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Does having a Black Chamber of Commerce mean racial and economic justice?

September 1, 2011

Yesterday, MLive posted a story on the formation of the new Grand Rapids Black Chamber of Commerce. A similar story was aired on the local ABC affilate, WZZM 13.

In both stories, the creation of a Grand Rapids Black Chamber of Commerce is presented as the need for more diversity. Both Ken Harris (CEO of the MI Black Chamber of Commerce) and Bing Goei (former GR Chamber President) both cite the importance of having a Chamber specifically for the needs of Black Business owners.

Local lawyer and former Democratic Party candidate for the 3rd Congressional District Patrick Miles Jr. was quoted on MLive as saying that Grand Rapids is an entrepreneurial city. “But we know we need to do better and more to … draw on the best from people here to create more jobs, better jobs, better living conditions.”

While this may sound well intentioned, there is no clear plan about how it will create better living conditions, especially for Black people. According to the Kids Count Michigan 2011 report, “African-American children are seven times more likely to spend half or more of childhood in poverty compared with white children.”

Addressing the disproportionate level of poverty amongst Black children would seem to be an important focus for any such effort, yet there is no indication that this is what the new Black Chamber will put energy to. The Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce website doesn’t address these kinds of issues, but they do have a 5 Pillars of Service section. Included in these pillars are – access to capital, gaining more contracts for Black owner businesses, legislative lobbying and developing best practices.

The function of any Chamber of Commerce is to look out for the economic interests of the business community. At the national and local level, this means that the Chamber of Commerce will take action against worker rights and fight for deregulation, which often leads to more environmental destruction. There is no indication that any Chamber of Commerce will create better living conditions for people, no matter what the racial makeup is of the group.

Black liberationists would argue that in order for their to be economic justice for Black people that there first needs to be reparations paid to Black people for the amount of wealth that was stolen from their labor and property during slavery and Jim Crow America.

Other Black liberationists such as the late Black scholar Manning Marable would argue that African Americans should fight against the economic system of Capitalism. Marable’s book on this topic is must reading for anyone who wants to come to terms with why Capitalism can never eliminated poverty, particularly for Black America.

Lastly, it would be worth citing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who in the last few years of his life was increasingly critical of the wealth disparity in the US and even of Capitalism.

“We are now making demands that will cost the nation something. You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with the captains of industry….Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism…here must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.”

The analysis that Dr. King and Manning Marable provide us should be reason enough to not see the creation of a Grand Rapids Black Chamber of Commerce as doing anything more than perpetuating an economic system that doesn’t care about the well being of most people.

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