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It seems that were it not for bad news there would be almost no news in Black America these days. Black folk, in case you hadn’t heard, are in the midst of yet another crisis. This time it’s a debt crisis, particularly in short-term revolving debt (primarily credit cards, but also payday loans, car title loans, etc.). Though Black families are less likely to have credit cards than White families those who do are much more likely to carry a monthly balance. According to data compiled by Demos from the most recent Survey of Consumer Finances (2001) just over half of White credit card holding families carry a monthly balance (averaging $4,381) while 84% of Black families carry monthly balances (averaging $2,950). Even though Black families carry smaller monthly balances a higher percentage of their financial worth goes into servicing debt. (See facts compiled by United for a Fair Economy.) In addition, credit card balances alone do not fully reflect the total cost of debt paid by Black and Brown families, who are most likely to resort to the sub-prime underworld of pawn shops, check cashing joints, and car title lenders charging loan shark interest rates.

But wait, it gets worse. The bankruptcy bill, which may have been signed, sealed and delivered by the time you read this, practically slams shut the one door available to consumers who are eventually overwhelmed by debt – personal bankruptcy. Though personal bankruptcies are often gut-wrenching economic and emotional affairs they do represent a way out of insurmountable debt.

Conspicuously consuming our way to the poorhouse?

Could the roots of fiscal crisis in Black America really lie in their conspicuous consumption as Bill Cosby has suggested? Are Black people conspicuously consuming their way into back-breaking debt, overly enamored of expensive athletic shoes instead of Hooked on Phonics? If so, what are we to make of folk who are living the life but living it largely on credit, well beyond their meager economic means?

I’ll resist the urge to throw a mountain of data at you to debunk this powerful racial myth about Black consumption, but let’s get something out of the way early. There is simply nothing in existing data to suggest that Black people’s consumption is any more conspicuous, foolish, or short-sighted than anyone else’s. Even in the categories where Blacks outspend Whites in many instances they are simply paying more than Whites for the same goods and services rather than consuming more (transportation and food are primary examples). Yet this powerful and enduring myth about conspicuous consumption, epitomized by Coz’s “$500 sneakers,” is repeated incessantly and seems to be remarkably resistant to contradictory data. I suppose this should not be especially surprising since powerful myths such as this are meant to transmit deeply held values by embedding them in images and stories. But understand this: The most important question to consider when debunking racial mythology is not whether it is true. If a myth is to stand the test of time it has to contain at least some truth, but just throwing inconsistent facts at it doesn’t make it go away, either. The most important questions to ask in order to debunk powerful racial myths are what values do they transmit and whose interests do they serve?

The Frivolous Black Consumer Myth

Bound up in the all-too-easy-to-assimilate images and stories about the frivolous Black consumer is White supremacy, American racial mythology’s most deeply held value. Though the oft-repeated stories about Black people’s inherent foolishness pre-date the end of legal slavery these stories actually grew in importance afterward. After the Civil War the central debate in American social life was about how the newly freed slaves would participate in labor and consumer markets as well as in the polity. Historian Ted Ownby, in his outstanding American Dreams in Mississippi, notes that the stereotypical Black consumer mythologized during this period was indulgent, impulsive, and wasteful; the proverbial fool to be soon parted from his money. This myth has an enduring legacy in American history because it specified what could be expected from Blacks if they were allowed to participate fully in the marketplace. That is, the myth helped confirm that Black people’s purchases would reflect their inherent character – indulgent, impulsive, wasteful, and self-destructive. Not coincidentally, it also confirmed that Whites’ purchases would reflect their inherent character – responsible, independent, and free from vice.

This myth took root in the American sensibility long before anyone had data that could confirm it or disconfirm it. Once ground into the historical development of American consumer markets it became largely unfazed by counterfactual data. Its primary function was to justify anti-Black discrimination in the marketplace, thereby making Black people’s presumed inferior status a self-fulfilling prophesy. Ownby notes the rhetorical catch-22 this mythology has presented for Blacks since slavery’s end, especially for the working class and marginally poor. When Black people who live on the economic margins look the part it affirms the notion that Black people lack the industry to attain material success. Yet when Black people, particularly working class Blacks, display the audacity to construct consumption-centered lifestyles it affirms their presumed inability to delay gratification.

So whose interests are served by the myth of the frivolous Black consumer? In one respect this is an easy question to answer. This mythology, and the dilemma it produces for Blacks, has consistently reinforced White supremacy, providing Whites with privileged status in the market in ways that are difficult to fully measure. Black consumption serves as a rhetorical counterpoint with which White consumption can be contrasted. It is worth noting that versions of this myth also portray other people of color and white women similarly, as irrational, impulsive, and wasteful. So this kind of mythologizing is hardly limited to Blacks. Still, in the United States the power of mythology to simply overwhelm reason reaches its apex when Black people are involved, even if only indirectly.

Consider for example the recent bankruptcy bill, a truly abhorrent piece of legislation, as a testament to how racial mythology helped set the boundaries of a debate without ever explicitly mentioning Black people. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), sponsor of the Senate version, quickly adopted the language of “irresponsible consumers” bailing out of their debts by declaring bankruptcy. Grassley dug directly into Ronald Reagan’s time-tested trick bag of racialized code words and pulled out a bulletproof way to frame public discussion. Grassley’s rhetoric made the bill practically immune to substantial counterevidence that consumer bankruptcies occur primarily after unfortunate or traumatic life events (like health crises) rather than too many trips to the mall. Couple this with the fact that the almost completely de-regulated, hugely profitable credit card industry is hardly in need of government protection from their most profitable consumers, those teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. It is of course beyond question that the credit card companies and the large sums of money they spend on The Hill shepherded this bill through the process. But, lest you doubt the power of racial mythology to structure the terms of debate note that even politicians who opposed the bill did not directly challenge the “lifestyles of the greedy and frivolous” imagery championed by Grassley despite being provided with more than enough data by consumer advocates, bankruptcy lawyers, judges, and scholars to do so. Rather they couched their primary opposition in terms of the bill’s impact on the “deserving poor” (e.g., seniors, children, those in ill-health, and veterans). Well, you know who the greedy and frivolous are in the popular imagination don’t you? If you don’t, just ask your Uncle Charles (Barkley). He’ll tell you at halftime of the next NBA game on TNT.

White supremacy isn’t the only interest being served

It would be foolish to suggest that White supremacy is the only value being transmitted through the frivolous Black consumption myth, though it is the most powerful. Still, stories about working class and poor Blacks who "love to look the part without keeping it real" are frequently part of a larger critique of the degraded state of Black America. This critique of current conditions commonly proffered by the Black middle classes highlights the dysfunctional behavior among the Black working class and poor as a key cause of community decline. For instance, in my recent research on the role of political ideology in consumer behavior my informants (from a Midwestern city) are highly critical of the Black working class, particularly Black youth. They critique Black youth consumption as overly frivolous (just like Coz, they went right to the sneakers) and prone to vices like stealing, vandalism, violence, etc. They cite this behavior as a key cause – if not the sole cause – of retail flight from predominantly Black areas of the city.

I do not dismiss whatever merit there may be to such claims. The deeper purpose served by this story, which people told me time and time again, however, was that it rendered their personal consumption choices less problematic by comparison. That is, Black folk fortunate enough to attain middle class status are immediately faced with vexing questions about their consumption and its impact on those less-fortunate in the Black community. Move the family into a better school district in the suburbs or stay in the city? Continue to shop at Black neighborhood stores or patronize suburban stores that have better selection and lower prices? These questions do not have simple, pat answers. Highlighting the dysfunctional choices of others aids many in the middle class to frame their own choices, whatever they may be, as not only rational by comparison but as truly in the best interests of the Black community.

What is to be done?

It is long past time we let go the myth that conspicuous consumption is destroying Black America’s economy. Far too many Black people who get up and go to work everyday continue to see shrinking wages, mounting credit card bills and slipping credit ratings for us to have so much invested in a fallacy. Far too much time has been spent running in fear from the image of the frivolous Black consumer. Far too much has been tolerated from those, Black and White, who have wielded the image as a weapon to mollify Black people’s legitimate concerns about the sad economic state of affairs in Black America. Far too much attention has been diverted from the real roots of the current crisis.

The roots of the crisis have nothing to do with frivolous consumption. They have everything to do with welfare-level wages, an enormous racial wealth gap, and super-expensive debt, culprits no doubt familiar to regular readers of BC. The real roots of the crisis for most people have much to do with being forced to supplement stagnant real wages with expensive debt in order to keep up with climbing costs of living. Black people and people generally in the U.S. are not so much spending way beyond their means as much as they are trying to carve out a meaningful life within them, and having to take on a ton of debt to do so. I wish I could offer some easy answers for a way out of this dilemma but if there were any we would have already found them. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that the only way out of this mess is through organizing for collective action.

Without taking up the specific merits of reparations in this article, if the way out of crisis is through organizing, I believe there is much to be learned from the ongoing struggle for reparations. With all due respect to the good people at Black Enterprise, I do not believe that chasing after personal financial empowerment in capital markets is an adequate response to Black America’s fiscal crisis. Though I have nothing against Black people building personal wealth, as long as it is kept in perspective, such pursuits have no inherent political character. The economic crisis in Black America is inherently political. As such, the mere building of assets among a few individuals is not a sufficient response. Though reparations as a topic has moved from the margins to the center of debate in Black America as a social movement, it remains in its infancy. Still, I concur with Sundiata Cha-Jua’s (2001) contention that we look to the reparations struggle as a model – if not a vehicle – for revitalizing Black civil society by coordinating social, political, and economic capital and by focusing on institution building in a participatory democratic culture. Whether it is reparations or some other issue, we have little choice but to organize and rebuild.

Dr. David Crockett is Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina. His primary research interest is in sociological aspects of consumer behavior, particularly the consequences of social inequality. Crockett’s research investigates class, gender and racial inequality in the marketplace, and addresses consumer, managerial, and public policy initiatives designed to alleviate inequality. He can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com.

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March 31 2005
Issue 132

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