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Kwanzaa, Day 4: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Myth 150

Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

So a number of studies have been released teasing out the role that race plays in upward mobility — in other words, how easy it is for black vs. white families to rise out of poverty. There’s this study from the Brookings Institution about the economic mobility of black and white families from 2007. There’s this article from the Washington Post, discussing the findings of Harvard economists on how children in majority Black cities are far more likely to have a lower income or chance of upward mobility than poor children in other parts of the country. There’s this longitudinal study from Johns Hopkins University, measuring the economic performance of nearly 800 low-income children in Baltimore as they grew up, from 1982 – 2007. There’s even this research (again from the Brookings Institution) discussing the wide gap in education between black and white students and how firmly that’s tied to the history of black education in this country.

Attempts to address the educational and economic disparity between black and white families have been fought at every turn. The Reagan administration worked to stop school desegregation programs, despite good evidence that they actually worked. This American Life released a two-part episode on what happened when desegregation efforts were rolled out near Ferguson, MO and Hartford, CT and how local governments and parents fought against it tooth and nail. Over the years, affirmative action — making sure that universities and workplaces have student or employee bodies that more closely match the diversity in broader society — has been rolled back steadily and surely. The Trump administration, just this past August, has announced plans for the Justice Department to investigate and restrict race-based admissions into universities. Applicants with black “sounding” names are less likely to be called in for an interview; another study found that racial discrimination against black workers has been largely unchanged since 1989.

This, unfortunately, is nothing new. Racial education and economic inequality in the US has its roots all the way back to the slave trade, and there have been a number of institutional influences aimed at maintaining the status quo. The segregation of schools after emancipation is well documented. The practice of redlining, or making sure minorities didn’t have access to certain housing markets, financial services, or businesses, has codified the make-up of cities for decades. There’s the “school-to-prison pipeline“, which disproportionately affects children of color and makes it much harder for victims to get decent jobs. Racial inequality in criminal justice affects black and Hispanic Americans in general and has for decades. Voter suppression aimed at reducing the political power of people of color in the United States happened in a multitude of ways post-slavery, during Jim Crow, and is becoming an increasing problem today. When black communities have been able to build economic success for themselves, such as Greenwood, OK in the 1920s, there is often a devastating backlash.

With so many external institutional pressures against the success of the black community, it’s vital that we focus on doing what we can to promote its success whenever we can. That’s the idea behind Ujamaa, the fourth principle of the Nguzo Saba. It means ‘cooperative economics’, working with one another to raise our collective standard of living.

This can be done in any number of ways, of course — the only limit is your will and imagination. We can make sure we buy from black-owned businesses and support our brothers and sisters in their financial endeavors. We can also push back against those external pressures by fighting the systems that promote educational, economic, and social inequality where we live. We can invest our time and resources into programs, services, and organizations that help those affected by those pressures. We can build new programs and initiatives designed to help our neighbors and local businesses not just survive, but thrive.

Of course this doesn’t just mean buying products with the FUBU mindset; it means investing locally wherever we happen to be. A healthy economy, we know, depends on the movement of capital from one place to another. This is more likely to happen with local small businesses no matter who happens to be running them. Large corporations owned by the ultra-wealthy act as capital sinks; money flows towards the top, where it is then hoarded away from anyone else. It doesn’t go anywhere, and this doesn’t help anyone. Putting money in the pocket of our neighbor through our business helps our community. That comes back to us eventually. It’s one tangible, important aspect of Ujima; by investing in the work of our neighbor, we share responsibility for its success.

We can also make sure our schools have the best chance possible to teach our children what they need to thrive in the future, not just push them into the early path of criminality. We can empower our brothers and sisters with political insight and knowledge; we can hold our elected representatives accountable for ensuring our well-being and continued success. We can save our people from financial ruin, when possible, by donating our time, our money, and our knowledge where it can serve the most good. Most importantly, we can stop the tendency to tear down our brothers and sisters for being successful and teach each other that success can come in many forms. There’s nothing wrong with owning the corner store, or being a good mechanic. It’s OK to be a scientist, a ballet dancer, or a security guard. There’s no one path to being black and successful.

In our lives, we learn to stand united for our community; we learn to take control of our identities; we learn to work hard and share responsibility for our success; and we learn to cooperate with our social, financial and political capital towards that end. Whatever you can do to help your neighbor and community flourish is appreciated. It helps all of us, and it builds closer connections to each other. Most importantly, it weakens the powerful forces that would seek to keep all of us poor, afraid, ignorant and divided.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2017 in Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Myth 150Want to know something really great? Read the Wikipedia entry on Ujamaa here. Julius Nyerere developed a political and economic blueprint for lifting Tanzania out of poverty back in the 60s. The idea was to remove barriers and dividing lines between the people within Tanzania and replacing them with incentives to fostering a national identity with a focus on shared wealth and community. It didn’t quite work — mostly due to circumstances beyond Nyerere’s control — but it was a noble experiment that the hip-hop scene in Tanzania is trying to bring back.

Here in the United States and Western parts of the African diaspora, Ujamaa is the principle we focus on today, the fourth day of Kwanzaa. While it doesn’t quite go as far as promoting the African socialism of Tanzania, it does encourage the idea of cooperative economics; this builds on the concept of Ujima quite well, turning the social idea into a financial blueprint. We are meant to build and maintain our own stores, shops and businesses, and profit from them together. In black America, we go into businesses that serve our people and community, and small (or large) business owners use that generated wealth for the good of the neighborhoods they’re in.

This could mean shopping at the local corner store when you can instead of heading to a convenience store chain like 7-Eleven; it could mean choosing hair and skin care products made for us, buy us; it could mean supporting black artists and creative people by buying and promoting the work that offers us reflections of our culture that are more nuanced, positive and engaging. Ujamaa is an immensely broad concept, and one of the great things about it is there are so many different ways to practice it.

One of the great joys for me this year was the discovery of the small business online and the popularization of sites like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Patreon. It was a great way for small businesses and artists to make their pitches directly to their customers, and for the customers to respond in kind with a financial statement. Each donation or pledge told these people that we believe in them and their work, and we would like to see it come to fruition. In gaming and fandom circles, there are now artists who can do what they do full-time because they now have a mechanism that allows them to be supported by an appreciative and engaged audience. For me, these sites are a wonderful way to bring Ujamaa into the 21st century.

It also means encouraging responsible use of the wealth we create. One of the big difficulties in impoverished communities in general is the understanding of how to use money wisely. I’m not talking about poor people buying televisions or tennis shoes; I’m talking about finding ways to make what little money we have work harder for us. When a financial windfall comes, we’re often faced with the choice of getting ahead on bills (which really sucks all the joy out of having unexpected money) or doing something fun with it. All too often, there’s a sense that the game is rigged and any effort taken to get ahead will ultimately be wasted. And to be sure, there are all kinds of ways the poor are unfairly taxed in this country. But come on — black people in this country have had to maintain ourselves during slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, and the continuing structural discrimination that makes it so hard for us to get a leg up in this world. With time, patience, effort and intelligence, we can beat that too.

This year, I vow to continue what I’ve started in 2015 — to seek out, promote and shop at minority-owned and -operated businesses. Because I’m such a geek, it’s been a genuine pleasure to find creators of color whose works I’m totally down with. Are you aware of The Pack, a graphic novel about African werewolves? Or the many, many, MANY sci-fi/fantasy writers of color out there? I’ll talk a bit about these folks in a couple of days, but if nothing else 2015 has really opened my eyes about what minorities are doing in genre spaces and just how exciting it is.

I’ll also do my best to be smarter about managing/eliminating my debt this year, and making sure that my money is going places that help me, my family, my community and my people. I’m very fortunate to be in the financial situation I’m in, and I could be doing better things with it. I’ll be devoting time and energy to figuring out how.

As always, Ujamaa doesn’t JUST have to be focused on the African diaspora. We all belong to communities, close and online, that could use a bit of care. How are we using our money wisely? How are we promoting good in our lives through our dollars?

Have a solid Kwanzaa today, everyone. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2015 in Better Living Through Stories, Politics

 

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