Dear Culture

Hustlin' Pandemic: Black Entrepreneurship in the Age of Coronavirus ft. Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD

Episode Summary

"I'm a hustla' baaaby... I just want you to know." -Jay-Z and Pharrell Black folk have been finding ways to survive and thrive in the labor market for centuries. But as Coronavirus threatens our economy and way of life, how will Black Americans be impacted? Natasha S. Alford (@NatashaSAlford) and Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD (@TressieMcPhD), associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, talk through Cottom's recent TIME piece "Why Do Black Workers Still Have to Hustle to Get Ahead?" in light of the coronavirus epidemic. And theGrio's Shana Pinnock tackles President Donald Trump's obsession with battling White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor- and Black women in general.

Episode Notes

Much like the 2008’s housing market crash, the economic fallout from the Coronavirus pandemic will be colossal and the full weight of the economy's sudden paralyzation will fall much heavier on black Americans.  Flooded with riskiest mortgages with the thinnest safety net, black households saw their wealth gutted once the housing bubble exploded more than decade ago. Now blacks are overrepresented in today’s economy dominated by gig, service, and hourly work that Coronavirus assaulted. 

Author and academic Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD says these are the workers who have to hustle to get by. She writes: 

“The hustle is an idea, a discourse and a survival strategy often glorified as economic opportunity…. its popularity lies in how hustling can feel like an equal-opportunity strategy. You see it espoused by the mostly black and Latino “squeegee kids” who jump into action to clean your car window. It is also the rallying cry for many of the black people who have earned a college degree but earn less than white workers doing similar jobs.”

If anything, the two major economic recession is evidence that the hustle spirit is not an economic empowerment strategy. 

Episode Transcription


Tressie [00:00:00] We understood that as being just as important as the right to vote, right, the right to read, we understood that you're not really an American unless you can buy stuff. 

Natasha [00:00:09] As the Coronavirus pandemic pushes a boom and bust economy to the brink, 

Natasha [00:00:16] what happens to the hustlers of the workforce? This is Dear Culture, a podcast from TheGrio. I'm Natasha S. Alford asking: Dear culture: How will the most vulnerable workers survive the Coronavirus recession? 

Tressie [00:00:31] Politicians love to say, 'Well, we want to bail out working Americans.' Well, what kind of work? 

Tressie [00:00:37] You mean working Americans that get a W-2. If you are doing hair in a salon; if you're doing nails, you're not getting a W-2. 

Natasha [00:00:53] All right, so like many of you, I'm adjusting to this new normal of life after the Coronavirus. But one of my first thoughts is what will happen to the Black entrepreneurs and Black workers on the other end of this pandemic? Think of the bars, salons and barber-shops with their quote-unquote, non-essential business. And what that means right now is that Black labor is in survival mode. So we kick off Dear Culture with Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottam. Cottam says that while the fragility of Black labor has centuries old roots, the global recession of 2007, 2008 was a pivotal downturn and an experience she remembers personally. 

Tressie [00:01:37] I was working in like a professional school. 

Tressie [00:01:43] I remember going to sleep one night and seemed to wake up the next morning and all of the news had said, you know, that the economy had ground to a halt. 

Tressie [00:01:53] They were pulling the plug on the stock market, they were pressing pause. Not unlike the Coronavirus news conferences, you know, and that my mom had probably been a bad on one of these subprime refinances that we now know was a major contributing factor to the loss of Black homes during the recession. And in part, almost all of my research starts with that moment. It starts with the recession about why so many of us, despite having gone to school, buying a home, working hard, getting a good job. Why so many Black people were still so vulnerable despite having done all the right things. 

Natasha [00:02:32] You wrote this article for TIME, and it's just so appropriate for the moment. It says, 'nearly six decades after the Civil Rights Act. Why do Black workers still have to hustle to get ahead?' And now, more than ever, Black workers are going to be hustling overtime because they've literally like shut down our lifeline when it comes to making money. Can you just react to the moment we're in right now. 

Tressie [00:02:55] How was it that we had, you know, had this massive, you know, arguably one of the most successful social movements in modern history? And yet Black workers are still the last to be hired, most likely to be fired. But even worse, as jobs change, as the labor market change, we were also more likely to be in jobs that aren't even considered real jobs. Right. So now it's not only can we get a good job. Can we get access to a job by which I mean a direct employment arrangement, the kind that gives you a regular paycheck, the kind that gives you health insurance. And then we're made even more vulnerable when things like an economic stimulus, that might come out of the government response to the Coronavirus, isn't crafted for the kinds of work that we do. Politicians love to say, 'well, we want to bail out working Americans.' Well, what kind of work? 

Tressie [00:03:53] You mean working Americans that get a W-2? iIf you are doing hair in a salon;  if you're doing nails; if you were doing home health care work, you're not getting a W-2. Are they gonna count as working people, when the stimulus money comes down? 

Natasha [00:04:11] Tressie, as you're describing all of those different jobs, you know, I'm thinking about the fact that we have this moment where we were celebrating Black entrepreneurship. Right. We were celebrating that hustle, celebrating people, starting their own businesses. And there was all this joy. But like you said, there's also this harsh reality of not being counted and not getting the support that you need. 

Tressie [00:04:34] So my dad to the day, dad, bless his soul, ran his own business. And the business, it changed 20 times over 20 years. 

Tressie [00:04:43] He went from like selling beepers to seven cell phones to selling video camera equipment. But he always understood that having his own was super important. Starting a business has always been a difficult prospect for Black folks at best, but we have a long history of entrepreneurship in the Black community. Initially, at a necessity, you had to provide things for customers that white providers didn't want to serve, right. So just out of pure necessity, historically, Black folks have always built our own local economies. As opportunities opened up for Black entrepreneurship, that certainly started to change. We started doing types of business that wasn't necessarily particularly focused on serving Black folks and Black communities and all well and good. And we hustle and we do that work, but we've always done it with less investment. Even when we're very successful with our entrepreneurship, as we're sort of experiencing right now, when times get tough, we're also really super vulnerable. When you don't have the cash reserves, for example, to sit out, what? Six to eight weeks at best? You know, our best case scenarios right now for when we might be able to open business back up at some sort of full scale, like who has that kind of resource? Of cash reserves? Who has the business credit to sort of float them? Who has the access to moving all of their business online right now? Those types of inequalities become really stark. They're always there, but they become really stark there in times of crisis, like the one we're in right now. 

Natasha [00:06:21] Absolutely. And just to dig in to some of that inequality even more, you know, we're living in a country where we talk about this huge wealth gap. Right. And that's between the haves and the have nots. But then, you know, you've pointed out that wealth actually reproduces racial inequality. 

[00:06:40] So we were already worried about Black families. 

Natasha [00:06:44] We keep hearing this statistic repeated that we'll have zero wealth. 

Natasha [00:06:50] The average family will have zero wealth by 2053. Well, how does this Coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown of businesses, how does that change the wealth conversation? 

Tressie [00:07:02] It doesn't change it for the good. And to be honest with you, I mean, we Black Americans are still reeling from the recession, in every meaningful way. 

Tressie [00:07:11] Politically, we've got to get very vocal, though, about how money is going to be directed to support those in the quote unquote, economy. That we have to figure out a way to get money, not just the people who own stocks and not just to workers, although that's important. We gotta figure out how to get to these independent contractors. You know, all those people who are working on the side, hustling on the side. That's all really legitimate economic activity. And we've got to figure out how to also stimulate that part of the economy, because that's where a lot of Black folks are. 

Natasha [00:07:44] So we were already worried about Black families. 

Natasha [00:07:48] We keep hearing this statistic repeated, that we'll have zero wealth. 

Natasha [00:07:54] The average family will have zero wealth by 253. Well, now, how does this Coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown of businesses, How does that change the wealth conversation? 

Tressie [00:08:04] You know, there was never a point zero for Black wealth building. There's always been an active campaign to extract the wealth from Black communities and Black families. Whether that looks like redlining, to hold down the value of your house, whether it looks like predatory loans, to make the house that you were able to buy worth less to you because you pay too much in interest for it on unfavorable terms, whether that looks like making it nearly impossible to inherit the family house. You know, how many horror stories have we heard about the children trying to inherit the house and a grandparent worked so hard to buy, only to find some bureaucratic mess that makes it difficult for them to do so. So it isn't that Black people don't know about wealth and don't know how to do wealth building, but it is a very challenging, aggressively hostile environment to Black wealth. So the wealth inequality gap has a direct effect on who's able to start their own business and then what happens to them when they do start it. All right. It's about who you can borrow money from to get started. You can borrow money from in times of trouble. If you don't have family wealth and your family's part of a community that is unlikely to have other families with wealth, then it means your community doesn't have a whole lot of collective wealth. That really disadvantages Black entrepreneurs under the best of circumstances but especially now when something like wealth can be a huge buffer amongst challenging times. 

Natasha [00:09:35] It's interesting you talk about these, you know, official on ramps to equality that we again, we legally have access to. You can go to college. You can get these jobs. But the results, the security, the benefit is just not the same when you're Black. 

Tressie [00:09:51] That is correct. You know, by all accounts, a society doesn't just turn the clock back after something this major happens. I think there will be a new normal. 

Tressie [00:10:03] You know, one of the things that I think about is what about the new normal is going to be different from or similar to the old normal. Right. Like what-- what can people, especially my folk, Black people, expect the new normal to look like for us. 

Tressie [00:10:19] We're all still figuring that out. I mean, I never question my people's ability to survive and thrive. OK, look, we've we've been through the worst and we're still here. 

Tressie [00:10:29] But, yeah, there are a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainties about what the new normal is going to look like and how it's gonna look differently for different kinds of people. You know, sociologists aren't really known for being upbeat and positive. I will say this, the thing about challenge and crisis is that it also presents opportunities. And if anybody is positioned to take risk usually,  not great rewards, but I do think that Black folks know how to wave risks really, really well. We learn how to do that as part of our survival skill and our survival mechanism and I suspect we'll find a way. 

Natasha [00:11:06] We thank you so much, sociology professor Tracy McMillan Cotton is the host of 'Here to Slate' podcast. Her most recent book is entitled, 'Thick and Other Essays.' Make sure that you get that, especially while your quarantine. Gotta have something to read. Tressie, thank you so much for joining us. 

Tressie [00:11:22] Thank you for having me, Natasha, it's been a joy. You stay Safe.

Yamiche [00:11:42] Mr. President, you said several times that the United States has ramped up testing, but the United States is still not testing per capita, as many people as other countries like South Korea. Why is that? 

Yamiche [00:11:53] And when do you think that that number will be on par with other countries? 

[00:11:57] It's very much on par. Look, we have done more tests. What I didn't-- I didn't talk about per capita. We have done more tests by far than any country in the world by far. 

Natasha [00:12:08] That audio you just heard was Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS News Hour and President Donald Trump. Now we're going to pull over and park to talk about this with Shana Pinnock. She's the social media director at 

Natasha [00:12:26] Hey, Shana, what's up? How you doing?  Feeling like I need to go in. 

Natasha [00:12:30] What's the big takeaway from this clip? 

Shana [00:12:33] So we definitely have to give praise and salute to this woman for asking the hard questions, for refusing to back down or be intimidated and bullied by this mouth breathing, petulant child that unfortunately is in the White House. Like we see how he treats women. And granted, you know, we see how he treats anyone that he believes is challenging him. But and perhaps it's because I'm a Black woman, I'm just noticing the vitriol in complete disrespect that he particularly gives to Black women. He did it with Maxine Waters. He did it with Frederica Wilson. He did it with Abby Phillip. He did it to April Ryan. And he's been doing it, you know, to Yamiche. And now it's largely been ignored in this discussion in what I truly take umbrage with is that whole, well, why don't you people act? And then you noticed he stopped. 

President Trump [00:13:23] You said some stat--- Why don't you act in a little more positive?  It's always trying to get cha. Get cha, get cha. And you know what? That's why nobody trusts the media anymore. 

Shana [00:13:31] We call what he did and said a dog whistle. It's dog whistle rhetoric like shout-outs to Scandal for, you know, giving me some education on what that was a few years ago. But essentially, it's. 

Shana [00:13:44] It's gaslighting you. You what I mean.

Shana [00:13:46] It's the whole point of dog whistle rhetoric is to offer up this like coded language usually micro-aggressions that the intended recipient hears loud and clear. "You people" for me, it's baffling. And it's the irony is almost laughable at the fact that this man who lives in a house literally built by the blood, sweat, tears and hands of slaves. 

President Trump [00:14:13] And you should be saying congratulations on instead of asking a really snarky question, because I know exactly what you mean....

Shana [00:14:23] Has the nerve, the audacity, the gumption, the UNmitigated gall to come at Black women so disrespectfully and consistently. But he is the president of the United States. And in the last four years, not once, not once has this man found an opportunity to actually act like it. You know. 

Natasha [00:14:46] I'm Natasha S. Alford. This has been Dear Culture and thank you for tuning into our first episode. We've got a lot more to come. Look for us next week where we'll be talking about how the culture can make sense of the media in these crazy and unprecedented times. And the latest from the Supreme Court decision about the case of media mogul Byron Allen, who happens to be owner of The Weather Channel and The Grio. 

[00:15:13] Take care.