ARE LEFT TO
ON THE EVE OF
THE MARCH ON
with clean water and clean air. At every hole in the safety
net, black Americans are more likely to fall through.
For the black middle-class entrepreneurs, the hustle is
about the fragility of their position. The public sector still
matters to black economic stability and mobility, and its
erosion means black workers must increasingly look to a
hostile private sector. There, jobs have shifted from pro-
duction and manufacturing to professional services, and
the highest- paying ones can be some of the most resistant
to the kind of training that college affords black Americans.
One does not train for a job in, say, consulting the way one
does for engineering. The soft-skills jobs that trade in rela-
tionships are difficult ones for black workers to break into.
That makes entrepreneurship attractive to professional-
class black people like those at the Black Wall Street event.
Pitching feels more democratic than being born into the
right family. But being born into the right family is still the
single most important qualification for the digital econo-
my’s highest- status jobs. As a study of contemporary in-
equality from the Georgetown Center on Education and
the Workforce put it, “To succeed in America, it’s better
to be born rich than smart.”
if there is any good neWs, it’s that collective action
still works. Fight for $15 has demonstrated that a multi-
racial movement for economic justice can raise the mini-
mum wage for service and care workers, two sectors where
black workers are overrepresented. In Durham, spurred by
the ongoing efforts of organizers and unions, the mayor and
city council established a Workers’ Rights Commission in
2019 tasked with writing a workers’ bill of rights that could
raise the minimum wage and abolish the ban on collective
bargaining for public employees. It is a
significant win for a Southern city.
The middle-class hustle is a tougher
nut to crack. While the black workers
who come out to protest with Fight for
$15 have drawn explicit connections be-
tween historical struggle and their ev-
eryday experiences of racial inequal-
ity, the Black Wall Street entrepreneurs
seemed to have a lot of language but lit-
tle critical engagement with the past.
Though the conference was staged in
the country’s “Research Triangle,” an
area packed with colleges and universi-
ties, there wasn’t much discussion of the
economic- justice issues facing the black
adults who will graduate into this new
economy. I did not observe any panels
on raising capital when you are manag-
ing historically high student- loan debt,
for instance, and a tour of the city’s his-
torical Black Wall Street district largely
neglected the eminent domain and gen-
trification that destroyed the area’s black
economic base. Some panelists also took
pains to distance themselves from ideas
of black collectivity. As one conference-
goer said, “We can’t just be about black
people. This is a diverse city.”
Civil rights organizers were explicit
that the fates of all black Americans are
linked through equal access to jobs, edu-
cation and public life, but if middle-class
black workers are as willing to embrace
an agnostic reclamation of the Black Wall
Street ethos as they appeared, they will
have a hard time connecting their pitch to
the hustle. And if they cannot make that
connection, they are unlikely to see their
hustle as linked to the larger one.
All is not lost. Both hustles are embed-
ded in a history of not only survival but
overcoming. The before-and-after story
of U.S. racism turns on a significant vic-
tory. The March on Washington won.
Whether what they won endures or is de-
fended or built upon, the fact is it won.
Collective organizing created meaning-
ful social change. We know how to win.
When we hustle alone, we hustle hard.
When we hustle together, we can end the
hustle for all.
McMillan Cottom, an associate professor
of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth
University, is the author of Thick: And
Other Essays, a finalist for the National