What’s the Role of Race in the New Economy Movement?

For the movement to succeed, it must be led by the dispossessed–those for whom the mainstream economy has never worked.

Penn Loh

There has been a growing buzz about what kind of economy we need in order to address wealth inequality, environmental unsustainability, and lack of democracy. Clearly, many desire something new and dramatically different.

Perhaps this buzz around what many supporters call a “New Economy” will grow into a powerful social movement–one that we desperately need to transform the current economy. But whether it does so or not will depend critically on its color (or lack thereof).

Fortunately, we don’t have to look hard to find examples of communities of color both now and in the past that have advanced economic principles of fairness, sustainability, and democracy.

In the latter 19th century, Blacks, as part of the Knights of Labor as well as their own organizations, were part of developing cooperatives both rural and urban. Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association built a network of cooperative businesses (laundry, printing plant, groceries, restaurants, clothing factories, and shipping company) that in the early 1920s employed more than 1,000 people. By the 1930s, W. E. B. Du Bois envisioned building a network of cooperative businesses toadvance development of the Black community.

Black Civil rights icon Ella Baker spent her early organizing career in the 1930s with the Young Negros Cooperative League, supporting Black communities to develop cooperatives and self help groups. A group of Black women founded the Freedom Quilting Bee cooperative in 1966 in Alabama, selling quilts and then acquiring land for a sewing plant and for sharecropping families that had lost their land because of civil rights activism. At its height, the cooperative was the largest employer in Alberta, Alabama.

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