The Centuries Of Black Strength Built A Blueprint For Economic Recovery In America

by Duke Magazine

Black communities have for centuries harbored a spirit of support and mutual aid. It is high time the rest of the country followed their lead.
There is no level of reparation that could ever make up for the devastating impact of cruelty on African Americans. But long before any such repair was even being floated in mainstream culture, Black Americans were busy repairing things for themselves. In fact, racial oppression in America has always been matched by an even greater ingenuity and resilience from Black communities. The more Black people were shunned and segregated from the rest of the American society, the more they were forced to invent the kinds of circular economic and local reinvestment strategies that are unfolding now.

The fact that Black lives are finally coming to matter in America does not introduce some new encumbrance on anyone. On the contrary, dating back to at least the 1700s, Black Americans developed and deployed robust approaches to mutual aid and cooperative economics. We can all learn from the Black experience right now as we look toward sustaining ourselves during lockdown, and remaking our economy without the benefit of a functioning federal government.

The stories have been hidden in many cases, because economic success in Black communities inevitably leads to envy, which in turn inspires more oppression, pogroms, and murder. And because co-ops and mutual aid can sound downright communist to the uninformed, even many modern civil rights activists didn’t want to be condemned as “red” on top of everything else.

According to W.E.B. Dubois’ inspiringly detailed accounts in Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans, slaves would share what money they had in order to fund one another’s funerals or medical expenses. Like any demonstration of autonomy, they had to do so in secret, with the most literate slave among them maintaining and hiding the ledger of accounts.

Freed slaves, who still had no rights as citizens, developed mutual aid circles along the same principles, such as the Free African Society in Philadelphia in 1787. Breathtakingly simple, participants put in dues every month, and whoever needed money would take it out. The closest thing most of us in the privileged economy have to this is insurance, which not only requires a precipitating event to file a claim, but also delivers the bulk of our contributions to the corporation profiting off our collective effort to mitigate risk.

In 1862, the Homestead Act did not only continued the dispossession of indigenous lands, but led to the creation of all-Black towns cut off from the rest of the economy. After the Civil War, the freed slave population was declared ineligible for membership in white unions. Without jobs or capital, they started worker-owned businesses, including farms and small factories. As cooperatives, they had no investors to pay up to, and often proved more profitable than their management-owned white counterparts. This, in turn, generated more animosity and more oppression from whites, who didn’t understand why their privilege to participate in the greater economy of bank loans and trade unions didn’t translate into more wealth and security than that of the Black people they excluded.

Black people are today luminaries in economic development of America

It wasn’t just Black banks that understood this logic, but the Black depositors who used them. Black people working as domestics during the Tulsa oil boom invested their earnings in their own district of Greenwood. Their banks worked like the fictional white-owned Savings and Loan in It’s a Wonderful Life, where deposits from one member of the community were used to pay for the business needs of another member. The nickname “Black Wall Street” didn’t just mean Black people had become wealthy, but that the people were invested in their own and one another’s businesses.

This is what we now call circular economics. Instead of extracting money from a community and delivering it to distant shareholders, money stays in the community, circulating through to whichever business needs it. 

To Black people, this difference was explicit. Radical Black journalist George Samuel Schuyler admonished young entrepreneurs to eschew the traditional, competitive paths toward advancement, and instead engage in cooperative economics. He founded the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League in 1931, an affiliation of local co-ops and buying clubs, in order to foster genuine economic independence.

Ironically, the more Black businesses were excluded from participating in the broader economy, the more innovative and prosperous they became. Instead of competing with one another, cooperative networks of grocery stores and other small companies ordered in bulk and negotiated better prices. When segregation or other forms of legal exclusion prevented them from participating in the mainstream markets, Black businesses turned toward one another, and ended up with resilient, locally grounded, mutually supportive, sustainable business networks.

Black businesses and communities have continued to harbor this spirit of support and mutual aid to this day, whether it’s the Federation of Southern Cooperatives protecting the landowners of Black family farms, the National Bail Fund Network getting arrestees (including BLM protestors) out of jail with a common, reusable well of funds instead of onerous for-profit bail bonds, or MBFL, the Movement for Black Lives, developing mutual aid networks and anti-capitalist strategies for Black communities. One fringe benefit of more widespread acceptance that Black Lives indeed do Matter is that these Black ideas can reach the light of day. They’re not a threat to America’s collective prosperity at all, but the surest path to our mutual recovery as we all face economic disenfranchisement under corporate welfare.

As Black Lives Matter makes abundantly clear, oppression has been a self-defeating strategy, all along.

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