Republished from December 11, 2009
I often speak about the development of industry among Black organizations and Black professionals and about assimilation. I will show later that there is a connection between industry and assimilation, but first I will construct characteristics of good industry and broaden
current understandings of assimilation. These definitions about industry come from MSN Encarta:
- large-scale production: organized [emphasis added] economic activity connected with the production, manufacture, or construction of a particular product or range of products.
- widespread [emphasis added] activity: an activity that many people are involved in, especially one that has become commercialized or standardized [emphasis added] [e.g.,] counseling industry.
The current mindset among many Black Americans especially educated ones is (1) to be hired and work within mainstream (White) industries and (2) to establish relationships with mainstream organizations to develop single business entities that are Black-owned or controlled. In short, Blacks want to assimilate into the mainstream. It is very normal for minority groups to assimilate into the larger societies of which they are apart. For Blacks, it is even practical given our recent history (e.g., Black slavery and dependency on non-Blacks). Regretfully, our collective mindset has not been to develop industries that are organized, standardized, and widespread among Black organizations and Black professionals for the purpose of economic benefits. There are currently no or very few efforts to establish said industries.
As an illustration of the lack of business industry within Black America, I offer these points:
In 2002, there were 1.2 million black-owned firms in the U.S., employing nearly 754 thousand persons and generating nearly $89 billion in business revenues. These black-owned firms accounted for 5.2 percent of all nonfarm businesses in the U.S., 0.7 percent of their employment, and 0.4 percent of their receipts. (Survey of Business Owners – Black-Owned Firms, 2002)
In other words, Blacks employ 7 out of 1000 workers in nonfarm, private companies while they generate $4 for every $1000 generated by similarly situated non-Black companies. If we included publicly traded companies not controlled by Blacks, these numbers would be even worse. Contrast our $89 billion in annual sales to Cargill’s $106 billion (Forbes.com). One private, non-Black firm made more money than all private, Black firms combined. If we included publicly traded firms, General Electric had sales of nearly $132 billion in 2002 and employed 312 thousand people (Forbes.com) or 41 percent of the number private, Black firms employed.
As an illustration of the current mindset within Black America, I recall a conversation I had with an executive of a Black-owned media company. His job, as he saw it, was to convince large mainstream organizations to do business with Black-owned media companies like radio stations and print publishers. He worked hard to convince them that Blacks would actually buy certain products and services and that the marketing dollars that they would spend with Black-owned radio stations and print publishers would be worthwhile.
As another illustration, I had a conservation with an executive of a non-profit that provides direct services to incarcerated and previously incarcerated persons. He expressed his desire to partner with large public health care agencies and social service agencies to compete for federal grant opportunities that targeted his clients. I thought that it would have been better to partner with Black-owned agencies of the same type. Besides, they represented 24 percent of private, Black-owned firms in 2002 (Survey of Business Owners – Black-Owned Firms, 2002). Why would Black leaders funnel money to non-Black firms, especially to public agencies, when there are many Black firms that engage in the same work?
Earlier I said that it was practical for us to assimilate into the larger society given our history of slavery. Practical decision-making is good in some cases but not in all cases. For example, former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, was given a $10 million check by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal because of the destruction done to the World Trade Towers on 9/11, but he rejected it because of a statement made by the Prince suggesting that U.S. policy in the Middle East caused the 9/11 attacks. Giuliani flatly rejected the prince's position. "To suggest that there's a justification for [the terrorist attacks] only invites this happening in the future," he said. "It is highly irresponsible and very, very dangerous (CNN.com, 2001). He decided to reject money that would have benefited the city now but might have set the stage for trouble in the future. His thinking was more than practical. I will come back to this point shortly.
I recall reading a book about intelligence in which the authors defined practical intelligence as one’s ability to make and manipulate things with one’s hands such as what monkeys do. Chimps are able to make 10 or so different tools. They further stated that what separates humans from monkeys and apes was that we were able to make and manipulate not only material things but nonmaterial things such as statements, ideas, and thoughts by virtue of our mental ability with language. In other words, what separates us from lower animals is that we are able to use both our hands and our minds to construct new things, new ideas, and new realities. Said another way, humans are able to reason and thus able to advance past monkeys and apes. For many, it would have been practical for Giuliani to take the $10 million considering that the city probably needed it, but through good reasoning he did not. Black leaders are also faced with making many decisions. In my opinion, Black leaders, unlike Giuliani in this instance, prefer practical or common sense decision-making over more deliberate, thought-out decision-making. In other words, they do not use their critical thinking skills to their utmost advantage.
Previously, I used the word assimilate. I deliberately chose it because it has biological implications. In the natural sciences, it means to incorporate nutrients into the cells and tissues of animals and plants. Every one assimilates or they eventually die. Not only do humans incorporate nutrients to survive, but they also incorporate people and things into their activities as well. The division of labor is an example that involves assimilation. Humans are very productive and have prospered because of it. By extension, the development of industry is also an act of assimilation when we incorporate others into useful work.
Is the current assimilationist mindset enough to advance Black society? I say that it is not enough. Disparities in income, wealth, and education have existed between Whites and Blacks since Reconstruction and they show no sign of disappearing. Our focus on education, diversity (e.g., integration or assimilation), and corporate and government involvement in our affairs has not decreased these disparities. I am not saying that we should not continue to focus on these strategies, but in addition, we should develop new realities in which we are able to ensure the survival and competitiveness of current and future generations. That reality is best achieved through the development of industry or assimilation on our own terms. Remember, not assimilating eventually leads to death.
Why do these disparities continue to exist? It is easy to answer this question also using a biological argument. It is well known that when one organism assimilates more nutrients and has more productive activity in an environment with a competitor organism, it outgrows and outlives its competitor. This is even the case when the organisms are identical. We can close income, wealth, and education gaps with Whites, but it will only happen when we develop industries that are organized, standardized, and widespread among Black organizations and Black professionals. We definitely have the mental capability to do it. Let’s do it now!