The internet presents both challenges and opportunities for black-owned businesses.
With a sharp rise in racial tensions in 2020, companies everywhere responded by highlighting the need for racial equity. This quickly went beyond issues like police brutality and extended to economic opportunity. Now, there are dozens of articles and databases listing black-owned businesses in an effort to show support for these resilient entrepreneurs. While these efforts are important, they illuminate just how hidden many black-owned businesses are from the public consciousness. This is because ‘thinking black’ has never been a driving force behind consumer behavior. Generally speaking, people don’t tend to make purchasing decisions based on race.
Black consumers are certainly more aware of marketplace disparity and therefore are more apt to shift their buying behaviors accordingly. Indeed, this was the idea behind the first major Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The goal was to aid blacks in circulating dollars within their own community, thereby creating a sustainable local ecosystem that simultaneously met the needs of black patrons. However, that all changed in 1921 with the burning of the Greenwood District and subsequent massacre of its black citizens by an angry, volatile white mob. But over a century later, today’s black wall street is no longer relegated to just one neighborhood. Black owned businesses must now extend their reach beyond their immediate neighbors and out across the internet. And in a more interconnected society, building both local and national customer bases creates a competitive advantage previously unrealized.
The beauty of the world wide web is that it takes the concept of a vast, ‘wide world’ and brings it into a local context. This means that black-owned businesses have the ability not only to be more easily discovered by local customers—if their business model allows, they can cultivate regional, national or even international brand awareness. Yet this presents a new set of challenges. While the internet allows for greater visibility, it doesn’t do so equally for every business. And though it’s helpful to have reputable publications curate lists of black-owned businesses, it’s not enough to solve for this problem. Google is also doing its part by making it easier for its users to find and search for black-owned businesses. Of course, for the average searcher, the priority is usually for finding the right product or service at the right price, making the owner’s race or ethnicity a lesser consideration. Shifting these priorities notably takes work—and it’s entirely necessary to correct longstanding disparity. Yet it’s merely a step in the process of creating a more richly diverse marketplace. The next step calls for empowering black-owned businesses to adapt from the neighborhood-based to a digitally based economy.
Buying black—for the moment—is being prompted more by penance and less by pure consumerism. And while penance is the catalyst for ameliorating wrongdoing, consumerism is the engine that ultimately drives economic growth. In essence, every black business contends with being defined by more than simply being black owned. In the end, this is a good thing. It means that every BIPOC business can leverage the push for equity. But it also means that every BIPOC business can build customer loyalty based on product quality and overall user experience.