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Getting the power of black professionals in focus


THE NOTION that African-American professionals do some of the same things that whites do -- meet, greet, network, build businesses, make a difference -- is something rarely featured in the media. It is far more interesting to focus on deviance and pathology, on the person on drugs or on welfare, out of luck and in lots of trouble.

But African Americans will be meeting in legion this summer. In Chicago, the NAACP will award Maya Angelou its highest honor, the Springarn Medal. In St. Louis, the nation's largest service sorority, Delta Sigma Theta -- an organization of African-American women -- will meet to dissect issues of health, social policy and economic development. In Philadelphia, the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs will train dozens of women how to run a business and plot strategy for political campaigns.

The majority media are likely to ignore these conferences. There's no crime here, no saga of a fallen so-called hero, no stereotypical action on the part of African Americans.

But businesses trying to reach African-American customers with buying power had better be there, taking note of "the drum." This is the black communications network that starts with television and magazine ads and extends to a presence at this summer's dozen or so black conventions, targeted marketing in the black press, sponsorship of black professional associations, and other efforts signaling a desire for African-American customers.

Some companies say their mass marketing already does the job. Making Motown their message, they trumpet their tolerance to the borrowed tunes of the Temptations or the Supremes. But others -- especially those who combine mass marketing with aggressive outreach -- are clear that the African-American community needs and deserves to be courted. They are also aware that such courting may lead to profits.

Why reach out specifically to blacks? For one thing, the African-American market is distinct, with heavy purchases in areas that differ from purchases by whites. Also, Black Americans have an annual income of $300 billion.

African Americans are sensitive to a company's commitment to black employment, with more than 40 percent saying a company's track record might make a difference in their buying.

African Americans pay attention to the facts. If a company doesn't bother to buy an ad in Essence, Ebony or Black Enterprise, thousands of consumers look askance.

"The King of Networking," Cleveland-based George Fraser, is high on the African-American market and shares his enthusiasm in the newly released "Success Runs in Our Race: The Complete Guide to Effective Networking in the African American Community" (William Morrow). Mr. Fraser advises blacks and counsels whites about the intricacies of the African-American market, the network, and the drum, listing important conferences, key speakers -- hundreds of ways to make connections.

While Mr. Fraser ignores the class basis of the networking he praises, his work turns analysis of the African-American community on its ear. Instead of looking at poverty and unemployment, Mr. Fraser looks at African-American strengths. He says that with some $300 billion annual income, black Americans are the 14th-largest economy in the world. He suggests that this income can be leveraged to make more of a difference in the quality of African-American life.

Consider this summer's black conventions, which will pump millions of dollars into the economies of cities hard-pressed for cash. The 10,000 who attend the NAACP convention will spend more than $5 million in Chicago. The 10,000 women who converge on St. Louis for Delta Sigma Theta are likely to spend even more.

The media that ignore these conventions look through the glass of black life darkly. The manufacturers who ignore them imperil their profitability. African Americans are 12 percent of the population. With some food and retail companies posting 3 percent profits, they can't afford to ignore such a significant part of their market.

George Fraser suggests that they beat the drum with ads, sponsorships and outreach. Economics and demographics dictate the same thing. In the words of a street-corner philosopher, it's a money thing, you'd better understand.

Julianne Malveaux is an economist and syndicated columnist.

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