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Shopping While Black: Is Conspicuous Consumption Related to Black-White Wealth Gap?

Racial profiling is not just wrong; it doesn't help prevent crime.

Photo Credit: Junial Enterprises


Trayon Christian was racially profiled while buying a $250 belt at Barneys. Kayla Phillips was accosted by police after buying a $2,500 handbag from the same store. Their treatment is unacceptable.

Racial profiling is wrong—it is also ineffective in preventing crime.  Al Sharpton is correct in his efforts to defend the basic rights of people to be treated equally and fairly while shopping, regardless of their skin color.

The United States has been described as a “consumer’s republic.” Capitalism, democracy, and the right to participate in the marketplace are conflated with full citizenship in this country. The phenomenon that has come to be known as “shopping while black,” reinforces, through racism and classism, a belief that people of color are perpetual outsiders and a type of Other in American society.

However, in locating the experience of shopping while black within a broader social, historical and political context, we must also confront an uncomfortable and challenging question.

Of course, Christian and Phillips should not have been discriminated against because they were black while shopping at a luxury store. But, what do the choices of two young people to spend hundreds of dollars on a belt and thousands of dollars on a handbag, reveal about the impact of conspicuous consumption on the black community’s economic health?

Blacks in the United States possess significantly less wealth and earnings than their white counterparts across all class levels. African Americans possess approximately 10 cents for every $2 owned by whites.  Black women in the 36- to 49-year-old age range have a net worth of $5. White women in the same cohort have a net worth of 40,000.

These wealth disparities are a result of centuries of public policy in the United States in which white wealth creation was subsidized by the state, while economic resources and opportunities were systematically denied to people of color. The Homestead Act, the FHA and VA home loan programs, as well as the G.I. Bill, created untold billions of dollars in wealth for white people while non-whites were denied access to the same opportunities.

Because of discrimination in the labor market, black Americans do not receive the same return of investment on their educations as comparably, or even in some cases, less-educated, whites. Even ostensibly “race-neutral” polices such as “last hired, first fired” have caused disproportionate harm to people of color, as they have long been denied access to jobs by racist hiring practices. Yet, black and brown workers are the first to be dismissed when the economy contracts.

Systematic housing segregation means that black communities are also less resourced as compared to comparable white communities.

Three centuries of chattel slavery  robbed African Americans of at least $20 trillion of labor and income. Wealth is intergenerational. The sum effect of centuries of economic disenfranchisement is that the black community is both wealth- and income-poor.

America’s system of racial apartheid was also an active form of economic exploitation against non-whites. African Americans who choose to purchase $350 belts and $2,500 handbags are not responsible for the structural inequalities which have produced the stunning lack of wealth held by black America. However, such aggregate choices by individual African Americans contribute to the racial wealth gap because each dollar put into overpriced clothing, cars, jewelry, electronic goods, etc. are fewer resources put into savings and investment.

Why would members of a group that is poor in wealth, and comparatively disadvantaged in terms of income, spend their resources on expensive consumer goods as opposed to investment or saving?

America is a hyper-consumerist society. Few if any of its members are immune from consumerism, or the psychic and emotional rewards that come from shopping. Nevertheless, we can try to detail the particular dynamics that influence how members of a given group choose to spend their money.

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