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Lore of Black Buying Power Leaving us Broker

Media consistently tells Black Americans we have $1 trillion in buying power, which is bigger than the GNP of some nations. Many interpret this to mean Black people collectively have $1 trillion, as if all 48 million Black people in this country have $33,333 at their disposal. But truth is, nearly half of all Black households earned less than $50,000 in 2022. “Less than $50,000” can be just about any figure near $0, and those 48 million Black Americans who fell into that category include incarcerated people, high school students, your cousin and your aunt—you know the one. 


The Pew Research Center says the median income of multiracial Black households is $60,000, and in Black Hispanic households that income drops to $56,500. Now get this: In single-race Black households, the median income is lowest at $49,500, so, if your house is Black and just Black, you’re broker because of it.  

But under the “trillion-dollar logic” from above, if Black people spend wisely, not squander wealth on name brands and $200 dates, we wouldn’t need social programs or welfare. We could build a nation of Black Wall Streets and close the racial wealth gap. This, of course, puts the focus on individual acts and personal responsibility and reinforces the dogma of how important it is to work hard in America. 

Author and Africana Studies Professor Jared Ball.
Poverty and inequality are not the result of individual bad choices. The idea that people could make “good choices” on an individual level and solve the problem is mythology.

There are few things more powerful than the myth of the value of hard work. Hard work is responsible for railroads, highways, skyscrapers and suburbs. Hard work built the pyramids and put a man on the moon. Hard work is what separates the haves and have-nots, says the myth. In this society being a “have” is what matters, and the road to being a “have” is hard work. 


Jared A. Ball, PhD, author and professor of Africana and Communication Studies at Baltimore’s Morgan State University, has different ideas from most platformed talking heads. In his book, “The Myths and Propaganda of Black Buying Power,” Ball argues the state is pushing Black buying power, Black capitalism and Black banking as solutions to what are, ultimately, political problems. Further, he posits media and pundits have warped Black power and pride into a push to “consume our way to freedom.”  



BGX: There are so many myths associated with where we are materially. How did we arrive at the myth of beating Capitalism with Black Capitalism? 


Ball: It comes at the tailend of a long process connected to enslavement, imperialism, colonization, capital accumulation. At the tailend of all of that is a need to justify (everything accumulating in the hands of a few). One of those tactics is brutal repression: There's the police doing locally, nationally, what the military does internationally. There's the segregation, and not just separating communities, but separating Black people from resources and opportunities and access to wealth producing assets. Suppressing working people and labor got specified to Black people after the Second World War as a tactic to [harness] the revolutionary tendencies among Black people into safer confines and avenues for the ruling elite. To get Black people to not think about radical ideas, radical organizing and militancy … messaging was needed to sell Black people salvation.  


Black inequality (they said) is the result of Black people being financially illiterate, ill-prepared, ill-educated, not having the proper work ethic, and so on and so forth. That got streamlined into the phrase “buying power”—the argument that Black people have plenty of resources, they just don't take advantage and use them wisely. Were they to do so, this inequality could be turned upside down or erased. 


BGX: If I learn how to better manage my $7.25 an hour I, too, could participate in the American experience. 


Ball: Poverty and inequality are not the result of individual bad choices. The idea that people could make “good choices” on an individual level and solve the problem is mythology. Wealth was not created. Wealth was, as (Karl) Marx described, developed with violence and colonization and slavery and feudal exploitation and centuries of abuse. That's how the wealth that exists in the world got developed. Then they turn around and tell us, after suffering the enslavement and the colonization and the labor abuse, “No, you all just manage your $7.25 an hour a little bit better, be a little more responsible with what you have in your pocket, and you can somehow catch up.”  


That's why I put “propaganda” and “myth” in the book title. It's absurd, once we start to peel away the narrative. It's just simply absurd before we even get to anything regarding data and research on economics or any of that. It doesn't make any sense. 


This is just a subset of the kind of propaganda that's been waged against even white workers and white society. I mean, they're getting a version of this, too. The idea of individual hard work, what should be emphasized and what you should rely on. Paris Hilton and others be like, I inherited all this money, but it's my individual hard work and effort in social media that has made me who I am. It's like we're encouraged to ignore all the foundational benefits. 


BGX: The math [of $1 trillion buying power] says Black people should have at least $33,000. But the math doesn’t math … 


Ball: It's rare to meet people who have been encouraged to study how the economy works. Yet we're supposed to understand the news or understand reports or understand the claims [from] the pundits who tell us how to catch up. And that's what I think is part of the problem, that we don't understand how the economy works. We don't understand the narrative and mythology and the messaging that supports our unbalanced social and economic arrangement. We don't understand the amount of propaganda that has gone into this psychological warfare that has us accepting this ridiculous and hostile and exploitative economic/social system. 


Recently, I got an email, and it started off with, “I read your book,” and it didn't say one more word about what my book said. It just went into “… not only are you wrong,” but “I’ll fight you.” The person was like, “I'm not far from you. I may be 30 years younger than you, but I'm 10 years in on mixed martial arts. … I said to him, “You took the time to read the book, so you say. What is it I got wrong? Like, what page? What analysis? Where's that part?” I haven't gotten a response. 


BGX: It’s amazing to me how we know so little about a thing we are so passionate about.  


Ball: I keep saying we have a civilizational crisis of methodology right now where people are not willing to even ask how I am reaching my conclusions, and that is a major problem. It's not even about whether they agree with me, it's that they don't have an explanation for how or why they agree or disagree with me. People will see a clip, they'll see a statement, they'll see a headline. … and I leave thinking, “Who has read the book and what is your critique of the book?”   Black capitalism and hope in America have been built up and imposed on us for so long and in such a sophisticated way that a lot of us struggle with the idea that freedom is gonna be a little bit harder to achieve and a little more of a risk and longer to get to. 


BGX: We readily say “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house. … [But here] we are using the master’s economic system … to obtain equality with the master.”    


Ball: I don't claim to have a solution. I just need us to get past this mythological wall. Whatever the solution is, it’s on the other side of this wall. I just need us to get over there and then we can see what to do. And I feel like there are people who would rather stay on this side of the wall and tell me, “Nah, let's have the argument first before we get over the wall.”   We have to get over this wall first. And on the other side, I'm not saying all the pastures are green. I'm just saying on that side is where the solutions are. (But) it feels like most of the hostile responses I get are from the people I'm trying to build with. White folks don't say anything to me. They don't care. They see “Black” in the title [of the book], and they don't care. It's the people I'm trying to build with that I'm struggling with. 


So now, instead of asking me what we do next, just admit I'm right so we can get over this wall. Then we can start talking about what happens next.  



Ball closed our conversation with a statement that still sits with me: “Imagine somebody telling you if you just work hard and save your money or invest—start a business—you can somehow catch up.” We know the political reality is we must also have political power, which is not only the ability to set policy but also get resources, define wealth, then decide how that wealth will be redistributed. All this is what Ball says power is and what those in power have.   “That's why they keep telling us to do things that they didn't do to get where they are,” Ball says. “Things they know we can never do to catch up.” 




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