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KEMI 2

In the Trump era, money is black people’s greatest weapon

KEMI 2

It’s one year on from the result that shocked the world – we explore how this political climate has pushed financial activism into pop culture

You don’t have to be Kanye West to realise that the current president does not care about black people. Increasingly, prominent celebrities and artists are voicing concerns about the systemic racism that has hurt African Americans for centuries and led to President Donald Trump’s election.

The majority of 4:44 reviews wrote that it was Jay Z’s response to Lemonade. “Family Feud” made headlines because of the reference to Becky with the good hair, yet many skirted the more pertinent lines. In the same song he rapped: “What's better than one billionaire? Two / Especially if they're from the same hue as you.” His album is better described as a manual. He’s keen to share what he’s learnt about the power of money and promoting the idea of black capitalism – the emancipation of black people through financial freedom.

Hip hop’s big players are making these ideas mainstream. When asked about Trump in a recent interview, P Diddy said he didn’t care about him or “the Russians”. “I have to get busy and do my part to save my people,” he explained. “We have to get to loving ourselves and being accountable for ourselves and not relying on the government.”

African Americans have a buying power of over $1 trillion in an economy that thrives on excessive consumerism, the natural conclusion seems simple enough. Hit white America’s pockets. Black online activists are well versed at highlighting and mobilising against instances of poor representation but increasingly the spending habits are being politicised as people use social networks to urge woke tweeters to put their money where their mouth is. Consequently, black capitalism has become a staple of popular culture in 2017. 

Last year, around 1,100 black people died at the hands of U.S police forces. In protest, thousands of African Americans switched to black-owned banks resulting in $6 million surge of deposits a couple of months after the creation of the #bankblack hashtag. Suzan McDowell, the marketing spokesperson for OneUnited, America’s largest black-owned bank, tells Dazed that since the summer of 2016, this movement has “swept America”.

“The BankBlack, BuyBlack and BuildBlack movements are initiatives for ‘collective economics’, meaning black people, as much as possible, should circulate their dollars in the black communities by purposeful spending with black businesses,” McDowell says. 

More recently an app was created for people to donate spare change to the bail bonds of black prisoners. The creator, Dr Kortney Ziegler, agrees with McDowell that Trump and the events leading to his election “ignited a variety of different ways of resisting oppression”. “Providing different types of opportunities for us to collectively support one another via fundraising is important,” he says.

#DayWithoutImmigrants followed #DeleteUber as these POC centred initiatives moved to show how America couldn’t function without its diverse labour force and consumers. They forced several businesses to close temporarily and impacted public opinion of hurtful policies and complicit corporations. When New Balance trainers were dubbed the “official shoes of white people” after they were found to be pro-Trump, they were ceremonially burned. A CNBC survey found that the rise of Trump meant 37 per cent of citizens were now embracing financial activism, and proving their political allegiance by changing their spending habits.

“Collective economics means black people, as much as possible, should circulate their dollars in the black communities by purposeful spending with black businesses” – Suzan McDowell, OneUnited Bank

Collective economics has also been used to boost the push for diversity. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty’s inimitable rise has seen waves of support from the black community to the extent that many stores reported that their darker colours sold out in the first week. Having earned $72M dollars in one month alone, it surpassed well-established competitors like NYX, Benefit and Urban Decay, as well as other celebrity collections like Kylie Cosmetics, which experienced a drop in sales.

Of course, this is largely because the products are high quality, but it helped that a black woman was at the helm making appropriate cosmetics in an industry that ignores darker skin tones. Collectively, people were determined to make this brand a success, because a win for Fenty is a win for black women. When you consider that African Americans spend nine times more on cosmetics than their white counterparts, it is no wonder other brands responded by using darker models to push their products on social media.

This pattern has been replicated all year. Get Out was the highest-grossing original debut ever. Jordan Peele was the first black writer-director with a $100 million film debut for a horror movie, with his terrifying lens on the reality of racism. Girls Trip is the only film to have made $100 million at the box office that was written, produced, directed and starred black people. These figures are highly unusual for the horror and comedy genres. Studies have found that black people in America consume 37 per cent more media – only this year there’s been a clear focus on supporting projects with higher representation. After starring in Girls Trip Jada Pinkett-Smith met with Dazed to reflect on its mammoth success. “Studios are starting to see that (diversity) is profitable,” she explained. “We might want to talk about the moral and social responsibility but at the end of the day all studios care about is ‘does it make money’?”

We’re now seeing exciting black projects in development in television, film and representative campaigns – even though some are wildly misguided. The hunger to cash in on this political wave and black spending power, appropriating the push for diversity without really engaging with the very messy debates surrounding them – let’s call it woke-washing – is rampant. However, when companies get it wrong, black people have been quick to boycott.

Take Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad. The attempt to co-opt the women’s march and Black Lives Matter movement left the brand’s public opinion at its lowest in nearly 10 years while stocks momentarily fell. People were questioning what the company or Jenner had done to help the causes they were exploiting for cash. L’Oréal saw the money to be made from a diverse range of models, but was boycotted after they distanced themselves from Munroe Bergdorf, their first ambassador to be a trans woman of colour. Her determination to start a debate around the racist attacks in Charlottesville didn’t fit their brand. Many announced they would no longer buy their products.

Beyond 4:44 some of the biggest post-Trump hip hop albums are teeming with the ideals of financial resistance. “BagBak” on Vince Staples’ album Big Fish Theory sees the rapper embrace the idea of fucking over the wealthy as he raps: “Ain't no gentrifying us, we finna buy the whole town/ Tell the one percent to suck a dick, because we on now”. Likewise, Solange Knowles’ empowering track “F.U.B.U” riffs on the name of an iconic hip hop brand which gained notoriety in the 90s.

“I thought of ‘F.U.B.U.’ the brand, meaning “For Us By Us”, and what kind of power it had and how normalised it became to wear that kind of symbolism every day,” Knowles explained previously. If customers were buying into the idea of owning their blackness, rather than allow white businesses to sell it back to them then, Knowles’ message is that they can do the same now. As such she has been vocal about switching to a black owned bank and promoting black owned businesses.

“Given that collectively African Americans have a buying power of over $1 trillion in an economy that thrives on excessive consumerism, the natural conclusion seems simple enough. Hit white America’s pockets”

Mehrsa Baradaran is a professor of law at the University of Georgia who recently wrote a book on black capitalism. The Color of Money warns that there is a distinction to be drawn between black capitalism as a form of protest and as a means of true reform. “Responding to a political failure like the election of Trump with an economic protest is natural. This is, in a way, one definition of black capitalism. The pros are that it allows a marginalised group to use their collective action and group cohesion to fight oppression. It's a great response,” she tells Dazed.

“However, black capitalism has also been deployed cynically to thwart more meaningful avenues of reform. At several pivotal points in history like the Civil Rights era where black activists and leaders were demanding economic justice, the solution was that black communities needed to use self-help and black capitalism to fix it. That doesn't work. Black capitalism is great as a tool of protest, to bind the community and bring attention to the cause, but it will not close the racial wealth gap,” she continues.

“Donald Trump declared Minority Enterprise Week last week and touted black business success. Yet his administration is built on white supremacy. Why? Because it costs nothing and it allowed these presidents to scuttle other more meaningful demands by the black community to be fully included in American capitalism.”

Trump is only a symptom of America’s malignant racism; to treat white supremacy as something that erupted on November 8, 2016, is a bit of an oversimplification. However, his presidency will call for more innovative ways of protest. Before you leap to label this reverse racism or assert that small spending habit changes won’t help, remind yourself that black people have to think of new ways to tackle an old problem.

We’ve sat, we’ve marched and we’ve talked at length and still, we are not seen as equal. And while America can ignore that black lives still matter less than white ones, every penny has the same value – and the States loves money.