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Black Friday is a key moment for fighting racism and abuses in business

The kickoff to the holiday shopping season also has long been a moment for activism

Shoppers wear face masks as they look for Black Friday deals at the Ellenton Premium Outlet stores Nov. 27, 2020, in Ellenton, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season. The day after Thanksgiving, crowds of eager shoppers wake up before dawn and stand in lines wrapped around stores in pursuit of deeply discounted electronics, toys and clothes. This year the frenzy may be even more intense because of shortages caused by supply chain issues and shoppers eager to resume the tradition after missing a year due to covid-19.

The day is a celebration of material abundance and a collective ritual for generations of Americans during which they will spend more than $50 billion. It also launches a critical month that accounts for approximately 20 percent of retailers’ annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation. Retailers who don’t flourish during this period are often forced to downsize or close. Black Friday, in short, is the epitome of American capitalism.

It is no wonder then that the day, and the month that follows, has proved to be an ideal time for civil rights and labor groups to exercise their purchasing power to protest white supremacy and injustice. Americans have long seen spending as a civic duty — by satisfying or withholding their own material needs and desires, they can boost national and group interests. Consumption, therefore, is more than a frivolous act; it is political.

And activists recognize that. Because the holiday shopping season is so essential to businesses’ bottom line, it makes business owners and politicians vulnerable and willing to listen and eliminate racist practices or offer better terms to employees, even if only temporarily.

The origins of Black Friday are somewhat murky, but efforts to establish a set beginning to the holiday shopping season stretch back almost a century. In some cities in the 1920s, Thanksgiving Day parades such as the one hosted by Macy’s in New York City, launched the holiday season. Often sponsored by department stores, these parades advertised store merchandise and encouraged Americans to visit stores the following day.

In the 1930s, retailers suffering from the effects of the Great Depression lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving a week earlier to the fourth Thursday of November to allow consumers more time to shop, stimulate the economy and fatten retailers’ wallets. In 1941, after almost a decade of campaigning, Roosevelt and Congress granted their wish, helping to establish in the American psyche the tie between holiday shopping and Thanksgiving weekend.

Surprisingly, then, most theories about the day after Thanksgiving acquiring the moniker “Black Friday” are negative in origin. One possibility is that the nickname came from retailers lamenting the rampant absenteeism of workers on this day. But the most plausible theory is that the Philadelphia Police Department branded the day “Black Friday” in the 1950s as a way of describing the dreadful traffic conditions and terribly overcrowded retail stores it generated.

Retailers, who profited enormously from the day’s shopping spree, disliked this negative connotation. So, in 1961, they launched a public relations and media campaign to change “Black Friday” to “Big Friday” and connect it with the beauty of Christmas-decorated stores and downtown spaces and a day of family bonding and fun — in the style of the 1934 film, “A Miracle on 34th Street.” The attempted name change flopped, but retailers and their publicists eventually succeeded in rebranding Black Friday as an enjoyable day of deals and shopping.

Given the importance of Black Friday to the American postwar economy, it also became a crucial opportunity to address racial and economic inequality. This was particularly the case for civil rights activists.

Black consumers gained newfound leverage over businesses as their purchasing power expanded from $7 billion in 1941 to $20 billion in 1960. Rising socioeconomic status enabled them to use holiday season boycotts and pickets to protest segregation and discrimination in the marketplace. Not only did this deprive stores of business, but it also repelled many White customers who did not want to encounter protesters.

During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., called on protesters to withhold their patronage at downtown stores and to save their Christmas-shopping money or donate to charity or to the Montgomery Improvement Association. The Christmas campaign drew attention to the movement, even as the bus company refused to acquiesce.

Other holiday shopping boycotts had even greater success because they forced retailers to recognize the economic damage that could result. In the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the NAACP and Black Power groups organized campaigns that achieved the desegregation of lunch counters and restaurants, workplaces and restrooms. The boycotts also captured the attention of politicians who heeded activists’ demands such as opening public housing to African Americans in several cities.

This holiday season activism has continued to the present, and in recent decades labor groups have become more active participants in this tradition. Since 2011, for example, the union-sponsored campaign, OUR Walmart, has organized Black Friday strikes to end what it claims are Walmart’s abusive labor practices.

These one-day-a-year strikes are a departure from traditional labor protests that relied on mass strikes to halt production. This new strategy, as labor activist Jess Guh of Counterprotest notes, reduces the “economic burden that individual workers face,” increases the odds of consumer support, “creates a continual presence among employees” and “inspires others to join the movement.” At Walmart, this approach has secured a raise in base pay, paid leave, changes to the company’s pregnancy accommodations and paid days off.

The targets of Black Friday protests do not even have to be stores themselves. In 2015, for example, a Black Friday protest took place on Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” — the luxurious section of the city where Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany reside. Activists shouted, “Find a door, shut it down!” to express their anger and frustration about the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by police officer Jason Van Dyke and other incidents of racial bias and violence in policing.

By protesting retailers, activists — much like those who partook in the 1955 Christmas boycott in Montgomery — aim to raise awareness and support, pressure businesses to reassess their relationship to parties and programs that promote racial injustice and violence and push for policy reform.

Last year an economic boycott in New York City that began on Black Friday added another twist — one that drew on a major tactic of the Depression-era “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign, which exhorted African Americans not to give their hard-earned wages to White merchants who refused to hire Black sales and office workers — by coupling the boycott with encouragement to “Buy Black! Be self-sufficient, support Black businesses and Black street vendors.”

The Chicago and New York protests targeted urban retailers, because both cities have thriving commercial districts where sidewalks remain a critical public space for demonstrating. It’s also much harder legally to protest suburban stores, shopping centers and malls. While these spaces have formed the nexus of American consumption for more than 60 years, the Supreme Court has found that they are private property — enabling owners to prohibit protest.

Black Friday remains the ultimate embodiment and celebration of American capitalism. But underneath all the red and green decor, twinkling lights and must-have holiday gifts lies the potential for leveraging consumer and worker power to undo some of the greatest harms this economic system has caused African Americans and working-class people.