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Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century

Robert E. Weems
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 206
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    Desegregating the Dollar
    Book Description:

    Capitalism and slavery stand as the two economic phenomena that have most clearly defined the United States. Yet, despite African Americans' nearly $500 billion annual spending power, surprisingly little attention has been devoted to the ways U.S. businesses have courted black dollars in post-slavery America. Robert E. Weems, Jr., presents the first fully integrated history of black consumerism over the course of the last century. The World War I era Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern and southern cities stimulated initial corporate interest in blacks as consumers. A generation later, as black urbanization intensified during World War II and its aftermath, the notion of a distinct, profitable African American consumer market gained greater currency. Moreover, black socioeconomic gains resulting from the Civil Rights movement which itself featured such consumer justice protests as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, further enhanced the status and influence of African American shoppers. Unwilling to settle for facile answers, Weems explores the role of black entrepreneurs who promoted the importance of the African American consumer market to U.S. corporations. Their actions, ironically, set the stage for the ongoing destruction of black-owned business. While the extent of educational, employment, and residential desegregation remains debatable, African American consumer dollars have, by any standard, been fully incorporated into the U.S. economy. Desegregating the Dollar takes us through the "blaxploitation" film industry, the vast market for black personal care products, and the insidious exploitation of black urban misery by liquor and cigarette advertisers. Robert E. Weems, Jr., has given us the definitive account of the complicated relationship between African Americans, capitalism, and consumerism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8491-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The history of twentieth-century African American consumerism illustrates the deeper meaning of the maxim “Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.” African American consumers’ historic quest for “recognition” clearly has produced both positive and negative consequences.

    Like other groups, African Americans have been directly and profoundly affected by the growth and entrenchment of mass consumer culture in twentieth-century America. Yet, just as the social, educational, and political experiences of African and European Americans have traditionally differed, historically, African and European American consumerism have had mutually exclusive characteristics.

    White consumers have expected and received courteous service...

  6. 1 The Birth and Development of the African American Consumer Market, 1900–1940
    (pp. 7-30)

    The first decades of the twentieth century witnessed a dramatic demographic transformation of the national African American community. Between 1900 and 1940, an estimated 1.7 million southern blacks migrated to northern and western cities.¹ This movement, coupled with a simultaneous increase in the number of blacks in southern cities,² resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of rural African Americans. During this period the proportion of blacks residing in rural areas dropped from 77 to 51 percent.³ African Americans’ ongoing urbanization, among other things, slowly attracted the attention of the U.S. business community. In earlier years, when blacks were...

  7. 2 New World A-Coming: Black Consumers, 1941–1960
    (pp. 31-55)

    In 1943 the African American journalist Roi Ottley wrote a well-received overview of African American life with the markedly upbeat and prophetic title,New World A-Coming. For African American consumers, the years 1941–1960, did, indeed, usher in a period of recognition and consideration that would have seemed unimaginable in previous decades. The urbanization of African Americans, which prompted initial business interest in black consumers, reached dizzying heights during the fifth and sixth decades of the twentieth century. As African Americans began to proliferate in even greater numbers in American cities, an increasing number of American businesses, from major league...

  8. 3 African American Consumer Activism before and during the Civil Rights Era
    (pp. 56-69)

    The Civil Rights Movement, in the minds of many, is synonymous with the public career of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His eloquent oratory, coupled with the media’s near constant coverage of his activities from Montgomery to Memphis, has made him an American icon. Yet, while King’s place in history has been deservedly illuminated, consumer activism, the most potent nonviolent strategy employed by African Americans during this period of civil rights activity, has not been similarly spotlighted. Minimizing the central role of African American economic retribution erroneously suggests that civil rights legislation resulted from white “moral transformation,” rather than from...

  9. 4 The Revolution Will Be Marketed: American Corporations and Black Consumers during the 1960s
    (pp. 70-79)

    The 1960s are generally viewed as a decade in which African American activism, supported by the liberalism of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, resulted in both social and economic gains for many blacks. Yet, when we consider the impact of black consumerism on white business, we see that any changes in business practices among white-owned companies resulted from pragmatic white conservatism, rather than from altruistic white liberalism. White-owned corporations, in response to the accelerated urbanization of African Americans, accelerated their quest to reach these increasingly important consumers; aided by black consultants, most notably John H. Johnson, they were able to...

  10. 5 Blaxploitation and Big Business: American Corporations and Black Consumers during the 1970s
    (pp. 80-99)

    These lyrics, taken from the soundtrack to the enormously popular 1971 “blaxploitation” filmSuperfly, exemplify the relationship between U.S. corporations and black consumers during the 1970s. This chapter focuses on three major marketing trends involving African Americans during this period: Hollywood’s successful attempt to reach the African American consumer market through the blaxploitation film genre; the increased interest within white-owned companies in producing African American personal care products (especially for black women); and the move by white-owned insurance companies to secure black policyholders. In addition, we examine the debate that went on throughout the 1970s over whether black-owned magazines, newspapers,...

  11. 6 A Tale of Two Markets: African American Consumers during the 1980s
    (pp. 100-116)

    This quotation from Charles Dickens’s classic workA Tale of Two Citiesaccurately reflects the situation of African American consumers during the 1980s. While aggregate black income increased from $183 billion to $242 billion between 1978 and 1988, other census data, along with the introduction of the words “underclass” and “buppie” to the national vocabulary, demonstrated growing class distinctions within the black community. This “market segmentation” prompted corporate marketers to develop class-specific advertising aimed at African Americans. The 1980s also witnessed the accelerated marketing of liquor and tobacco in the black community. The overt (and sometimes outrageous) manipulation of black...

  12. 7 Epilogue: The Changing Same: American Corporations and Black Consumers during the 1990s
    (pp. 117-132)

    By 1990 Americans of African descent were a far different people than they had been at the dawn of this century. Once perceived as primarily a rural group with limited disposable income, African Americans, by the last decade of the twentieth century, were a free-spending, pronouncedly urban people. Despite this reality, however, advertising and marketing literature continued to discuss and document an ongoing insensitivity toward black consumers. Even when black consumers were duly recognized, the consequences were often mixed. For instance, the re-emergence of the blaxploitation movie genre, albeit in a different form, captivated a new generation of African American...

  13. Appendix: National Negro Business League Black Consumer Questionnaire, 1931
    (pp. 133-136)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 137-156)
  15. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 157-184)
  16. Index
    (pp. 185-194)
  17. About the Author
    (pp. 195-196)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 197-197)