Black businesses call for Buy Black movement to evolve past ‘virtue signaling’ to lasting change

B'YOUtique owner Shalawn Randall at her store in the skyway of the Baker Center on Sept. 22 in downtown Minneapolis. (Renée Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS — Jessica Winnie had hoped her MN Black Box would become a viable subscription service for those who wanted to regularly sample products from Black-owned businesses.

After George Floyd was killed in the May of 2020 by Minneapolis police and fueled a global racial reckoning, her business boomed. But now three years later, sales have tapered off, forcing Winnie to shift her business strategy.


“We are not seeing strong sales as we did,” Winnie said.

Many Black retailers saw demand jump in the months following Floyd’s 2020 death as corporations rushed to re-examine their vendors’ diversity and consumers reflected on how to better support businesses people of color run. But now, Black entrepreneurs and equity advocates in the Twin Cities sense much of the fervor around the Buy Black movement has cooled, with shoppers, corporations and even Black-owned businesses themselves needing to do more to evolve “buying Black” from a passing fad to a long-term priority.

“We have to remain vigilant about diversity for growth sake, not diversity to check the box,” said Houston White, a Minneapolis Black entrepreneur who has recently released clothing and body care lines at Target. “My products are great, so it’s good for a business to invest in it because it’s a good product. Not because I’m Black.”

Losing momentum

In June of 2020, the month following Floyd’s death, the search term “Black businesses” reached the peak of its popularity in the United States on Google, scoring its highest search rating since Google Trends began tracking in 2004.

In 2020, Groupon saw searches for “Black-owned” increase nearly 400% for the full year versus 2019. According to a 2021 survey by Groupon and the National Black Chamber of Commerce, nearly 80% of Black business owners said their businesses were better off than they were the year before and nearly 60% said their business was as good or better than it was prior to the pandemic.

During that time, retailers made pledges to diversify their shelves with more Black-founded products. Minneapolis-based Target committed to add products across its stores from more than 500 Black-owned businesses by the end of 2025. Others like Macy’s, Sephora and the Gap accepted the Fifteen Percent Pledge for Black businesses to make up 15% of retailers’ shelves.

But the search spike was short lived. After reaching a tipping point from May 31 to June 6, 2020, the Google search popularity for “Black businesses” plummeted back to its relatively low footprint.

Retailers, at least, are continuing their progress. As of May of 2022, Target offered more than 100 Black-owned items in its store, double the amount it had in 2020 with a 65% increase in Black-owned beauty products and more than 200 books from Black authors added in a year span. According to Sephora’s 2023 diversity report, the beauty retailer currently carries 28 Black-owned brands, up from 8 in 2020.

Last fall, White launched his exclusive clothing collection at Target stores nationwide, and within the past few months, he has debuted his Fresh line of face scrubs, hair ointments, shampoos and body wash. In September, White also released a book centered on his entrepreneurship journey.

“It’s been a journey because when you are trying to maintain your authentic voice and scale, that can be complicated,” White said at a recent celebratory launch event at his H. White Men’s Room barbershop and Get Down Coffee Co. café in north Minneapolis.

White encouraged Black founders to remember the power of their culture and what makes their businesses unique while continuing to network. He said corporate partners can do more to reach out to different voices and vendors.

After selling clothes and accessories she curated online for years, Shalawn Randall was able to realize her dream of opening her own brick-and-mortar fashion store B’YOUtique in December 2021 in the Baker Center’s skyway.

Randall said she has seen sales jump 80% with her physical store even with inconsistent downtown foot traffic. She estimated about a quarter of her customers come because they want to support a Black business, but she hopes they return because they like the products and want to continue to see them on shelves, Randall said.

“The opportunity became available through the Buy Black movement, but I don’t think it will always just be that,” she said.

Pushing forward

Black-owned retail brands and businesses face unique challenges, with the average people of color-owned, mature small business being 30% smaller than its white counterpart and having lower loan approval rates and less start-up capital, according to McKinsey &Co.

Many Black retail brands can also be vulnerable during this time of economic uncertainty because they don’t have the resources to aggressively mark down their prices like a major brand, said Jesse Ross, a Minneapolis diversity, equity and inclusion consultant.

“It is going to go back to, ‘When Juneteenth comes, that’s when we buy Black. When Martin Luther King Day [comes], that’s when we buy Black,’” he said.

This summer, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action policies at colleges.

Target and Bud Light also dealt with conservative backlash because of partnerships with and products for the LGBTQ community. Yohuru Williams, founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas, is among those who think these controversies could have widespread diversity-dampening implications.

“What’s happening, I think for a lot of organizations, is the initial investment … was easy in articulating ‘Buy Black’ and virtue signaling with standing with community,” Williams said. “… The last year and a half is giving a lot of corporations an exit ramp.”

Williams encouraged corporations to take a more nuanced approach to diversity efforts that is less performative.

Despite the challenges, Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, chief executive of diversity, equity and inclusion marketing firm the Rae Mackenzie Group, said there are still opportunities for Black businesses.

“The commitments are there,” she said. “We have to do a better job collectively with building those relationships, getting in there and making it happen on both ends.”

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