In the latest episode of “corporate racism”, our main star is Starbucks, a company that brands itself as socially progressive. Ironically, Starbucks has been a champion for issues such as racial justice yet in its most recent media blast; one of its employees racially profiled two Black men for not making a purchase leading to their arrest. The incident was caught on camera, uploaded online and instantly went viral leading to protests and calls for a nationwide boycott from Black consumers. In response, Starbucks has issued multiple apologies and will shut down 8000 stores around the country on May 29th for a company wide “racial training” day.
Starbucks’ immediate response comes amid its flat lined performance on the stock market. As such, the fear of losing Black dollars is definitely at the top of their minds. Rightly so, the purchasing power of African Americans currently stands at $1.5 trillion putting it as the 13th largest economy in the world before Australia. Putting these figures in context of today’s racial environment, do both African American consumers and American corporations clearly understand what this means?
When answering the question, it is important to note that the Black Diaspora has always understood the power of using “economic punches” when fighting oppression. From the Igbo Women’s riots against raised market tariffs by British colonial officers to today’s corporate boycotts against Starbucks and H&M due to their complacency towards racism, Black people have used these “economic punches” differently. History shows that the mechanism used was greatly influenced by their own perception of where they held the most power. Notably, Black led anti-corporate movements have gradually shifted from primarily being labor strikes to economic boycotts. Early on, Black people across the diaspora used their position as the main providers of labor to fight. Powerful organizers such as Elma François organized multiple labor strikes and protests that spread across the Caribbean impacting colonial policies. Similarly in the US, Black workers (textile workers, carpenters, miners etc) often led different protests in their fight for racial inclusion.
In the 1950s however, Black people began incorporating economic boycotts within their punches. During the Civil Rights era, many businesses, especially in the south, started to experience economic losses due to boycotts organized by African Americans. The first example of this was in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This action led the bus company to face serious financial difficulties leading to the desegregation of buses. The success of this boycott paved the way for further boycotts. In 1965, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King also called for an economic boycott in Alabama during the Easter holidays which eventually put pressure on the State to integrate schools and employment.
African Americans further evolved this tool by using it to fight against other oppression in the Diaspora. During the Apartheid struggle, the US government collaborated with European colonizers as part of the cold war struggle, and supported white minority rule in South Africa. From the 70s through the 80s, Black student unions across campuses and colleges led collaborative protests with other student activists calling for the divestment of their colleges from companies such as Coca Cola that profited from apartheid. These divestment movements eventually began to affect South Africa as corporations halted their operations in the country.
Overtime, such successes gradually increased the confident of Black people on their perception of themselves as a powerful base of economic consumers. This is not a surprise as historically, they have often been conditioned to believe that their main economic contribution is labor based. Today, these boycotts are reactive in nature and generally arise in response to either insensitive marketing campaigns or the actions of employees towards black consumers. Companies like H&M, Starbucks and Heineken have been on the receiving end of such boycotts. Considering present day social justice movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, why hasn’t this successful tool been proactively used to push for police reforms and indictments? Is this because of the new wave of #clicktivism that easily negates the literal action asked but is still an indicator of support? Or is it that Black consumers are yet to fully understand the power of their dollar? Whatever the answer is, it is becoming clearer and clearer to corporate America that #BlackDollarsMatter.