BLACKS have learned to play the political game and to play it well. There are about 7,370 African-American elected officials, including 421 state legislators, more than 300 mayors and 26 members of Congress.
But this progress in the political game has not been matched by progress in the economic game. To visit any Ghetto U.S.A. is often to visit economic devastation. Few jobs. Few legitimate businesses. Little or no hope. The whole dismal litany.
No wonder one hears cries for black economic empowerment. No wonder many of us have come to realize how vital it is that African-Americans seek to become not only political players, but also economic players, players who can win.
Entrepreneurship is vital to all of this.
By creating, developing and expanding businesses, black entrepreneurs can provide services and employment; can foster community stability, vitality and progress; can contribute to the tax base of the nation's economy; and, perhaps most of all, can serve as vehicles for empowerment.
I recognize that the number of black-owned firms in the U.S. has shown a rapid increase in recent years. Indeed, the Census Bureau reports that between 1982 and 1987, the number of these businesses increased 37.6 percent -- from 308,260 to 424,165. Yet these firms accounted for only 3.1 percent of all businesses in the nation in 1987, and only 1 percent of gross receipts.
Further evidence of how far away African-Americans are from being major economic players is the fact that blacks owned only a minuscule 0.8 percent of businesses with annual gross receipts of $1 million or more.
There is no question racism has held African-Americans back from being major economic players, and that it remains a formidable obstacle. There is no question any attempts at racially discriminatory lending policies should be fought with vigor. Still, when all is said and done, the inability and unwillingness of significant numbers of blacks to play the economic game cannot be blamed solely on racism.
This inability and unwillingness also reflect the fascination of many, many Americans with a notion some have begun to call "non-economic liberalism." The term embraces the notion that complete African-American liberation will come at the hands of elected officials and the laws and programs they produce -- and through appeals to the moral conscience of white America.
Such an approach goes against the very heart of the principles of capitalism on which this nation is based. And that, to put it colloquially, is that money talks.
The searing expanses of poverty on the African-American landscape are clear for all to see. But what people often do not pause to contemplate is the economic clout of blacks collectively. According to the enterprise statistics branch of the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1989, the most recent year for which information is available, African-Americans spent approximately $186 billion in the U.S. economy. That is about the same amount as the GNP of Mexico, Sweden or Korea.
Most of this money leaves black communities and goes to make jobs and wealth for those outside these communities. Little of this money is earmarked for savings or investment of any kind. Far too many blacks have been content to be consumers -- not producers -- of wealth.
Blacks must begin to marshal this collective economic strength and make it work for them and their communities. African-Americans have labored long to help build this nation's wealth; it is time they had an equitable share of it.
Black economic empowerment will be of obvious benefit to African-American communities, but it also will benefit the nation as a whole. The future vitality of the U.S. depends, in large part, on the continued growth and expansion of businesses. If 12 percent of the nation is effectively locked out of business development, if black communities continue to languish in an economic wasteland, then the entire nation suffers.
Some may be thinking that this is the worst possible time to advocate black business ownership. After all, the nation is in a recession. And that means that black America is in a depression. Unemployment is up. Bankruptcies are up. Consumer spending is down.
Even as I recognize this, I also recognize that the U.S. economy always has had its ups and downs. Just because it is in apparently bad shape today does not mean it will be in bad shape tomorrow.
Moreover, I believe we simply cannot afford to hold off a drive to increase black entrepreneurship. The nation needs every tax dollar it can get and every job it can add. Pure and simple: America needs black business. Pure and simple: Blacks must be economic players.
Franklyn G. Jenifer is president of Howard University.