able to provide anti-racism workshops that provide the institutions with a historical framework for why and how we are where we are with anti-oppressive models that foster the conditions for an anti-racist transformation. Institution’s such as Crossroads in Chicago and their regional partners are dedicated to dismantling racism and building racial justice in institutions. Crossroads is an anti-racism organization in Chicago that provides anti-racism training that focuses on analyzing racial power structures within systems and institutions. The objective of this training is to provide institutions a common language in order to have constructive conversations on race, understanding the functionality of racism at the systemic level, to provide a historical lens and context as a framework, and to provide anti-oppressive tools and a path in order to bring forth racial justice in institutions.  

Black Wall Street provided a blueprint that many black businesses and communities can implement. First and foremost, perhaps the most important element in Greenwood was the community-oriented ideology. This ideology allowed for loyalty and support systems that allowed that dollar to circulate 36 to 100 times. Creating businesses is crucial. We can’t keep thinking that we should get educated in order to then manage the business and white wealth of white owners.  Securing employment is important but we should not solely focus on that idea, we should encourage business and economic development. There is irrefutable research which consistently proves that employers are 50% more likely to give applicants with white sounding names a call back compared to applicants with black sounding names. So even being suspected of having a white sounding name gives you an advantage in the hiring process. Several elements of employment preparation include oppressive norms such as talking right or talking like the dominant culture. Systemic and institutionalized racism leaves the black community with high unemployment rates, so in many ways, we can’t wait on their institutions to grants us life, we need to develop, nourish and maintain our own institutions. We have to dismantle white supremacy with different strategies from different angles and positions. Transforming current institutions and developing our own is vital. We need current black institutions, businesses, and churches to emphasize the need for economic development. Developing a business can seem intimidating due to the capital that is needed but as a community, it is possible to collect black dollars in order to begin the process. One concrete example we can study is OneUnited Bank. This black banking institution began with a group of people who were concerned with revitalizing black lower income neighborhoods and to provide loans specifically to local businesses. They began by already having a significant amount of capital but that will not be the case in most situations for most people however this group had a common vision for the black community; to strengthen the black economic power of those communities. When one does not have the capital to start a business such a bank, one may start small and think in visions of incrementalism. One can collect dollars from the black community and create an organic path toward this vision. There are black chambers of commerce that provide workshops and strategies that can push this vision further. It is important to note that OneUnited bank also provided financial workshops to black communities and had programs such as “rebuild your credit” which was aimed to help people who had been financially marginalized due to their credit. Another significant element to all this is the board of directors. Who are the faces making the decisions? In the case of OneUnited Bank, the overwhelming majority of their board members are black community members. When one speaks about a black institution and what that looks like we must recognize the faces who are making the decisions as a collective. These decision makers hold the power and will essentially make the decisions that can lift people up or cause them harm. Having this power is an effective black institutional and political tool, however, this bank is still a bank and reservations should still be kept. Banking institutions of color have the potential to fall into the same capitalistic malpractices as white banks.

My hometown has several latinx owned businesses but the principle of loyalty gets tested regularly once non-latinx businesses drop the price of a good by cents. Many latinx people would purchase the product from the white business if it equated to savings. When I see this happen I completely understand why we give our brown dollars to white businesses; we have less income and wealth and every cent adds up. We need to provide workshops to the latinx community to explain the importance of maintaining the health and increasing the strength of latinx businesses. If we want our businesses to thrive we have to do the best we can to remain loyal to our latinx and black businesses. Sometimes because most people know each other within the community, we are more likely to take advantage of either not paying the full amount and explaining to pay the rest later and eventually either taking an extended period of time to pay it back or not paying at all. So, why are we more likely to do that to our own businesses and not with white-owned businesses? We have to be real with each other and have each other’s backs. Our loyalty should not be bought. At this same time, however, arranging payments to be structurally scattered can be a financial alleviation to community members that they may not necessarily have with white businesses. Everything can flow well with balance.

I understand that capitalism is an ill that continually oppresses everyone (besides the elite) but disproportionally impacts people of color. Dismantling white supremacy also means dismantling capitalism because both systems work hand in hand. However, if black people are to have a chance at true equal power, economic strength, and equity in this current oppressive system then the black community needs current institutions to be on a path of an anti-racism identity with anti-oppressive policies while black communities simultaneously create their own institutions to provide equity to its community. We can still strive to dismantle the capitalist system, yet white liberals will certainly scold us for adding Black capitalist wealth to the larger system, but they’ll preach this while having higher employment rates, drinking their corporate coffee while writing a weak response to this piece from a capitalist corporate computer. Too many times I have listened to white liberals advocating for diversity and inclusion in a malicious manner. Their calls for diversity are premised on the idea of dollars traveling from communities of color and flowing into a white economic pool. Too many times their deceptive call for inclusion are capitalistic in nature. If there is competition ( black institutions such as banks) the white liberal call for diversity will soon turn to white liberal anxiety.

In envisioning black futures, I see black bodies working with black businesses, investing, buying, and producing without the permission of white capital. The question of access is not relevant because black bodies created their own path; no key is needed because we built the foundation from the core of the earth to the skyscraper point in the sky.

In envisioning black futures, I see successful black economic communities and having the world acknowledge the success. They can no longer point to individual stories of black millionaires as systemic change. I see black people owning land and controlling the settings on that property.

In envisioning black futures, I see Black Wealth surpassing White Wealth, through a common understanding that systemic oppression buries the Black community in every sense, we realize that we cannot rely on those systemic forces to protect and provide for us and in this, one thousand black hands rise from the dirt and graves of white economic suppression.

Xicanx anti-racism advocate from Indiana. BA in political science from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne Indiana and a current graduate student for an MA in public policy. Will pursue a doctoral degree in race relations.

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