Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

Today’s economic situation has hit my billfold…what about yours? With gas prices soaring and paychecks diminishing, I have been wondering, Who has been eating my piece of the American pie?

Everyone may be experiencing tough economic times, but as usual, these struggles hit some harder than others. According to the most recent numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for African Americans remains a shocking 13%, while black homeownership is at its lowest in almost 20 years. The black unemployment rate in America remains twice that of whites, and nearly three times that of Asians.

As with any bad news, there is plenty of blame to go around. But a far more important question to ask is what can be done to improve the situation now. I believe one answer is a return to the strong, often unsung tradition of black entrepreneurship. When we think of minority owned businesses these days, we tend to picture immigrants, usually Latino or Asian. This perception reflects our current reality: according to a 2008 study Race and Entrepreneurial Success by the University of California Santa Cruz, the rate of black business ownership is far lower than the national average.

Yet this was not always the case: blacks—both slave and free—participated in American commerce going back to the colonial period. Because of slavery and later Jim Crow laws, many African Americans had to establish “parallel” businesses, buying from and selling to other blacks. However this didn’t mean their businesses were necessarily small. During the late 1700s, freed slave Paul Cuffee turned his experience on whaling ships into a transatlantic shipping empire utilizing crews of black sailors. Former Virginia slave Clara Brown founded a laundry service in Colorado during the Gold Rush and used her profits to invest in real estate and purchase freedom for other slaves. During the nineteenth century, inventors and innovators such as Benjamin Banneker, Andrew Jackson Beard, Elijah McCoy, Sarah Breedlove and countless others put their creativity and industry to work with tremendous results.

By the twentieth century, despite persistent racism and discriminatory laws, black income was rising. In fact, it actually grew faster during the decades preceding the Civil Rights movement than it did in the decades that followed. (The U.S. Census only began keeping track of individual incomes in 1940.) As I have written in the past, my own grandfather established a successful small business which enabled our family to leave poverty behind, with each subsequent generation achieving greater success.

Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.