Keys to Black Empowerment

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, February 19, 2006

What is the economic state of black America? That is the question radio and television hosts Tavis Smiley and Tom Joyner will be addressing in Houston on Saturday. The two men, who have the ears of millions of African Americans, are hosting a symposium called "State of the Black Union 2006: Economic Empowerment -- Building and Leveraging Wealth in the African American Community."

With the recent deaths of two great civil rights leaders, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, some in the black community have been bemoaning the economic state of black America.

Smiley invited me to join the panel of black educators, commentators, authors, business owners and policymakers to find out why blacks did not generally benefit from the stock market boom in the 1990s or the recent housing market explosion.

Why is it that many African Americans have not experienced the same prosperity of many other consumers who took advantage of low mortgage rates to significantly increase their wealth?

When I look at some statistics, it's easy to see why some black leaders are concerned that too many blacks are bling-bling broke.

According to Target Market News, which specializes in tracking African American marketing, media and consumer behavior, blacks spend more per capita than whites on many food, clothing and entertainment products and services.

Many point to the company's survey to criticize black spending. For example, blacks spend about $22 billion of their income on apparel products and services and almost $29 billion on automobiles.

Black households had $679 billion in earned income in 2004, an increase of 3.5 percent over the $656 billion earned in 2003.

If you use the overall earned income figure, it doesn't appear as if blacks are spending wisely.

On a household basis, the annual median income of blacks in 2004 was just $30,134, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Asian households had the highest median income ($57,518). The median income for non-Hispanic white households was $48,977. For Hispanic households, it was $34,241.

But the fact is that a great deal of black spending is on necessities such as health care. The uninsured rate in 2004 was 11.3 percent for non-Hispanic whites but almost 20 percent for blacks. Meanwhile, African Americans, several studies have shown, are unfairly charged higher interest rates for big-ticket consumer items such as cars.

One of the keys to prosperity, though, is homeownership.

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