The Destruction of Black Wealth

Some youngsters want to grow up to become artists or athletes or firefighters. Some want to be doctors or dancers. Charles Walker wanted to own a supermarket.

“Ever since I can remember, I wanted my own grocery store,” he said over lunch on a quiet afternoon in snowbound Detroit last year. To Walker, “grocery store” meant a gleaming, well-run supermarket, not necessarily huge but well stocked and scrupulously clean, with fresh meats and produce and first-class customer service.

“I had retail in my blood,” he told me. “I grew up here in Detroit, but I had a grandmother we used to visit in Alabama, and she had a store that sold cookies and candies, and she had a pop machine. That all seemed pretty cool to a little kid. And the people my mother worked for owned a meat market. That was their life. As I got older, going to high school and college, I worked there in the summers. That appealed to me, too, and they seemed to be making a good living. I thought that I could do something on a larger scale, and I really wanted to.”

The upside of this story is that Charles Walker, a black kid from a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Detroit, realized his dream. It took a long time, but after years of working and prudent money management, after stints as a manager for CVS stores and a market called Metro Foodland, he was able to put together a deal, with help from relatives and a handful of outside investors, for a market that was part of the discount Sav-A-Lot chain. At age 47, the happily married father of three grown children had his supermarket.

That was in 2004. Detroit was in the midst of yet another comeback scenario, but decent food stores were rare, and black-owned markets, even rarer. Walker’s store was one of only two black-owned supermarkets in the entire city.

He did well for a while, bringing in $100,000 a week and employing a staff of 20. The store was a gleaming marvel in a neighborhood that was struggling but seemed to be improving. Then, as Walker put it, “the economy changed.”

Not nearly enough attention has been paid to the damage that the continuing Great Recession has done to black Americans. It’s true that jobs and homes were lost across a wide expanse of ethnic and income groups. It’s true that white businesses as well as black-owned firms have failed. But African American communities were particularly vulnerable, and the downturn swept through them like an invading army, destroying wealth that had been painstakingly accumulated over decades and, in some cases, generations.

Cornerstone institutions like minority-owned banks and black churches are being hammered, according to Deborah Wright, president of Carver Bancorp in New York, the largest black-run bank in the country. Some banks have already gone under, and others are in bad shape. Carver handles financing for a large number of black churches, and Wright says, “For the first time since I’ve been in this field, I’m seeing churches fail. That is very, very unusual. It speaks to the distress that their parishioners are under.”

The Pew Research Center reported last summer that the median wealth of white households in the wake of the recession was an astonishing 20 times that of black households. The black unemployment rate at the end of last year was close to 16 percent, comparable to the average national unemployment rate during some years of the Great Depression. But even 16 percent does not begin to capture the horror of unemployment in black America. The hardest of the hard-core unemployed are not even included in the official government statistics. I’ve been to neighborhoods in Boston; Chicago; Detroit; Camden, New Jersey; and other cities in which the majority, sometimes the vast majority, of the working-age population is jobless. Forget the smiling faces on television citing the latest hopeful economic statistics. Forget the assurances of self-styled black intellectuals that we are in some sort of marvelous post-racial era in which anybody can realize his or her dreams. The black community is shouldering its way through an economic calamity. More than a quarter of all black Americans are poor, as are more than a third of all black children. Doors of economic opportunity—in the workforce, in access to higher education, and elsewhere—are slamming shut at a breathtaking rate.

For many small African American businesses, and for countless entrepreneurs like Charles Walker, the downturn has been ruinous. The inevitable reduction in demand from a customer base struggling disproportionately with joblessness and the home-foreclosure crisis came at the same time as a drastic curtailment in access to capital for most small businesses. For black businesses, already chronically undercapitalized, the one-two punch was often fatal.

Small businesses generally get started and survive their early stages with capital drawn from the personal assets—mainly savings and real estate—of the business owners, their relatives, and friends. Home equity is a common source of collateral for small-business loans. With substantially lower levels of wealth and homeownership to begin with, blacks have a much harder time putting together start-up capital, and they find it more difficult to hang on during rough patches in the economy. The Great Recession was much worse than anyone’s idea of a rough patch.

David Beck of Self-Help, a nonprofit lender that has concentrated on minority businesses, told me: “With this financial crisis, the amount of equity wiped out in minority communities is just jaw-dropping, and that is devastating to small businesses. Once that home-equity collateral is wiped away, it’s really hard to find anything to replace it with.”

The ferocity of the recession has made it difficult in some cases for sympathetic lenders—black or white—to stay in business. The most dramatic example was the fall of ShoreBank in Chicago, which pioneered the concept of a community--oriented bank that would provide capital to establish and help sustain minority--owned firms. ShoreBank made more than $4 billion in investments and was responsible for the rehabilitation of tens of thousands of units of affordable housing. One of ShoreBank’s clients was Charles Walker. “I was actually one of their bigger projects in Detroit,” he said. But the Great Recession destroyed the dreams of both. ShoreBank closed its doors on August 20, 2010.

It was inevitable, as the recession and its dismal aftermath persisted, that black businesses would fold at a higher rate than normal, and at a higher rate than white-owned businesses. Official statistics are difficult to come by, but the hard evidence of shuttered shops, restaurants, and offices can be viewed in neighborhoods across the country. Black-owned auto dealerships have taken a terrible hit. By mid-2011, according to Automotive News, there were just 261 black-owned dealerships in the U.S., half as many as three years earlier. White-owned dealerships suffered a decline of 18 percent over the same period.

At the same time that this carnage in existing businesses was occurring, African Americans who lost jobs in the recession and were desperate for work began trying to start businesses of their own. Their goal was to create a job for themselves. Few winners are expected to emerge from that effort. The newcomers have tended to lack business experience as well as capital, and few mainstream lenders have been willing to help.

When the recession struck, Charles Walker had already poured all of his modest personal wealth into his Sav-A-Lot market. “It was difficult even before the recession,” he said. “But I’ve always been a hard worker, and I was doing OK for a while—I’d say for about three years. When I first opened up, they were building houses in the neighborhood. As the economy changed, they stopped building houses. People started to leave the neighborhood. Those were my customers. A Chrysler plant that was nearby shut down one of its shifts. It was rough. I thought the economy would start to turn around at some point in time, but it never did.”

“As everything started closing down all around me,” he continued, “I started to feel like I was on this island all by myself. I was struggling, taking from Peter to pay Paul, and that was the start of the downward spiral. I went to my investors and asked them to put up additional funds—you know, ante up some more to try and keep us going. And they did. I did get some more money from the bank. And I went to Sav-A-Lot and asked them to give me different terms. They worked with me. But you can’t keep borrowing money. I couldn’t see my way out, so I had to make the tough decision.”

I rode with Walker from the restaurant where we’d had lunch to the large parking lot outside his supermarket, which had already been shut down. We walked through the snow to the front of the store, and he unlocked the doors to what had once been his dream. With the flick of a switch, the store filled with light. It was still scrupulously clean, but the shelves were empty and the registers were gone. The heat had been turned way down, so it was cold. Walker gave me a tour, telling me in detail of the way things once had been.

It’s a mistake to think there was much of a flourishing black business sector even before the recession. Walker’s supermarket, which probably would have survived and might have thrived if the economy had held, was unusual. More than 90 percent of black-owned businesses are one-person affairs—the owner is the only employee.

Small businesses in general tend to be undercapitalized and lack such fundamental resources as finance and marketing experts. Black firms are even less likely to have that kind of expertise within reach. According to the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, which specializes in the development of microenterprises, less than 5 percent of all firms in the U.S. generate annual sales of a million dollars or more. For black firms, it’s less than 1 percent.

Proponents of black business development make a persistent effort to cast the best possible light on a bleak environment. ShoreBank, as good a friend as small black enterprises have ever had, found only a few sectors in which such firms could thrive. Most were retail or service start-ups with little hope of succeeding. Few were in bolder enterprises like manufacturing, wholesaling, or distribution. The quality of most businesses that applied for loans was poor.

ShoreBank found some success financing minority-owned franchises of large national organizations like McDonald’s, which offered its franchisees high-level corporate support in such areas as cost control, marketing, and mass advertising. The bank had great success supporting businesses that purchased and rehabilitated rental properties—as long as the housing market held up. Other types of enterprises did not do well.

The cold truth is that the chances for success are extremely slim for aspiring black entrepreneurs in an environment in which unemployment is chronically high, inequality of wealth and income is off the charts, and capital of any sort is hard to come by. There is also the continuing problem of racial discrimination. Studies have consistently shown that black-owned firms experience higher rates of loan denial and pay interest at higher rates than white-owned businesses, even after credit worthiness and other factors are taken into account.

The scale of the problem is huge, and the resources of those trying to deal with it are, by comparison, minuscule. Hundreds of nonprofits, credit unions, and community-development financial institutions are trying to fill the breach. But black businesses will never thrive if they have to rely primarily on a customer base that is depressed economically, isolated socially, and the target of persistent racial discrimination.

Deborah Wright made it clear that even Carver Bancorp, established in the 1940s, is not immune. When I asked about its outlook, she said: “The jury is still out. We’re going to fight to the end, but it’s a hard nut. It really is.”

It is futile to view the desperate struggle of African American businesses outside the context of two overwhelming imperatives: the obligation of the United States to figure out how to put its population to work in jobs that will support families and sustain a world-class economy; and the parallel obligation, perpetually avoided, to bring black Americans and all of their talent and energy fully into the fold of the wider society.

James Baldwin warned of the fire next time. Failure to face up to those two imperatives will lead ultimately to the failure not just of black-owned business enterprises but the failure of American society itself. 

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