WIU Alumnus Robert E. Weems Lecture at University Libraries

Uploaded by WesternIllinoisU on 22.06.2010

[Robert E. Weems] I just want to say it's really
a pleasure for me to be back here today.
Even though I sort of Educational and Academic
career included stops at various other locales
it all began here for me at Western
and again I'm just so pleased to be back here.
Now my presentation today
is going to talk about aspects of
African American Consumerism specifically
how African Americans spend their money
and before I get started I want to offer an important disclaimer
I don't want anyone to think that I'm
presumptuous enough to tell people
or offer ideas
about how people should spend their money
because on one basic level
you work hard to earn some money
you deserve the right to spend you're money anyway you please.
With that being said as a scholar
I've been trained to look at some of the larger aspects
when it relates to African American spending patterns
and in fact hopefully at the end of my presentation
you will get a sense of were I'm coming from
in terms of my observation
in the context of African American Consumerism.
Now, I want to start off with an overview
of what we might call contemporary
African American consumerism or black spending.
In 1969 a noted
African American marketing specialist
by the name of D. Parke Gibson
wrote a very interesting book called
The Thirty Billion Dollar Negro
and the title of this book was based upon aggregate
African American spending power in 1969
which was about thirty billion dollars
in fact he followed that up nine years later
in 1978 with a book entitled
Seventy Billion In The Black
which again reflected African American spending power at moment in time.
Now we look at more recent figures
as it relates to African American spending power
the numbers are literally staggering
for instances in 2007 collective
African American spending power annually stood at
847 billion dollars
and two years from today to 2012
it's projected that annual African American spending power
is going to exceed one trillion dollars annually.
Now, granite we know when we look at comparative
figures from the sixties to today
we have to factor in inflation but still
even when we factor in inflation
there's been a dramatic increase
in the amount of money
that African Americans have at their disposal.
Now again looking at the big picture
which I do in my research
there's both good news and there's not so good news
again the good news is there's dramatic increase
30 billion dollars in 1969
a projected trillion dollars
two years from now.
However, when we look at what's going on
in this forty-year period we do see some
very disturbing trends
first of all even though African Americans clearly
have had more money to spend then ever
we've seen a decline and disappearance
of historic black owned businesses in this country.
Also, when we look at the infrastructure
of urban black America and again just to be specific
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and
when I left the South Side of Chicago in 1969
to come here as a freshmen
certain areas of the South Side looked a certain way.
Now today certain areas of the South Side
in fact look worse even though
again collectively African Americans
have more to spend
so again that raises a very interesting question
specifically if blacks have more money to spend
why isn't more of that money
seemingly being used to enhance black communities
now another not so positive aspect
when we look at resent trends in African American Consumerism
is that in the past few decades
we've seen a decline
in sort of group based activism
again the group based activism that we saw
as part of the civil rights movement
to a focus on sort of individualist base
conspicuous consumption i.e. the quest for bling.
Now I'm going to talk in more detail
about some of this overview but I talk
about the past forty years
as it relates to African American Consumerism
there's clearly some good things going on
but there's also some not so good things going on.
As a history professor I want to share
with you some of the history
leading up to were got to were we are today.
In the context of the African American
consumer market and in fact
I'll just start hundred years ago.
1910 now in 1910
if you were to ask someone about
the black consumer market
or African Americans as consumers
they would look at you with a glassy look
like what are you talking about.
Literally a hundred years ago
there really was no perceived important
black consumer market
and there were a couple important
reasons for this historical reality.
In 1910
the majority of African Americans
lived in the rural south
and more over many of these African Americans
were either working as share croppers or peons
which meant among other things
that they had very limited disposable income
and we know one thing about businesses
then as well as now especially when they talk about
consumer markets there interested in getting
a bit of our disposable income
and in 1910 black people were not perceived
to be a group of people that had disposable income
now one manifestation
and an unfortunate manifestation of black people
being perceived to be a group
with limited disposable income was the fact
that many products in the early twenty century
some of you might be familiar with this reality
featured trade names that included such
derogatory terms as nigga, coon, pick a ninny
and this was based upon the notion that black people
don't really have any money
so we can afford to insult these people
because there really aren't any economic consequences
for business to in fact insult black people.
Now that was one hundred years ago
now the tide began to turn
in terms of the African American consumer market
when we talk about the movement
of African Americans out of the rural
south into northern cities
in fact when we look at the twentieth century
and this is something that I talk about
in my African American History courses.
The twentieth century is important based upon
the civil rights movement among other things
but in terms of African American History
arguably the most significant thing that occurred
was the literal transplantation of black people
from the rural south
to urban areas across the country.
In 1900 both black people lived in the rural south
by 1999 most black people lived
in urban areas across the country.
Literally in the twentieth century we saw black people
move from being rural people to becoming urban people
and this would have significant consequences
when we talk about the development
of the African American consumer market.
Now during World War I and during World War II
in particular we saw African Americans leaving the south
going to places like Chicago, St. Louis,
Gary, Detroit, Cleveland,
Pittsburgh and what have you
to get jobs in war related industry.
In fact this process accelerated
during World War II
now one thing about cities and again
were looking at this bigger picture
and when we talk about a consumer market.
cities or more than places
were a lot of people live
from that stand point of business
there viewed as major markets
and in fact to this day businesses tend to spend
proportionally more money on marketing campaigns in cities
because literally you get the most bang
for you're buck.
Now beginning in World War I
and commencing through World War II
there were more and more black people moving
to these large urban areas
to get better paying jobs and were as
before these large companies either ignored black people
or they insulted black people
but increasingly and again this has nothing
to do with altruism
or notions of civil rights this was business
and more and more black people appear in urban areas
it became good business sense to try to develop campaigns
and develop interest in fact reaching this market
and one more interesting case study
in terms of a major industry
seeking to get black consumer support
was major league baseball.
Now I'm assuming that everybody in this room
even if you're not a baseball fan have heard the name Jackie Robinson
and or familiar on some level with his career.
Now one of the historic debates
when we talk about Jackie Robinson and the reasons
as to why he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers deals
with the motivation for Branch Rickey
who was the Dodgers front office person
in making this historic move.
Now some people have argued Branch Rickey decided
to bring Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers
based upon it was the right thing to do
that Branch Rickey was sort of the prototype white liberal
and he felt it was wrong to keep black people
out of major league baseball that as a good white liberal
he was gonna break the color line.
Now, this is not to say
Branch Rickey may not have been motivated
by wanting to do the right thing.
But, the evidence also clearly indicates
that it was a fantastic business decision
to bring Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers
and this ties in directly to the urbanization process
that I talked about a moment ago.
Then as well as now major league teams
are in large American cities.
By the 1940's again you have an increasing number
of black people in large American cities
black people with better paying jobs
and it was known to black people and baseball fans
that in fact their supporting the separate Negro leagues.
So when you factor in these things Branch Rickey
came up with the idea that by bringing a black player
onto my team that would help in terms of the box office.
Now another business related dynamic
when we talk about Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers
and in fact this is in contrast to today's major league baseball
business is that today we know that every major league baseball team
has some sort of television contract
which among other things help to compensate for revenue
back in the mid 1940's major league teams did not have
TV contracts cause TV was still in it's infancy
so a lot of the money of the bulk of the money
that major league teams generated
in the 1940's were through fans
actually coming to the ball park.
Now those of you who are African American
you might ask you're grand parents or great-grand parents
about this and some of you who aren't African American
you can ask you're grand parents, parents or what have you about this
when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers
overnight they became black America's favorite team
literally when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn
that immediately increased black attendance at Dodger games.
When the Dodgers went on the road that increased
black attendance at Dodger games but also from a business standpoint
it also increased white attendance
and again I don't think its hyperbole in fact
to make a comparison between Jackie Robinson
and the gate drawl he was in the 1940's
and Michael Jordan and the gate drawl he was
when the Bulls were at their peek in the 1990's.
Though we can drawl a distinction based upon
Jordan was pretty much totally a positive gate attraction
were as Jackie Robinson clearly was a mixed gate attraction
and specifically black people
came out to the ball park in droves
the cheering got dropped
you had some white people that came to the ball park
who weren't so enthusiastic about the desegregation
of the major league baseball
and they came out to call Jackie Robinson names
but the bottom line was whether or not you come out to cheer Jackie Robinson
or rather or not you came out to call him names you had to pay.
Again business and it wasn't to long
before other teams began to see well
hey it would not be that bad an idea for us to bring
black players on our squad.
Now a side bar to this that some of you maybe familiar with
is that as more and more black players left the Negro Leagues
and joined the major leagues and as more and more black fans
went to major league ball parks we
saw Negro League teams pretty much decline
and disappear and that literally
set a precedence for some other historical black business
that I'm going to talk about a little later.
Now, by the 1950's
when we get into the realm
of the civil rights movement when we talk about
African American Consumers and more specifically
African American Consumer Power
we see among other things were the strategic use of
black spending power represented the cornerstone
of the civil rights movement
and I'm going to give a specific case study of that in a moment.
But as an important side bar to this
as my professorial colleagues know
in this line of work when you write a book or an article
or you put something out there
if you don't come correct if you will colleagues will come after you hard.
Now in my 1998 book
[Desegregating the Dollar] one of the points that I made
reference to black consumer power as it related
to the Civil Rights Movement
was that not with standing the influence of Dr. King
and his moral appeal to white Americans
to in fact put aside their racism and start treating
black people with some dignity.
The bottom line was when we talk about the changes that did occur
most of those were based upon what we might call for the conservative
or business or economic dynamics
and specifically when we look at the Montgomery Bus Boycott
we get a classic example of how African Americans
proactively use their consumer power
to achieve social justice.
Now I'm assuming I guess by a show of hands
who hasn't heard of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
okay everybody familiar with that great.
Now as you probably know one of the things that made
that such a potent political and economic force
was that African Americans literally represented seventy percent
of the bus ridership before the bus boycott
so literally the profitability of the Montgomery Bus System
was based upon black riders.
With that being said even though black people determined
the profitability of that company we saw that company
treat black people with utter disrespect
and the black people decided enough is enough.
We saw a major milestone take place
which in fact set precedence for other developments associated
with the Civil Rights Movement.
When we talk about Civil Rights
one of sort of irony's of the Civil Rights Movement
was the Civil Rights Act of 1964
we know among other things the Civil Rights Act of 1964
made it illegal for a business or what have you
to deny African Americans access
if they could afford to spend money at a restaurant
or stay at a particular hotel
and one of the irony's of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 again
this ties in to one of the points I made earlier
was that ultimately that helped white owned businesses
and ended up hurting black owned businesses
and a case study of this particular dynamic
and this is an industry that I know a lot about
is the black insurance industry.
Now I asked you for a show of hands about the
Montgomery Bus Boycott and again I'm assuming
well everybody said you were familiar with that.
By another show of hands how many of you can name
three black owned insurance company's?
How many can name two
black owned insurance company's?
How many can name one
black owned insurance company?
Now quite frankly don't feel bad
about not raising you're hand
because this is a game that I play with my classes
and a game that I play in other presentations
and the response today is pretty much the response that I get
in a variety of venues and this in fact illustrates
this particular point I was making about
how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 among other things
hurt black owned business
and one of the tragedy's of this and this will hopefully
come clear to you in a few moments
is that when we talk about the history of black economic empowerment
black insurance company's represented the cornerstone
of black business in this country so again
if people don't even know
a campaign black owned insurance company or one company
literally you don't know anything about the history
of black business in this country.
But to fill in some of the blanks as a history professor again
just to tie in some of this knowledge
that indeed is very important when we talk about
black economic empowerment
both historically as well as today.
Now most of you I'm sure why you may not
be able to identify black owned insurance company's
are familiar with Prudential, Metropolitan Life
and some of the major giants in the industry.
Back following the Civil War is this would be sort of a classic manifestation
of how Jim Crow worked itself out in the business world
cause a lot of times we talk about Jim Crow
we think about in terms of public accommodations
people being denied access to restaurants
or being denied access to sitting in certain parts of trains or buses.
But there was another dynamic of Jim Crow that operated
in the business world now following the Civil War
when Metropolitan Life and Prudential were relatively
small start up company's
they insured African Americans the recently freed African American population
on a similar bases as their white counter parts.
Black people following the Civil War
could get the same amount of insurance
as their white counter parts for the same cost.
However, in the 1880's this began to change
in the 1880's we saw Metropolitan Life beginning to charge
African Americans more for insurance coverage
then their white counterparts
and by the 1890's we saw Prudential refusing to insure
black people altogether
and it was in this setting that we saw the emergence of
black own insurance company's
to in fact fill this very important nitch
and indeed as late as the 1950's excuse me 1960's
there were more than fifty
viable black insurance company's in this country.
Today, there are only four
and in fact when we look at
the four black insurance companies that are here
in fact in my latest book
[The Epilogue] sadly if you would pretty much presents
an obituary for the black insurance industry
again just to bring it current.
Black people on an annual base spend billions of dollars
on various forms of insurance yet for every dollar
that black people currently spend on insurance
about a penny is spent with the remaining
four black insurance companies.
Now another interesting dynamic when we talk about
these black owned insurance companies and their decline
and we talk about segregation or desegregation
one of the sort of mindsets that I thought about
in looking at this part of African American history especially from
1960 to the present was this whole notion of how if you will
corporate America profited from the Civil Rights Movement
and specifically we look at these black insurance companies
cause again my PhD dissertation
and first book was on a black insurance company
that know longer exist in Chicago
and this company again like other black insurance companies
provided needed services to the black community.
But in the 1950's when it became clear
that the status of African Americans was changing
companies like Prudential and Met-Life they began
to reassess their attitudes about black consumer's
because before again Prudential didn't insure black people
Met-Life charged black people more than whites for coverage.
But when it came clear that the status of black people
was changing for the better they decided that yeah
black people is a market worth pursuing
and one of the things that hurt black insurance companies
was what we might call sort of the
Forbidden Fruit Syndrome.
Specifically black people were consciously
denied equitable policies with companies like
Prudential and Met-Life now all of a sudden
when these companies actively marketed their product
in the black community it became a status symbol
if you were black to say all yeah
I have a policy with Prudential or Met-Life
that is the same that a white consumer.
Now, to make a even rougher for these black companies
what the large companies did was that they hired
the top agents from the black companies
paid them more money
to sell policies for Prudential and Met-Life.
Another interesting side bar a lot of this stuff
when we talk about history is inter connected.
I mentioned earlier about the decline of the infrastructure
of many urban black communities and neighborhoods
interestingly enough there's a connection between
the decline of black insurance companies
and the decline of urban black neighborhoods
and again just to be specific one of the beautiful things
about insurance and it's not coincidental
that insurance companies or mega companies
mega rich and even black companies in their hay day.
Were the biggest of black companies
based upon the fact that at any given moment in time
more people are alive paying premiums
then people are dying that the company
had to pay out so insurance
companies regularly run surplus
and with these surpluses companies figure out ways
how do we invest this extra money.
Now historically these black owned companies
they invest in significant amounts of money
back in the black community in terms of mortgage monies
and the like so the fact that these black companies
have disappeared is not a stretch to say
that as these black insurance companies
which invested a lot of money in black communities
have disappeared that has contributed
to the decline of urban black America.
Now just so you won't
accuse anyone here of false advertising
cause again bling was apart of the title of my presentation
and some of you might be thinking all this history stuff is fine but
I want to hear something about bling
and in the context of African American Economic History.
Now, when we talk about this quest for bling
or the emergence of bling, bling
in terms of Hip Hop
this was tied directly to part of the on going nuance
of Hip Hop Culture which is related to the
competition that exist between MC's.
Now back in the day
much of that competition
that existed among MC's was based upon
who could come up with the best lyrics
it was really a lot based upon lyrical dexterity.
However as time went along that competition
also began to expand
into the realm of what we might call bling were as
MC's not only competed with each other in terms of lyrics
but who could flash the most bling
and indeed those of you who are familiar
with videos clearly know what I'm talking about.
Now interestingly enough
when we look at the emergence of bling
as a significant part of Hip Hop
that among other things contributed to
the self will take over of Hip Hop
by corporate interest because again
corporate marketers began to see clearly
that we can use Hip Hop artist to in fact
better market our products to African Americans
and in fact to other Hip Hop fans
because when we talk about Hip Hop
we know that it's not just African Americans
who are in fact fans of this particular genre.
Now when we talk about Hip Hop
we talk about the rise of bling
this is tied in and again this goes back
to again my focus as a scholar
and looking at the big bigger picture
what I would call for lack of a better way of putting
the play of black men
now one of the more disturbing things
that I found in doing research
on African American Consumers
is that as early as the 1930's corporate marketers
figured out that African Americans have
an especially acute case
of status anxiety
now before I go on I just want to clarify this
that when we talk about Madison Avenue
and how people in this country are manipulated
when we look at who works for Madison Avenue
who develops them to build up consumer campaigns
and marketing campaigns I would argue
this isn't to denigrate my colleagues here in the psychology department
or my colleagues in the psychology department
in the University of Missouri Columbia
or colleagues in psychiatry, psychology departments across the country
but some of the most skilled psychologists
and psychiatrist don't work
at Institutions of Higher Learning
they in fact work on Madison Avenue helping companies
develop affective marketing campaigns
and why my focus here is on African Americans
my research was on African Americans
these campaigns are aimed at everybody.
They know how to push a button to get a European
a young European American female to buy things
and older European American male to buy things
so again nobody is immune
from corporate marketing
but for African Americans again as early as the 1930's.
It was sort of concluded that black people
have an especially acute case
of status anxiety based upon the fact
that we were the only group African Americans
to have been slaves
and on a subconscious level
when black people are out getting bling
or what have you this represents again
from a subconscious level because a lot of marketing
isn't the straight ahead stuff that you can see
it's the subliminal stuff that you can't see.
It's been determined that when black people buy
big ticket items people are subconsciously trying
to move away from their slave past.
There's a belief that the more stuff that you can get
then you're moving away from slavery.
Now in fact this helped me to
really begin to understand even more
this whole fixation of bling and what have you
some of the deeper dynamics now when
we talk about status we talk about
the African American community in particular
one of the things or some of the things
that are associated with bling are diamonds
jewelry, big cars and what have you
and one important distinction maybe we can talk about this in the Q and A
is that bling isn't necessarily wealth
there's a distinction between bling a lot of which
we can put in the category of trinkets
and wealth which is stocks and bonds, real estate and the likes
and an interesting dynamic when we talk about
this distorted sense of status
and some of you maybe familiar with this particular quote
Tommy Hilfiger in fact was someone
who was a status symbol in terms
of many African Americans and others
in terms of wearing stuff with his label on it.
Now in April of 1997
Tommy Hilfiger was asked about black people
who were many of whom seemed to be fixated
with wearing his stuff
and he said something very infamously that many
of these people in terms of blacks would in fact
rather have a Rolex than a home.
Again, that's very deep but that goes back to this point
about status and bling
and in fact what is really worthwhile
and what is really in the realm of trinkets.
Now when we get to the psychological realm
and this a lot of this is totally in the realm of psychology
especially when we talk about bling
and we talk about videos in particular
now most of you well everybody in here
is of a age were as you can look at a music video
and look at certain images
and you have enough analytical prose
to be able to discern rather or not something
is real or rather or not something is show.
It's one of the worst keep secrets that a lot of these videos
exposing bling a lot of that stuff is stage props
most of those people did not own those yachts
they did not actually live in those homes
they really weren't driving well they were driving those Bentley
because they rented it for a week
but those really weren't their vehicles.
With that being said again from a psychological standpoint
were as teenagers and young adults
may be able to discern what's real
and what's a lot of "BS".
I would argue the real target
and this is were it really gets dangerous and tragic
are not teenagers but people who or
seven, eight, nine and ten years old
who aren't sophisticated enough
and they see this stuff
and they take it at face value
and from a sort of generational standpoint
I asked myself the question
I think this is a question we all might want to ask ourselves
is that if you're from the age of six, seven,
eight, nine, or ten and you see all the images of bling
and I got to get mine, I got to get paid
this that or what have you
how is that going to manifest itself when that individual
becomes a young adult or an adult
and indeed again as an historian
one of the things that disturbs me
is that an especially based on my knowledge of African American History
is that black people are here today
based upon collective communal struggle
contrary to the Willie Lynch myth.
There were know rugged individualist in the slave quarters
during the year if American apartheid
even though black people had their differences
people found a way to coup with less
based upon broader issues of concern
and one of the things again looking at historical trends
is that this whole focus on bling
and individual consumption appears to be moving
away from the tradition that as African Americans
literally brought us to this particular point.
Now in summing some of this stuff up
when we talk about these recent trends
in African American consumer spending
a few years back came across a book by a colleague
I wish I could take claim to this but I can't
a colleague came up with a interesting notion
in terms of African American spending
as not spending power
but in fact it could be better characterized as spending weakness
again going back to the point I made earlier
black people have more money to spend
then ever but historic black businesses
are disappearing the infrastructure of black neighborhoods
is declining so something is very out of whack
and in fact some of you maybe familiar
with the notion again tying in with this question
of the runaway dollar.
How many people have not heard
of the notion of the runaway dollar?
Okay some of you now
in a healthy economic climate
and will use the city of Macomb
as a classic example.
Let's say for instance I leave here
and in fact we go into a restaurant this evening
there's gonna be some money spent at the restaurant
the proprietor of that restaurant may take those funds
to spend with another local business
and that local business person would take those funds
perhaps spend them with another local entrepreneur enterprise
and again in a healthy economic climate
the dollar circulates in a particular community.
Unfortunately, when we talk about
the African American community
the dollar takes a one way trip out
you know people get that again in 2007
eight hundred forty seven billion dollars
but it goes straight out to downtown
or suburban shopping malls it's not circulated
in that community and that helps to contribute
to some of the urban desolation.
Desolation really isn't a to strong a term
in describing some urban black communities.
Now, the analytical historical context
there's a very interesting book that was written
back in the 1950's
by an individual name William K. Bell
and the title of this book was
Fifteen Million Negros and Fifteen Billion Dollars
and I want to read and excerpt from this
thinking about what Bell had to say in 1958
we might want to think in terms again of today
when we talk about eight hundred forty seven billion dollars
soon to become a trillion dollars.
As it relates to African Americans consumer spending
Why should not fifteen million Negros
become more conscious of their condition
by developing their own market
for the advancement of their own lives
there's know record in history to show
that any race in the face of this earth
has ever become great that did not develop itself economically.
Fifteen million Negros can not be kept
from gaining economic power
if they determined to keep within the race
a certain portion of that fifteen billion dollars
that is daily running through their fingers
as water does over a dam.
There's great power in fifteen billion dollars
again great power in fifteen billion dollars in 1958.
It's perhaps even more power in
eight hundred and forty seven billion dollars in 2010.
And one final point and again I really hope that
will get some questions from you.
Some of you might be asking well this history lesson is nice
but what does that have to do with today
this moment right now and I would argue
when we talk about say the demographics of urban black America
as I speak and as you sit hear even though we've
seen significant desegregation in America
over the past forty or fifty years
universities, places of employment
public accommodations all that being said
a significant number of African Americans
continue to live in predominantly black
or all black residential areas
and if that still is indeed the case
it appears to make sense that there's just as much
relevance for community base black enterprises in 2010
as it was forty or fifty or sixty years ago
I'll just stop at this point and I'll just open up
to any questions or comments that you may have.
[Thanks for coming out.]