Jasmine Grant wasn’t trying to change the whole world, at first — just her shirt.
Grant is the founder of Black Wallet, an app that gives nearly 15,000 users instant access to a database of 2,800 black-owned businesses, she says, in addition to providing web-based resources for customers and entrepreneurs.
Before she launched in April 2016, she was a web developer who just wanted to buy clothing from a black-owned store, but found it difficult to easily find such a business. She decided to create a solution herself, so that others could join her in ‘buying black’ — an intentional economic movement to solicit black-owned businesses.
How the #BuyBlack Movement Began
The idea’s origins date back to America’s Reconstruction period in the aftermath of the Civil War. That initial push to bolster fledgling black businesses led to the inception of so-called Black Wall Streets, thriving micro-economies in predominantly black neighborhoods of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Arlington, Virginia, and several other U.S. cities.
Since that time, in watershed moments in the fight for civil rights, there have been repeated calls to support black entrepreneurs, who must navigate a world and an economy marred by systemic racism. (Consider Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, which in 1921 was attacked by a mob of white people in one of the worst single incidents of racism in American history.) Today, after a string of hateful incidents in rapid succession — most notably, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — the rallying cry to #BuyBlack is louder than ever.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Mandy Bowman, founder of black-owned business resource Official Black Wall Street, saw firsthand the difficulties that black entrepreneurs faced in gentrifying neighborhoods. “I supported [black-owned businesses] as much as I could, but I couldn’t give them a loan or grant,” she says.
Bowman got involved with the #BuyBlack movement in earnest in 2014, launched her website in 2015, and debuted her app in 2017. Her resources now connect over 175,000 users to just about 6,000 black-owned businesses, she says. Over the years, Bowman has seen significant growth in both her firm and the movement. And, she adds, “whenever there is an incident of police brutality, there is an uptick.”
But what she’s seeing now seems “different from any other incidents or instances in the past. It’s usually people within the black community supporting black-owned businesses. This is the first time I’ve seen a major outpouring from people outside of the black community.”
It’s not just her perception — search terms like “how to find black-owned businesses in your area” and “buy black” saw notable jumps at the start of June. Influential individuals like Issa Rae and Kerry Washington, large companies like Etsy and major publications such as New York Magazine are all sharing lists of black-owned businesses to support. And it’s not just in America, either — the movement has reportedly made its way to other parts of the world.
“It gives me a lot of hope,” Bowman adds.
More than a Moment
So what makes this time different? Bowman thinks it’s the “back-to-back” situations that “caused a lot of people who may not have been convinced before that there” is a real problem with racism in America. “I think that played a major role in galvanizing people.”
She continues, though, that “outside of protesting or using our dollars to vote, in a sense,” the push to buy black is necessary to negate the hurdles black business owners face when starting and scaling. And there are quite a few obstacles to overcome. From long-standing problems like finding or saving money, to the present disproportionate harm Covid-19 has caused the black community — including its businesses — black entrepreneurs experience myriad difficulties at every stage of running a firm.
“Supporting black businesses as a means of protest makes a whole lot of sense — I completely get it. But I don’t want it to become a movement where we use that reactively when something like this happens, as opposed to instinctively because we know the challenges black entrepreneurs face,” Bowman says.
It’s heartening, then, for her to see new energy for buying black from non-black individuals, as well as corporations — for example, meal-ordering app UberEats has added an option to make it easier for users to find black-owned restaurants. “I’ve seen this so many other places, from so many larger corporations, and I think that’s going to be what opens the door for other black companies.”
Numerous doors remain closed at present. Investors and banks with significant cash in hand to lift these ventures up are mostly white, and statistically have trouble trusting black-owned businesses or understanding how they address the needs of non-black customers. And black women — who are starting businesses at a rate nearly double that of white women — are caught at “that intersection of being black and also a woman,” Bowman notes, simultaneously facing sexism and racism.
All the more reason why the latest push to buy black needs to stay top-of-mind, she adds. It’s a concern, since “as a society, we have a very short attention span,” and longevity is sometimes necessary for success — mentioning, as an example, the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott of public transit in the Alabama city that ultimately led to desegregation of buses.
Another reason #BuyBlack matters in the long-term, Black Wallet’s Grant adds, is to refocus attention on black spending power.
“First and foremost, while a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge it, and even though we are a population minority in the country, we drive the decision-making for almost everything,” Grant says. “When we decide to get together, we change everything in this country — we just can’t maximize on trends as fast as we make them because our ideas are taken or stolen before we can make them bigger.”
But it’s also “important for people who are not black to support us, because when we thrive, everyone thrives,” Grant adds.