By James Clingman
“The economic distress of America’s inner cities may be the most pressing issue facing the nation. The lack of businesses and jobs in disadvantaged urban areas fuels not only a crushing cycle of poverty but also crippling social problems such as drug abuse and crime… A sustainable economic base can be created in the inner city, but only as it has been created elsewhere: through private, for-profit initiatives and investment based on economic self-interest and genuine competitive advantage.”
– Michael E. Porter, The Competitive Advantage of the Inner City,
Harvard Business Review, May-June 1995.
Yes, nearly 20 years ago another call for a little common sense was put forth regarding the problem of America’s inner cities. Today, we have the same questions, the same issues, and many of the same folks running around trying to get elected by offering to change things for the people who reside in what Ron Daniels calls, “America’s Dark Ghettos.” We have talking heads misleading us on what it takes to make the appropriate changes necessary for our collective growth, all the while their pockets are being filled and ours are being emptied.
We also have shysters and hucksters running from city to city declaring Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! and playing on our emotions with MLK quotes, still asking us to keep his dream alive. In other words, they want us to remain asleep while they rake in the dollars from their all-talk and no-results protestations.
What a naïve and childlike people we are to be held captive by folks we call leaders, who have been doing and saying the same things for decades with no commensurate collective benefits for Black people. As Booker T. Washington once said, “There are some Negroes who don’t want the patient to get well.” We should be ashamed of ourselves. Sure, many Black people are doing quite well, individually, but far more are trapped in a generational cycle of poverty; and while personal choice and responsibility have led to many of their problems, their children had no choice in the matter. They are suffering the most from our dysfunction and lack of common sense when it comes to economic empowerment.
Michael Porter’s words are not unique, and his prescription for success is not new. Our forbearers demonstrated how to empower themselves economically many years ago, and they did it under the worst of circumstances. They were not perfect; they were not educated; and they were not affluent. But they endured hardships and worked tirelessly with the understanding that it was up to them to take care of their children, and it was their responsibility to determine the direction of their own lives.
The key words in Porter’s quote are “economic self-interest and genuine competitive advantage.” Black people, especially at the ballot boxes across this nation, have abdicated the authority, power, and reasoning we once had with our votes. All too often we simply cast votes, not in our own self-interest, but as though we are voting in some local popularity contest. All a politician has to do to get our vote is hold our baby or show up at our church or eat a rib with us. Politics is about self-interest, the kind that Porter’s words speak about and the kind demonstrated by our ancestors. How can your vote be powerful if you simply give it away without reciprocity?
As for “competitive advantage,” Black people in this country have several business niches from which we could grow our collective economy. Look at the products we buy, the foods we eat, and the services we use. Look at the high concentration of Black people in various cities, veritable economic enclaves themselves, except right now our dollars are going to someone else’s business, and not to our own. One problem is that many of us look at ourselves as being “competitively disadvantaged” and, thus, play into the self-fulfilling prophecy of not having the ability to open, support, and grow more businesses in the very neighborhoods where we live.
Personally, I am currently working with Dr. Victor Garcia, a noted pediatric surgeon in Cincinnati, who took it upon himself to explore the reasons for the ever-growing number children requiring emergency surgery for gunshot wounds; he wondered what he could do to prevent it. He knew a great deal of the crime in our town was the result of poverty, hopelessness, and drugs. He also knew that by creating sustainable businesses in the inner city to employ our youth, at least some would be deterred from crime and drugs. Dr. Garcia understands what “economic self-interest and competitive advantage” are all about and is working hard to bring about change through sound economic principles.
Collaborating with the likes of William Julius Wilson, author of When Work Disappears, Michael Porter, and other local supporters, he established Core Change, an organization dedicated to designing and executing transformative business models within the urban core (see: corechangecincy.com) through which we can have our own Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!
Dr. Garcia is definitely working outside of his lane in an effort to make a real difference in the lives of our people. But as Michelle Alexander recently reflected on her work on mass incarceration, “I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.”
Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and can be reached through his Web site, blackonomics.com.