Back in Black

We often measure a group’s cultural power by that most base of indicators, the theoretical root of all evil itself: Money.

By that gauge, Hispanics lag far behind the majority culture. However, as befits the largest ethnic-minority group (and the fastest-growing demographic) in America, Latinos are a growing economic powerhouse. In terms of consumer spending, we actually have more clout than African Americans do.

Still, as I’ve written before, black Americans are more likely than Hispanics are to have their shit together (politically speaking). That’s why movements such as the Empowerment Experiment get going.

This project is the brainchild of African Americans who aim to help black-owned businesses thrive. People who join the Empowerment Experiment agree that for a year, and to the best of their ability, they will patronize only African American merchants.

As you can imagine, it’s not easy to bypass white-owned businesses. There are also legitimate questions about the ultimate motivation behind this idea.

Is it a display of cultural pride, and a helping hand to struggling entrepreneurs who are often overlooked, especially in these economically dismal times? Or is this, as some critics put it, “ethnic cheerleading” and possibly even reverse racism?

A slew of angry conservatives say, “There would be outrage if a movement developed to make sure that people shopped only at white-owned businesses.”

No, that would just be the verbalization of a normal business day. Sticking to white-owned businesses would be the easiest principled stance of all time, like declaring that from now on, I will breath only air that has oxygen in it.

So let’s say that the Empowerment Experiment is a well-meaning project that leaves an icky aftertaste, dependent as it is upon picking companies based on the owners’ ethnicity.

From a Latino perspective, the issue becomes “Should we copy this strategy?” Is it a good idea for Latinos to patronize only Hispanic-owned businesses?

Well, adopting this plan creates a few logistical problems. For starters, although it may be easy to find a great place to eat (Mexican restaurants, El Salvadoran pupuserias, etc), buying goods and services beyond that would quickly become a challenge for even the most dedicated Latino.

This fact relates to deeper issues. I’ve written before about the insecurity complex, or outright jealousy, that Hispanics often feel with regards to our African American brethren. The Empowerment Experiment is another reminder of how we’re not quite up to their level of influence. In most of the country, we don’t have as many entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, and so on to propel such a movement – hence the envy.

But the flip side is that Latinos are less likely to push for such a development in the first place. Despite the prevalence of ethnic barrios (which I’ve written about before), many Hispanics want nothing more than to fit into the majority culture and to be accepted. This can sometimes take the form of self-loathing or ingratiating behavior.

But for the most part, we simply want others to know that we are part of U.S. culture. Any Latino who has ever been told, “You look American” knows what I’m talking about. Even illegal immigrants want their contributions to the American story to be told.

We do not have the security of pointing out that many of us are new to the country. We don’t want to offer an opening to those who claim we don’t belong here, and saying that we’re only going to shop at certain establishments does exactly that.

African Americans have four hundred years of residency in the United States – most of it, of course, spent as second-class citizens or much worse. But after generations of setting down roots, building families, and influencing the culture, even the most virulent racist would have a hard time saying that blacks are not authentic Americans.

Latinos do not have that sense of hard-won security, not yet at least.


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June 2009
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