“Black Capitalism” From Richard Nixon to Joe Biden

Joe Biden has been touting black capitalism as part of the path to racial equality. The strategy remains as futile today as when Richard Nixon pushed it fifty years ago.

Joe Biden delivers remarks about the coronavirus outbreak at the Hotel Du Pont on March 12 in Wilmington, DE. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Last week Joe Biden unveiled his “Lift Every Voice” plan for black America. Given his often-touted success with black voters in the primary, this plan should be of interest to all those paying attention to the presidential race. What is most striking is not the plan as a whole, but the policies that are especially emphasized and can be assumed as priorities. What follows, then, is not a comprehensive overview of the plan, but a critical assessment of what Biden (and most other centrist Democrats) deems the most effective way to improve the lot of black Americans in this country: supporting black-owned small businesses.

On paper at least, the plan includes some decent-sounding policies, like expanding federal employment and supporting unions. However, Biden’s political career casts serious doubt on whether he would even be supportive of these initiatives at all, let alone actively work to make them a reality. 

But all politicians have priorities, whether they’re explicitly stated or not. Bernie Sanders’s website had a section on gun violence, but we all know his campaign was primarily about health care, education and fighting inequality. Most American voters have a pragmatic understanding that presidents won’t be able to enact much of their notional agenda, and will need to focus on a few core initiatives to leave their mark.

Following an introductory section, Biden’s plan launches into a slew of policies intended to help black entrepreneurs and small business owners. Lamenting the fact that “4% of small business owners are African-American, even though African-Americans make up 13% of the population,” the document seems premised on the idea that if only 13 percent of small business owners were black, we would have attained some level of economic justice.

Biden wants to double funding for the State Small Business Credit Initiative and extend the program to 2025. His plan would also expand the New Markets Tax Credits and Small Business Administration Programs, double the funding of Community Development Financial Institutions, and increase opportunities for black-owned businesses to obtain federal contracts. When it comes to economic relief related to COVID-19, the Biden administration will make sure businesses owned by people of color will receive loans.

These policies are framed as building on the Obama administration’s success. The plan celebrates the fact that after the 2008 financial crisis, over $100 billion of federal prime contracting dollars were given to minority-owned small businesses. Obama created the Federal Procurement Center, which helps minority-owned businesses win federal contracts. As usual, Biden presents himself as a continuation of the Obama presidency, which we’re supposed to assume was positive for black people across the board.

The championing of small businesses and entrepreneurs is presented as the path to “build wealth in African-American communities,” a slogan routinely repeated by all kinds of prominent black figures. This variation of “black capitalism” rests on fundamental misconceptions about small businesses, the class position of most black people, and the kinds of policies from which black people have benefitted most throughout history.

The Small Business Myth

Most of us like the thought of mom-and-pop stores more than corporate behemoths like Amazon, but let’s not kid ourselves. Small businesses are not inherently progressive — in fact they’re often structurally opposed to the progressive aims we fight for. Overall, small businesses offer lower wages, provide worse benefits, and are usually exempt from important worker protections.

The problem is not that small business owners are somehow worse people; it’s a structural issue. Small businesses simply don’t have the resources to build the kind of private welfare states that large companies do. The solution is to build up the public welfare state and the labor movement, not double down on the proliferation of small enterprises.

Of course, small businesses needs relief from the ravages of COVID-19, and the disproportionate help given to giant corporations is appalling. But relief for small businesses should not be seen as the key pillar of a black agenda. Black Americans are overwhelmingly working class and won’t advance by the creation of more jobs with lousy wages and benefits. We should also be wary of the fantasy that someday the majority of black people (or any group) will become entrepreneurs, or that everyone has the same opportunity to do so.

Same Old Tune

Biden’s perspective echoes that of many Black Power advocates of the sixties and seventies, who saw black capitalism as the move of the moment. After all, the Nation of Islam had some of the most successful businesses of the era. Richard Nixon shrewdly embraced the term, and it was under his administration that the Small Business Administration first targeted black entrepreneurs for federal assistance.

For some black nationalists, black capitalism was an important component of nation-building. Roy Innis, the head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), explained, “A modern nation becomes viable through the creation of capital instruments. We can’t make money through jobs. You make money through owning capital instruments: land and other properties.” A whole host of initiatives flowed from this perspective that ultimately eschewed the need for the federal government to address the fundamental problems black people faced. 

With a $1 million gift from a benefactor, economist Robert S. Brown launched the Black Economic Research Center, Emergency Land Fund, and the Twenty-first Century Foundation in the sixties and seventies. The goal of these institutions was to fund the needs of the black community without the help of “special government programs.” Similarly, the National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization (NEGRO) was established in the early 1960s, its stated aim being to promote “the self-help concept among the Negro people.”

But just as working-class white people could not advance purely through “self-help,” neither could working-class black people. In many ways black capitalism failed even on its own terms, but its advocates succeeded in helping to shift the stance of the federal government on black poverty. Increasingly, securing contracts for minority-owned businesses has become the main development plan for black America. Biden’s “Lift Every Voice” agenda is firmly rooted in this perspective.

A Different Path

Fortunately, we have some precedent for conceptualizing policies that will benefit black working people. The greatest gains have been made through an active federal government and a labor movement seeking to strengthen the social welfare state. It is an irrefutable fact that the greatest factor mitigating black poverty has been federal and public sector employment. 

Despite unequal benefits, hundreds of thousands of black people got decent work through the various New Deal programs. Much of the black middle class (if you can call it that) was built earlier by the industrial unions of the CIO, and more recently through public sector unions. Public agencies like the Post Office have been critical anchors of stable employment in black communities. The various areas of legal discrimination during the Jim Crow era had to be tackled by the federal government; small businesses couldn’t help.

Despite the inclusion of some good policies in his agenda, it’s clear where Biden’s priorities are. By now we have enough wealthy black entrepreneurs and black-owned businesses to see why in 2020, they cannot address the urgent problems black people face.