Rewiring black wealth

These apps try to ensure you’re not giving your money to a racist

Getty Images

This Summer, in the wake of the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile police shootings, Atlanta rapper and activist Killer Mike made headlines for his #BankBlackBankSmallBankLocal campaign which persuaded young people to invest their money in black-owned banks. At a rally event in July, the “Run the Jewels” star stood in front of a crowd and pulled a $100 bill from his pocket.

“We’ve spent 100 dollars over the past 7-14 days,” he told the audience. “But, did we spend it with one another?”

The campaign was an enormous success. Singer-songwriter Solange praised the movement, as did artists Usher and Jermaine Dupri. USA Today reports that Atlanta’s Citizen Trust Bank received 8,000 new applications.

It’s a welcome bright spot in the current economic landscape for black Americans. The ACLU estimates that the 2007 housing collapse triggered widespread foreclosures that evaporated as much as 40% of all black wealth, culling many struggling black owned banks, of which there are fewer than 30. Earlier this year, the Brookings Institute, a D.C. nonprofit focusing on public policy, concluded that “black wealth barely exists.”

The #BankBlackBankSmallBankLocal hashtag is just one part of a larger trend towards technology built by black entrepreneurs that aims to reinvigorate black-owned businesses. The Where U Came From mobile app uses GPS to geolocate the nearest black-owned businesses, making it much easier for users to be selective in where they’re spending their money. And Goldbean is a start-up service that uses algorithms to educate first-time investors.

“We, as a people, have to redefine for ourselves the word ‘community,’” said WhereU founder, Dr. Mahaffey. “When most people say ‘I support my community,’ they’re talking about their neighborhood. For me, community means wherever I find black people. So wherever I find my people, I make it my business to patronize them.”

When a user loads WhereU, there are 18 categories to choose from, like Apparel & Shoes, Child Care, Restaurants, etc. From there, users can find the nearest black owned daycare center, retail store, or nightclub. Additionally, WhereU lists black independent service providers (photographers, landscapers, DJs, event planners, and attorneys) even if they don’t work for a black-owned corporation.

“A black owned business is not just limited to those who sell cultural items,” Mahaffey tells Fusion. “It’s not just the person selling the shea butter or cutting my hair or doing things that are tied to who I am ethnically. A black business is a black doctor, your investment banker, your financial advisor, your commercial real estate agent. A black business [owner] is a person who owns any type or enterprise that happens to be black.”

The crucial need for apps like WhereU leads back to one of the most progressive movements in American history: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During integration, black dollars flowed out of black communities, prompting a slow, steady erosion of black-owned businesses and banks. “When you think about segregation versus integration, we had a love for one another because we were all that we had to rely on,” Mahaffey said. “And so, when you think about integrating into the larger majority community, a lot of [black people] have the mindset that, ‘what’s over there is better than what’s over here.’ We support every community except our own.’”

This disinvestment is exacerbated by America’s “blackness tax,” which women pay twice. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Real Estate and Finance Economics found that while all black homeowners pay higher median interest rates than their white counterparts, black women pay doubly high interest rates than black men. This compounds with the extant wage gap in America that pays black women an estimated 60 cents for every dollar a white man earns.

Dr. Mahaffey said, in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter, there has been a rise in digital activism that hopes to reverse these trends. She’s seeing a more communal alignment among black people and thinks WhereU and other technological initiatives are more relevant than ever. Consider Noirbnb and Innclusive, two black-centered travel marketplaces countering Airbnb’s racism problem. Or the BuyBlack Chrome extension, which finds black-owned alternatives for online retailers.

“I think that the millennials are doing a lot as it relates to showing how you can just change a thought process by Twitter. You go on Twitter and see these conversations being had. Whereas in the old days, you’d have to have these conversations at church and the word would have to spread slowly, but surely. But now, we’re seeing an opportunity to change the mindset of people by leveraging technology and its impact to spread messages rapidly.”

The best thing WhereU could possibly do for the black community is change its own mindset. Dr. Mahaffey recalls the story of a friend at a dealership shopping for a new car. The friend, a black woman, closed the deal with an unfriendly, possibly prejudiced, white, male salesperson. Why did she give him her money?

“We don’t think we have choice,” she said. “It needs to become natural for us, that we go out of our way to support our community.”

Being smart about where you spend your money can be hugely beneficial to the community, both literally and metaphorically, but first you need to know how to manage it. As Killer Mike said at the July rally, “The first step to organizing your money as a collective is learning how to organize your money on our own.”

Fusion spoke with Husani Oakley, speaker, activist, and the Chief Technology Officer of Goldbean, a “robo-adviserthat teaches first-time investors the fundamentals. The company uses proprietary software to analyze spending habits and credit card statements, then creates a portfolio of investment recommendations. From there, Goldbean offers targeted educational modules (tips for saving for college vs. saving for retirement, etc.) that slowly guide customers towards more complex investment strategies, teaching them how to navigate the stock market.

Like WhereU, Goldbean’s chief task is educational, teaching users to rethink their relationship to their own money and the power of their capital. Oakley tells me that many young people, black people especially, are hesitant to invest. They don’t think of themselves as investors or a part of the investment community; they fear not being good at math, and lack trust in the entire process.

Goldbean’s users are about 50/50 men and women and almost 70% are under 35. And although Goldbean isn’t investing for black people specifically, Oakley tells me about a recent free financial planning event that drew an audience of mostly black women, overwhelmingly concerned with saving for their families.

“It’s not just ‘me me me,’ it’s me and us. Us being a family. And, I haven’t seen that, frankly, in other groups,” he said of black women who use his service. “How can you start building that sense of community into the tech itself, so when you’re setting up automated budgets and goals and personal finance tools, how can the systems be aware of [that]? What kind of cultural lens can we build into it right there at that level instead of people having to figure it on their own? Since we’re automating everything else, can we automate that?”

Both WhereU and Goldbean are small steps towards a savvier, more spending-conscious generation of young black people, making waves in new industries while staying community motivated. There’s a renewed urgency for collectivism and, with it, a new opportunity for black people to look to each other for support.

“If I can help black people have a financial stability so that the fear of rocking the boat once we’re in these industries goes away and they can just fucking roll with their gut instincts in these roles and take even more leaps,” Oakley said. “Then I will think that I have done my job.”

Story Tags