African American Consumption

The topic of African Americans and consumption is fundamentally engaged with slavery, US racial politics, social inequality, and Civil Rights activism. Central questions include the consumption of African Americans, and consumption by African Americans. Because much theory on consumption implicitly assumes a normative consumer who is white and middle class, consideration of African Americans and consumption has made important challenges to theories claiming to broadly account for all Americans or all consumers. Understood in the context of the structural inequalities of American society, African American consumption is not in and of itself different from normative (white, middle class) consumption. Rather, it is enacted within constraints, pressures, limits, and opportunities that give that consumption particular form and content. Put another way, it is only partly true that, for instance, a Barbie is a Barbie is a Barbie. The Barbie consumed by the poor African American girl in urban Detroit must be understood differently from that same Barbie, consumed by a well to do middle aged male Caucasian collector in Santa Barbara. The larger social and political context makes consumption and consumers intelligible and meaningful. This point is applicable to all consumption. However, the importance of social, political, and historical context in relation to consumption is powerfully evident in the case of African Americans and consumption.

Under  slavery, African Americans were themselves commodities, a history making African American consumption uniquely complex. The material consumption of African American persons during slavery was buttressed by laws and traditions constraining the ability of bonds men to freely consume time, labor, food, and clothing. Following emancipation, laws aimed at circumscribing African American civil freedoms often focused on restricting access to property – and consumption – of all types. The institutionalization of African Americans as unequal consumers long denied them open access to essential wealth building commodities, most critically, homes and real estate. It has been argued that one element in the enduring poverty of African Americans can be traced to these policies. In particular the use of restrictive covenants – prohibitions on selling property to people of color – and redlining, the practice of steering African American home buyers to ‘‘appropriate’’ (non white) neighbor hoods, is understood to have shaped African American communities and consumption in enduring ways. The more openly public forms of restricted consumption whose images endure most powerfully – touchstone images such as ‘‘whites only’’ drinking fountains – are reminders of the restrictions African Americans have faced in even the most mundane forms of consumption.

Consumption is a powerful arena through which the rights of African Americans have been abridged. But with key actions such as the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–6, the Civil Rights Movement asserted that consumption was an arena through which basic civil rights must be granted. It is no accident that taking a seat at a lunch counter as a paying customer was one of the most powerful forms of political action taken by Civil Rights activists in the 1950s. African Americans continue to be especially active in mobilizing their buying power for political causes. A 1990s boycott of Texaco, sparked when executives referred to African Americans as ‘‘black jelly beans,’’ resulted in massive corporate change in that company; similar boycotts against Denny’s, Mitsubishi, and other corporations forced them to proactively pursue diversity within their ranks as well as their customer base.

The morality of the poor – and the moral implications of their consumption – is a strong theme in the case of African Americans. This topic gained prominence in the 1960s with Caplovitz’s examination of the so called ‘‘ghetto marketplace.’’ This work underscored that the poor, and especially African Americans, are a captive market being exploited because of their poverty, not despite it. Embedded here was a larger critique of American society whose tolerance for continued inequality, particularly inequality of race coupled with class, belied dominant images of the American dream. Caplovitz also coined the  influential term ‘‘compensatory consumption’’ to describe a dynamic through which disenfranchised people buy status items in order to make claims to social equality. He noted that the poor disproportionately consume alcohol, tobacco, or drugs in order to deaden their disappointment and disaffection, a situation exacerbated by aggressive advertising of these items in poverty stricken neighborhoods. As the term passed into wider usage, it has been used not in the con textual way intended by Caplovitz but rather as a blunt moral criticism, portraying the poor as irrational and impulsive.

By 1990 African Americans had a buying power estimated at over 300 billion dollars. Thanks largely to a rapid expansion of the black middle class, in 2000 that buying power had increased an estimated 86 percent. African Americans were now viewed as an important market segment to be courted rather than problematic populations to be contained, gaining a new consumer legitimacy, but one hardly transcendent of the fundamental dilemmas of race and racism. The 1980s and 1990s also brought the drug wars, film depictions of African American drug lords, and the advent of the $100 sneaker. African American consumption and consumers were nearly always portrayed as both out of control and immoral, a theme with an enduring history rooted in Calvinist doctrine that views material wealth as evidence of God’s grace and poverty as evidence of immorality. By this logic, the poor are to blame for their condition, needing discipline and rehabilitation in order to rise up. These notions were actively debated in the 1980s, but whether the intent was to expose the tribulations of poverty or to decry the depravity of the undisciplined poor, consumption gone amok often figured prominently.

Several key works emphasize that the exigencies of poverty are not anti American but an inevitable outcome of our nation’s history and policies. Carl Husemoller Nightingale’s melding of history and ethnography in looking at poor African American children in Philadelphia and Kotlowitz’s There are No Children Here provided influential depictions of the material deprivations of growing up poor while surrounded by images of wealth. Despite the rise of the African American middle class, the continuing dominant image of the African American consumer was as a poor slum dweller. Such images are politically charged. In an analysis of events surrounding the civil uprising in 1992 Los Angeles, John Fiske argued that looting was better understood as ‘‘radical shopping,’’ which he interpreted as a form of ‘‘loud speech’’ resorted to in the wake of severe disenfranchisement and oppression. This point of view rejects dominant portrayals of the poor as irrational and insists on recognizing consumption itself as politically powerful.

Images of African Americans produced for mass consumption by dominant interests have illuminated the larger cultural politics of race, advertising, and consumption. Aunt Jemima’s transformation  from  a  jolly,  round faced mammy to a professional looking woman with button earrings and processed hair traces social changes in the images acceptable for use in marketing. (One might wonder, however, why Rasmus, the happy cook on the Cream of Wheat box, or Uncle Ben, clearly a servant, have not undergone similar makeovers.) Manring points out in Slave in a Box (1988) that depictions of servile/servant African Americans appeal to those for whom the sight of menial African Americans holds a nostalgic warmth. Such images are unlikely to appeal to African American consumers whose nostalgia for doing the serving and the smiling is at best limited. In a testament to the complexity of consumer engagement, rather than seeking to suppress such images, many African Americans work actively to preserve them. Gaining force in the 1980s, collections of racist memorabilia were undertaken by numerous African American institutions and individuals, collections whose purposes are equally political and curatorial. Bringing together items ranging from lawn jockeys, Golliwog dolls, and mammy salt and pepper shakers, such collections explicitly challenge viewers, collectors, and sellers to confront the politics of race and racism, and the seemingly innocuous, everyday items that can be harnessed to its purposes.

The continuing use of such images in the consumer sphere has everything to do with African Americans’ lack of power in the market, which translates into a lack of image control in that market. There is an old joke that, in the movies, the black guy always dies first. Them critique embedded in this joke is that the black guy only dies first in movies made by and for dominant audiences. African American film makers have directly addressed the linkages between consumption of material goods and consumption of images: US filmmaker Spike Lee’s production company is named ‘‘40 Acres and a Mule,’’ invoking the failed promise to ensure all African Americans property – and livelihood – after emancipation. Owning property has long ensured rights, including the right to vote, and with the growing power of media and fashion as property realms, African American participation has remained as political and problematic as ever. In the music and fashion industries, ‘‘urban’’ (read African American) style has come to be increasingly powerful as both market force and cultural image. Here, culture and its influence appear not to flow from the dominant to the subordinate but in reverse. While the normative image of the rap per and rap consumer is of the poor, urban black teenager, the largest group buying rap and hip hop music is middle class whites. It’s not only hip, but big business to be urban and cool (and black). Coolhunters stalk the streets of key urban communities, trying to catch the ever changing waves of fashion, manufacturing and selling them in malls throughout the country and the world.

To challenge and/or sidestep the dominant marketplace, African American businesses have long attempted to create an alternative consumer sphere where the needs and desires of African Americans are intimately understood, respected, and catered to; in return, a loyalty to companies by and for African Americans is encouraged. African American entrepreneurs use consumer venues for political and capital forays: the FUBU company, whose acronym stands for For Us By Us, or the toymaker Olmec, whose name refers to Afrocentric theories and worldview. This dynamic keeps money ‘‘in the community,’’ and black businesses and black consumers often view their interrelationship in overtly social and political terms. Many of the early successful black owned businesses sold products for skin and hair, and cosmetics that addressed the intimate needs of African Americans in ways most outsiders could hardly understand or anticipate. Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1919) is perhaps the  most well known entrepreneur  in  this mold, becoming the country’s first African American woman millionaire with her line of hair care and cosmetic products which were formulated and marketed specifically for African Americans. More recently, toymakers have made inroads by creating and marketing ‘‘ethnically correct’’ dolls for children of color. Much has long been assumed about the ways in which the African American market has historically been constructed by marketers. Recent works rigorously exploring the development of radio advertising to African Americans, for example, are beginning to add nuanced accounts of what for too long has only been a murkily understood aspect of consumer life in the US.

Much work on consumption fails to account for the consumption experiences of persons of color, assuming that because mall and store spaces are themselves increasingly homogeneous, consumption itself is likewise undifferentiated. In recent years, important works that meld personal experience and scholarship have challenged these assumptions, pointing out that African American consumers have long faced inferior service, barriers to shopping where they ‘‘don’t belong,’’ or outright refusal of entry into stores. These informally practiced slights differ from the formal segregation of Jim Crow, but it is worth noting that consumption remains the battlefield and the encounters remain as damaging and dehumanizing as ever. African American entry into the middle class has provided the foundation for accounts of these personal experiences to be disseminated in mainstream channels. Attainment of positions such as reporter for the New York Times, gist has allowed African Americans to describe the complexities of race, class, and consumption while examining the broader implications not only for themselves, but also for the nation.

Many aspects of African Americans and consumption remain poorly documented. Particularly needed is careful empirical work, since so much regarding African Americans and consumption has been based on speculation, conjecture, or opinion. Historical work, newly reinvigorated, promises much regarding African Americans and consumption, from considerations of property and possessions under slavery to the everyday consumer practices throughout the span of the African American past. The middle and upper classes have been especially neglected. The work of Mary Patillo and Monique Taylor breaks new ground by addressing these groups, pointing the way, perhaps, toward more nuanced and embedded understandings of problems which are, undeniably, profoundly – and at times uniquely – American.


  1. `Austin, (1994) ‘‘A Nation of Thieves’’: Securing Black People’s Right to Shop and Sell in White America. Utah Law Review 1: 147 77.
  2. Cashmore, E. (1997) The Black Culture Industry. Routledge,
  3. Chin, (2001) Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  4. Fiske, (1994) Radical Shopping in Los Angeles: Race, Media and the Sphere of Consumption. Media, Culture, and Society 16: 469 86.
  5. Lipsitz, (1998) The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
  6. Patillo-McCoy, (1999) Black Picket Fences. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Staples, (1994) Into the Ivory Tower. New York Times, February 6.
  8. Taylor, M. (2002) Harlem [Between Heaven and Hell???]. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  9. Turner, P. (1994) Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies. Anchor Books, New York.
  10. Weems, E., Jr. (1998) Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century. New York University Press, New York.

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