I have been quoted with saying that there are only 3 types of people in the ghetto: ignorants, immigrants, and their children. While in many instances that may be true, the ghetto is also full of raw, potential talent and genius. Sean Combs, Michael Lee-Chin, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Justice Sotomayor, and Denzel Washington all came from the ghetto, and behind these names there are thousands of other “hood rich” urban hustlers that understand and practice business process and purchase psychology just as much as any other legitimate professional.
A new book challenges the stereotype of the lazy poor and their supposed silence in America’s market economy. In Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh suggests that if a transaction occurs in the ghetto and no one writes it down, it still counts as trade. His sprawling study of Chicago’s seedy South Side unearths a lively world of exchange in a supposed economic graveyard.
Profile of Ghetto Capitalists
When the term “ghetto capitalist”, “urban entrepreneur”, or “hustler” is used, people interpret those words to mean “pimp”, “drug dealer”, and “con artist”. In general, ghetto capitalists arent predators (even though it should be mentioned that the very nature of capitalism is predatory…but thats another post for another time) but creative individuals that arent afraid to leverage their environment for financial gain.
Ghetto Capitalists have three characteristics:
* they understand the customers they serve, and communicate to them in a way they can understand
* they understand the importance of a network (if they don’t have what you are looking for, they know someone who does)
* they possess marketable skills (sales, repair, acquisition of goods, dog breeding, hair braiding)
These same characteristics can be said of any mainstream professional. The only difference is the environment that they operate in. The ghetto capitalist can be an individual that was laid off, who doesnt conform with professional settings, or is barred from entry into other career fields (felons, for example). This doesnt make them any less capable of success than any other professional, and often serves as a starting point for advancement into higher echelons.
Ghetto Capitalism in Practice
Unlike many of my readers, I grew up in poverty. I can vividly remember eating meals of ketchup and bread while sitting on our kitchen floor. My single mother did her best to provide most of the essentials for me, my brother, and my sister, but at times her solitary paycheck wasnt enough. With the threat of starvation and eviction hanging over our heads, my siblings and I hit the streets, sold candy in our schools, and canvassed the neighborhood offering to take out peoples trash for a dollar a trip . On most days we made $40 doing so, and that money meant the difference between starvation and survival.
In black barbershops, men selling mixtapes, bootleg DVDs, shampoo, incense, and car care products pass through almost every hour. Out in the streets anything and everything can be purchased with the right “connect” (network of people). And there are no shortages of service providers, either. Local handymen repair plumbing in homes, auto hobbyists trick out “clunkers” with custom paint jobs, and freelance babysitters and beauticians braid hair and watch the neighborhood’s children. And all these goods and services are provided for pennies on the dollar compared to “legal” businesses.
The urban entrepreneur’s business climate can be an isolated one, and could inadvertently contribute to the imprisonment of its members in the underclass. Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor illustrates this point;
To them, the larger business climate is an amalgam of mysterious institutions and backroom dealing. Residents “believe their white counterparts have clandestine connections.” Says a neighborhood businessperson: “I’ve noticed business all over the city and it’s all about hand-shaking, promises, lots of things going on behind closed doors.” The larger world is just a bigger, whiter ghetto, where people are riding on their reputations and sharing wealth among friends. The discrimination may be real, but the idea that a wider economy connects billions of strangers seems utterly alien to the women and men trying to make it on the street
At the very least, Off the Books should call into question a world in which fixing cars for cash is a criminal enterprise, one where the will to work clashes so constantly with the limits of the law. If Venkatesh’s picture of the ghetto is accurate, the task is not to change the people within its borders, but to end the isolation of urban economies and allow its bustling informal economy to join the wider network of formal exchange. While that task is freighted with the historic legacy of discrimination, a city truly interested in encouraging ghetto capitalists would erase the lines between the licensed and unlicensed, the permit-carrying barbers and the outlaw beauticians.
However, the only way that these individuals can fully exploit the opportunities made available by becoming mainstream is with the refinement of the skills that made them successful on the streets, polishing their image to adapt to new professional environments, and the acquisition of higher levels of education. Accomplishing these facets is the highest goal of this site as well as the Black community of individuals that make this site possible.