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How Black Co-Ops Can Fight Institutional Racism

We talked with Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, an expert on cooperative economics, about the ways that blacks can join together through a capitalistic enterprise and create social change.
Image by Anelisa Rosario

My parents realized when I was young that the schools in our Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood were subpar compared to those in Manhattan. So they combined their resources with other families in my community to start a carpool service that transported me and other neighborhood kids to the higher-quality schools in Lower Manhattan.

After school and during the summer, we'd attend programs at our local church. Many of the black families who took advantage of the carpool were members of there. On Sundays, these families tithed and voiced how their contributions should be used to pay for the employment of local teenagers, so the kids could make a little money and hopefully stay out of trouble.


These cooperative efforts of sharing resources and money were done by families in my community to ensure the future of the the next generation, despite our neighborhood's failing schools and lack of after-school programs and youth employment. These sort of informal co-ops are nothing new to the black community. However, as a new generation faces systemic challenges like the police shootings of unarmed blacks, young activists are taking another look at economic efforts like co-ops as a possible way to fight institutional inequality.

An extension of Black Lives Matter, the Movement 4 Black Lives has gained popularity because it promotes "divestment from a system that criminalizes and incarcerates" black people. Popular musicians like Killer Mike and Solange Knowles have taken to social media to encourage blacks to consider the power of their dollar, as well as the importance of putting that dollar back into the black community. Thanks to efforts like these, black owned banks like Citizens Trust and OneUnited have reported an increase in their services since the tragic police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Overall, there is a great deal of conversation happening right now around what needs to be done to address the economic plight of blacks and how that struggle is connected to topical issues like police brutality.

To get a better understanding of how co-ops can address the systemic racism in America today, I called up Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard. She's the author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice and a professor of community justice and social economic development at John Jay College. Here's what she had to say about co-ops and the fight for racial justice in America.


Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard. Photo courtesy of Nembhard

VICE: Everyone kind of understands what co-ops are, but can you give me a hard definition?
Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard: Businesses that practice cooperative economics are owned by a collective of people. The important part is that the people are not owning it for the purpose of making a profit, but for the purpose of satisfying a need or addressing a problem. Another unique piece is the democratic governing structure. Everybody who owns it has one vote regardless of how much money they put into it. If you choose to put more money into that enterprise, that's your choice, and you can get a return. But your ability to make the decisions for the enterprise are equal to anyone else's. It's a way to democratize and make more grassroots ownership possible.

So it's really about satisfying a need more than making money?
Any enterprise in a capitalistic system still has to have enough money to keep the company alive. So it's not that you don't have to make profits, but in this case, it's actually called a surplus, because the point is not to just put money back into individuals' hands, but to make a stronger business and keep satisfying the needs of the community.

How do co-ops function in a capitalistic system?
We have examples all over the world, and sometimes how that looks is it's a small enterprise that allows smaller individuals to compete. Take a group like Land-of-Lakes, which is one of our largest agricultural corporations. It is actually a cooperative of dairy farmers that all own Land-of-Lakes together, equally. And Land-of-Lakes buys its milk and produces all the dairy products. So the co-op has the factories, does all the production, does all the marketing, handles the business side. That frees the farmers up to do their dairy farming knowing that they have a market. Individually, they wouldn't be able to afford a production plant or afford all the advertising. But owning it all together, the individual farmers can now afford to compete.


What role has cooperative economics played in black communities in the US?
African Americans have engaged in some form of collective economics throughout our entire history in America. Sometimes it was tilling kitchen gardens on Sundays when we weren't working as enslaved people and sharing the produce. Sometimes it was putting in dues to bury loved ones.

By the 1700s and 1800s, we had more formalized systems of collective economics that were more enterprise-driven like insurance companies and collective farming. Eventually, we had collective grocery stores, credit unions, and healthcare. Europeans eventually recognized the model around 1844, and it formally came to the US. Blacks then started forming official co-ops in the 1860s and 1870s. By the 1880s, labor unions were actually helping workers to start their own co-ops, and blacks were involved in that, too.

Did it play a role in the civil rights movement?
It was what I call a silent partner to the movement. This was done by blacks partly to survive outside of US capitalism, which was so exploitative. It was also a way to create independence and wealth, so we could be more politically active.

Can you tell me about the relationship between segregation and cooperative economics?
One of things we learn when we study cooperative economics is the stronger co-ops have members who have a strong sense of camaraderie. So how do you find people who already have that feeling and get them to do co-ops? For blacks, sometimes it was already being involved in church or an activity that made you want to do more for your community. Sometimes it was because they had nothing, and they pulled together just to survive. And sometimes they were already politically active, and then they realized being politically active made them economically vulnerable. W. E. B. Du Bois said that we need to self-segregate so that we can create that sense of solidarity and use an economic structure that recognizes that sense of solidarity to create economic prosperity for all of us. And from that position of strength, we can go back out to the rest of the world. Either integrate if we want to, or at least demand our rights and demand equal footing.

Do you think that is necessary?
I have mixed feelings about that. The need for us to strengthen ourselves and create a wall around ourselves is still important. However, in this day and age, I think you have to study your situation and figure out which strategy makes the most sense. There is such a thing as white allies. Many whites in the co-op world are progressive and work with other alternative economic solidarity projects outside of their race.

Many young black activists are focused on addressing police brutality. While it's an important issue, is it essential that we begin to examine areas like economic injustice?
I've been trying to figure out how how to talk to a generation that is out in the street focused on police brutality, which is a horrendous issue. For me, I think there are two things.

One, none of the liberation movements existed without an economic strategy. Two, I actually think that some of our issues with police brutality are connected to capitalism and economic exploitation and the fact that we have such a hierarchal exploitive system. If we can start thinking about ways that communities can become safer through grassroots economic organizing, by becoming more involved in cooperatives and other economic solidarity, it would stop pitting people against one another economically and get people used to working together and solving problems. Also, if we have a system where we are making money in other ways, we can start to do things like back the campaigns of our own political candidates. Our police systems are owned and run by the mayors and city councils, who keep privilege in the hands of a few. But if we can gain enough monetary power, we can collectively take over and control these systems.

What advice would you give a young person interested in engaging in buying black, boycotting, and cooperative economics?
There are a couple things. Just because it is black-owned doesn't mean it is a co-op. While we want more black people to be involved in the economy, some black businesses are just as capitalist and exploitative as white-owned businesses. When I'm talking about co-ops, I am talking about a group who owns a business and is run off the principles of one person, one vote. So the first thing is to start to learn about it. I've learned that many co-ops started with a study group. We're already coming together on the picket line, protesting. So why don't we come together and start studying economic alternatives.