The Minority Dream Goes Digital

As the New Economy fights its way into mainstream American commerce, minority-owned businesses are experiencing a struggle similar to the one they have endured offline for years.

It’s an old story in a new setting: a scenario with which Americans are all too familiar. The potential cultural danger is that it may not be the fittest who survive, but the biggest, and yes, the whitest.

That’s particularly disheartening to some, in light of new information from Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Citizenship Education Fund, showing that 48 percent of African Americans and 52 percent of Hispanics have computers in their homes. Jackson’s study was conducted in 700 urban U.S. communities.

Jackson’s contention is that with almost half of minorities now “wired,” online businesses need to recognize these potential new markets as viable, and market directly to minority customers.

That Which Divides Us

Connecting minority citizens to the Internet wouldn’t mean much to the future of e-commerce if those to be connected didn’t spend in general.

However, recent research from the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth indicates minorities are actually spending more vigorously than ever. The past decade has seen discretionary spending by minorities literally double, from US$439.9 billion in 1990 to a projected $860.6 billion this year.

With numbers like that, the problem is clearly not buying power. The problem, instead, has to do with inclusion. Currently, only the most powerful e-tailers are still standing, and many of them are associated with brick-and-mortar establishments, most of which are not minority-owned or focused.

Where does that leave minority citizens?

Lift Every Voice

No one is suggesting that e-commerce should be required to become a bastion of social justice, or that e-tailers should exclusively target minority consumers. However, blatantly ignoring minority markets is a losing proposition for all involved.

The Citizenship Education Fund intends to distribute its study results to online companies, in the hopes that they will use the data in determining market strategy, branding and new product development.

This, of course, assumes that New Economy players might be willing to break with tradition by including minorities in market activity, and ending the old world practice of relegating specific ethnic groups to positions of dependency on large, powerful corporations.

This time, it is not about promoting separatism among races and genders. This time, it has to do with enabling all Americans to claim a piece of what promises to be a more efficient and sophisticated economic model.

Same Old, Same Old?

Because of the necessity of including minorities in the pioneer days of e-commerce, the U.S. government should take a more active role in addressing this issue — as much or more than individual Americans or industrial giants. Yet it appears despite its own projections of vast imminent spending by minorities, the government is not striving for inclusiveness in the New Economy.

Consider: Even though the U.S. Census Bureau projects annual buying power of $2 trillion among minority Americans by the year 2015, the government appears to make minimal effort to foster small business growth in these communities. Of the 23 percent of General Services Administration (GSA) federal contracts awarded to small businesses, currently only 5 percent go to minorities.

In part because of the government’s passivity, Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition launched the “Silicon Valley Project” two years ago. This project finds funding for minority businesses from venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs. It also strives to increase the representation of people of color in high-tech companies.

Industry Steps Up

Encouragingly, this type of grassroots effort is not limited to social programs or nonprofit organizations. In fact, major Internet economy players, including Microsoft, are working to fuel the New Economy with diversity.

Microsoft is actively working to include more Hispanic and African-American small businesses in the New Economy, by conducting 85 free workshops in 14 cities geared toward teaching minority business owners how to use the Internet to grow their businesses.

Sensitive readers will pardon the expression, but Microsoft’s workshops are a decidedly “affirmative action” that should result in the propulsion of minority-owned small businesses onto the Internet.

On the other hand, the news on inclusiveness is not all good for Microsoft. The company is being sued over an alleged pattern of racial and sexual discrimination against African-American and female employees.

Disadvantaged No Longer

Meanwhile, in the category of helping those who help themselves, minorities are reaching out to each other in the business-to-business (B2B) sector., for example, enables minority-owned businesses to find and buy from minority suppliers through a continually updated national database.

This is a stellar example of smart marketing and essential networking. It is the Internet at its best, working to provide access, opportunity and economic muscle for those who have for many years almost assumed such concepts were only for the “other guy.”

But it’s not enough.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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