Courtland Milloy's column in today's District Weekly, printed in advance, incorrectly states the number of black businesses in the United States in 1987. According to the Census Bureau, there were about 424,000 black-owned firms, an increase of 50 percent from 1982. The column also should have said that aggregate sales fell 6 percent for black businesses without paid employees. (Published 12/6/90)

The latest economic report put it succinctly: Our incomes have failed to keep pace with inflation. Layoffs have cut into our wages. And many of our households can barely afford to purchase big-ticket items such as automobiles, to say nothing of the expensive gasoline that runs them.

All just in time for the holiday season.

Yet despite our best efforts to pinch pennies, it's going to take harder times than these for black people, the hardest hit among us, to forgo the purchase of some kind of toy for our children, or a greeting card or two for our friends, as well as that special gift for that special loved one.

So, as we prepare to fork over some of that hard-earned cash this Christmas season, let's give a little extra consideration to the wise words of men such as Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Booker T. Washington and lately the NAACP and support local black businesses.

There are nearly 340,000 black businesses in the United States -- of which about 18,800 are scattered throughout the Washington area.

They deliver a wide range of goods and services.

Many of them are manufacturing and high-tech companies in suburban business districts. Others, such as grocers, barbers, photographers, florists and tailors, are in our neighborhoods.

Together, they are the stalwarts of the black community, paying taxes that help keep this city afloat, and providing jobs.

Blacks own construction companies, landscaping firms and automobile dealerships. You name a service, and there is a good chance that there is a black business in your neighborhood that provides it.

Yet despite a 45 percent increase in the number of black-owned businesses during the 1980s, aggregate sales dropped by 8 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

The problem, as syndicated columnist Tony Brown has pointed out, is that blacks do not spend enough with black businesses.

"Our problem is not money; it's what we do with the money we have," said Brown, who has organized a national "Buy Freedom" campaign, which encourges support of black businesses.

Blacks, Brown claims, spend almost 95 percent of their income with non-blacks, and therefore export 1.7 million jobs annually from black neighborhoods and import unemployment, welfare dependency and a defeatist attitude.

"The black community deprives black businesses of their real potential, and through the uneducated use of its buying power exacerbates its own social and political problems," Brown said.

The troubled economy makes matters worse.

"The challenges to black business remain great," Earl Graves wrote in the June issue of the magazine he publishes, Black Enterprise. "At this juncture, we face one of our most critical hours. All around us we see signs of threats to the progression of African American business development."

Because of the nation's billion-dollar deficits and volatile financial markets, Graves notes, the mainstay of black businesses -- auto dealers -- accounted for more than 60 percent of the bankruptcies among firms on Black Enterprise's list of 100 top black businesses.

At the same time, he adds, Japanese auto manufacturers continue to overlook black dealers seeking franchises, while Japanese electronics manufacturers have failed to provide employment and management oppoportunites.

"In order to correct these inadequacies," Graves said, "we must be selective where we spend our money and do business with companies that do business with us."

Black America, with its $200 billion-plus purchasing power, has no qualms about making other people rich. Graves contends that because black people buy Japanese products in such great proportions, the Japanese have been able to meet their bottom line objectives despite hard times.

So why not help our own people -- for a change?

Patronize a black business while you're out shopping this holiday season. That's where you're going to find the best deal -- and not just for your money, but for the community in which you live.