Review: Living Black in America

On the debut episode of his new series “Trigger Warning,” Killer Mike challenges himself to live only on products from black-owned businesses for three days. Michael Render, better known by his stage name Killer Mike (a reference to his lyrical skills, rather than any history of violence) is an Atlanta-based rapper, activist, and media figure.

Mike made a name for himself in the early 2000s doing guest verses for the acclaimed hip hop duo OutKast, as they hit the height of their career. He released a string of solo albums in the subsequent years, yet always fell short of mainstream success, until he teamed up with New York rapper El-P to form the duo Run the Jewels in 2013. Run the Jewels proved a success, selling albums and gaining widespread critical acclaim. Their three albums offer a fun mix of foul-mouthed word play, absurd brags, gritty depictions of reality, and occasional bits of social commentary.

Killer Mike’s success with Run the Jewels led to appearances on late night talk shows, and a prominent role supporting Bernie Sander’s attempt at the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. This growing profile is what led to his new Netflix series “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike,” in January. In “Trigger Warning,” Mike goes on first-hand explorations of big issues. The first episode titled “Living Black” deals with the shortage of black-owned businesses in America.

Before discussing the episode, the series title should be commented on. Trigger warnings are content warnings sometimes used in academic and similar settings by people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. For such people, an unexpected reminder of a past traumatic event (such as being physically abused, or having witnessed violence or war) can compromise their ability to function. Thus an advanced warning allows these people to ready themselves for the subject matter being presented.

Unfortunately, the practice has been used unfairly by people on the right to straw-man college-aged people as weak and unwilling to engage with a world outside of their bubble. With this straw-manning, comes the use of “triggered” as an insult for people who act out when  annoyed or irritated. Unfortunately, this trivializes the reality of post-traumatic stress disorder, and while Killer Mike likely meant no harm with this title, it plays into discourse that has this problem.

The first episode of “Trigger Warning” begins in Mike’s home city of Atlanta and follows his journey to Athens, Georgia for a concert. In order to live entirely within the “black economy” Mike must abandon travel by car, in favor of a bicycle he acquired at a black-owned store which recycles bikes. At various points in the episode he is forced to sleep outdoors and forego food. At one point, Mike is happy to find a quality black-owned restaurant, only to glumly lower his fork when his friend El-P raises the question of the ownership of the supplying farms. Mike is similarly frustrated by the lack of an all-black supply-chain for marijuana, making this experience one of the longest sober periods of his adult life.

Mike gets some help along the way. He visits a grocery store affiliated with the Nation of Islam, a black owned strip club, and a community farm that doubles as a school. He also visits the office of webuyblack.com, a website that sells assortment of products from black owned companies, from laundry detergent to toothpaste. He also discovers a black owned cellular phone company Figgers Communication, named for its founder Freddie Figgers. Mike then discusses “Green Books” which were printed segregation-era guide, that listed which businesses black travelers could make use of.

Killer Mike’s overall point is a legitimate one. During the hundred years following slavery, black Americans were excluded from the best neighborhoods, the best schools, and the best business opportunities. They were also excluded from the credit market on all but the least favorable of terms. This was done through both state action and exclusion in the private sector, although the former often reinforced the latter. Furthermore, black Americans who did attain visible wealth were targets of harassment, violence, and theft. Local law enforcement often willingly turned a blind eye to such attacks when not actively participating.

The notorious example of the 1921 Tulsa riot comes to mind. During this attack, white rioters destroyed what was, at the time, most successful black business district in the United States, destroying thirty-five blocks of mostly black-owned businesses and killing an unknown number of people, likely in the hundreds.

The Jim Crow era ended only fifty-five years ago — less than a lifetime — and only a few generations have passed since. White Americans have used the opportunities that came with better jobs, educations, neighborhoods, and access to credit, to start their own businesses and find success at rates people denied these advantages have not been able to. Generational advantages exist among the white population disproportionately more than among the black population, and Killer Mike’s first episode is a testament to this reality.

The advantages accumulated by white business owners intensified when segregation ended. Under segregation, black customers and business-owners were compelled to create a parallel ‘black economy.’ Unable to patronize many white-owned shops or move up within white business hierarchies, members of black American communities had to buy largely from each other. This created opportunities for black businesses to serve a consumer base with limited options. As society integrated, black and white owned business engaged in far more direct competition.

Mike observes that during the course of his lifetime, the percentage of businesses owned by black people in historically black neighborhoods has fallen as the economy has become become more integrated. While the end of segregation brought renewed rights and freedoms for black Americans, Killer Mike notes that the decline of the ‘black economy’ has been a loss for his community.

In some ways, this parallels the loss of locally-owned businesses in predominantly white parts of the country, thanks to  the growth of large firms owned and managed by people far away, taking the money they make from their customer base far from the local economy. While some of this is an inevitable reflection of customer preference and the forces of voluntary exchange within the market, government policies do contribute to this domination of economies by large, mostly white firms.

As pointed out elsewhere on this site, the taxpayer funded US highway system (which was also build on land seized through eminent domain) minimizes major diseconomies of scale, such as the cost of long distances shipping, giving firms operating over a long distance advantages they otherwise would not have. Huge companies like Walmart and Amazon receive billions of from state and local governments in the form of free or reduced-price land, infrastructure assistance, and various forms of tax breaks and credits that are denied to smaller competitors. Furthermore, the growth of regulations, licensing systems, and zoning requirements continues to make entering markets prohibitively expensive for small businesses.

The hollowing out of local economies in favor of the domination of retail by large, distantly-owned firms has been aided by government, in both predominantly white and predominantly black parts of the country. While consumers often do benefit from the lower prices these firms offer, these prices are often made possible through government distortions of the market. In a freer system, the benefits of scale and the benefits of locality would be more in balance, whereas the current system often artificially advantages the former.

There is also another lesson that is not explicitly stated in the episode, but still worth  commenting on. Specifically, we as individuals gain enormously from exchanging goods and services with people who are different from ourselves. This is apparent in the early parts of the episode, where Mike is shown having a nice home, cars, clothes and electronics, made and sold by people of racial backgrounds other than his own. While the racial disparity between business owners can be attributed to centuries of injustice, even in a hypothetical ideal world without this legacy of injustice, the benefits from trading with people unlike one’s self would still exist. If anything, supply chains in a truly just version of the economy would be even more diverse and integrated than the status quo.

To limit one’s purchases to products from people who look like ourselves would impoverish us. In a free and just society, goods and services would move from all over the world, and supply lines would cross all sorts of ethnic divides. Many people like the idea of living in a gated community, but no one wants to only do business with members of the same gated community.

Likewise the protectionism of someone like President Donald Trump, with his tariffs and pursuit of trade-wars, ignores the improved quality of life Americans achieve by buying products from abroad (not to mention the benefits that come to those in other countries from selling products to the United states). This is something Trump must know on some level, as the Trump Organization continues to do business with foreign nations, despite its owner pursuing protectionism in his role as president of the United States. Unfortunately, Killer Mike’s preferred candidate Bernie Sanders shares these protectionist impulses with Trump, viewing such things as free migration and free trade as “Koch brothers proposals.”

In a freer and more just economy, we would be able to maximize the benefits from global trade without the government actively undermining local economies in favor of big corporations. A free society would balance the benefits of both global and local economies. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, some people have been denied basic freedoms for centuries. Killer’s Mike’s “Living Black” is an entertaining and thought provoking exploration into the real world impacts of historical injustice.

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