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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Understanding the Limits of Black Capitalism

Even if promoting Black capitalism could close the racial wealth gap, is our vision of a just society in the US simply one where the top one percent is roughly 13 percent Black, 18 percent Latinx, six percent Asian, and 1.5 percent Native American—ie, one where the elite looks more like the mass of workers it exploits? Is massive wealth inequality justified so long as it is not racialized? Are poverty wages less miserable because your boss is Black? Is substandard housing less dangerous because your landlord is Black? Are monopoly prices any more affordable because the company is Black owned?


Black communities have long pursued an alternative approach to racial equality founded on collective ownership and democratic management of businesses and housing. As economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard details in her book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Thought and Practice, Black cooperatives are rooted in the mutual aid efforts of the formerly enslaved during Reconstruction. While Booker T. Washington was preaching Black capitalism, WEB DuBois published a book in 1907 titled Economic Cooperation Among Negro Americans, advocating for more Black cooperatives. Several prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, were members of the Young Negro Cooperative League in the 1930s. Now grouped under the banner of the “solidarity economy,” these initiatives promised a more egalitarian society by directly challenging capital’s concentrated ownership.

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Academic schol…

We shouldn't demonize entrepreneurs who start small businesses or cooperatives. Having more of both is healthy. Having neither in a community is the real risk.

Pros of cooperatives: May attract better employees. May care more about the community. Easier path for low-skill employees to train into medium-skill roles.

Cons of cooperatives: Less "ride-or-die" mentality to keep the business from going under. Harder to retain high-skill employees. There can be a "tyranny of structurelessness," domination by a cabal at the top without any actual "Buck stops here" mentality, that siphons money off the top or has side-deals with favored vendors. Introducing "democracy" into the organization also introduces "oligarchy." Co-op employees often do not "accumulate capital," or invest capital to expand the business.

If more people started their own small businesses, the capital would not be so "concentrated." This is the path out of poverty taken by many immigrant families. Hierarchical boss-employee relationships are not bad, they provide a path for advancement, training, and increasing responsibility.

My credentials: Academic scholar studying business and community governance. Worked in many businesses and cooperatives.

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