A nationally syndicated radio host is urging black Americans to refrain from spending money Friday, and his efforts are garnering support from some of the civil rights movement's heaviest hitters.
Radio host and organizer Warren Ballentine hopes a "national blackout" of businesses will send Washington a message that blacks are fed up with racism and injustice, and he rejects criticism that his campaign is un-American.
"The history of our country is about what I'm calling for," Ballentine said. "If the federal government is not doing what it's supposed to do, we protest. There's nothing more American than what I'm calling for."
The inspirations for the boycott are many: a flurry of nooses hung in public places; the case of six teens charged as adults with attempted murder in Jena, Louisiana, after a racially charged school fight; the conviction of Genarlow Wilson, a black teen charged with child molestation after having consensual oral sex with another teen; and the rape and torture of Megan Williams, a West Virginia woman forced to eat animal feces by six whites who berated her with racial slurs.
Ballentine's hope is that if elected officials aren't hearing the voice of black America, maybe they'll listen when money talks. His efforts have drawn the support of the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network and several other groups.
By some estimates, the U.S. economy could lose millions of dollars if the more than 40 million African-Americans keep their wallets in their purses and pockets Friday. But it's difficult to pin down the boycott's impact because it depends on who takes part and to what extent.
A study by the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth says blacks are expected to spend about $845 billion after taxes this year, or more than $2.3 billion a day -- but using that number to gauge the boycott's effectiveness presupposes that every African-American participates and that no other races join in.
The number is skewed, too, because it doesn't account for expenditures such as mortgage payments and utility bills, said Selig Center Director Jeffrey Humphreys. Housing-related expenditures, which account for 36 percent of money doled out by black consumers, are "unlikely to be affected by a one-day boycott," he said.
Dr. Claud Anderson, president of the Harvest Institute, a Washington-based think tank devoted to black empowerment, applauds the idea of "group economics."
Asians, Arabs, Hispanics, Jews and whites in the United States generally spend money among themselves, "bouncing" dollars an average of six to 18 times before the money leaves the communities, he said.
"The black dollar does not bounce, not one time in America," Anderson said. "The only way to eradicate these problems in the black community is to help these people do what everyone else does."
Racism, Anderson said, is more about socioeconomics and controlling resources than about bigotry. Blacks must resolve to bounce dollars eight to 10 times in their communities to build them up and fix them from within, he said, adding that he's skeptical of the efficacy of a one-day boycott.
"It's grabbing for a symbol and a gesture, but I guess that's better than nothing," Anderson said. "I guess one step forward's better than a step backwards."
Though the potential impact is uncertain, several civil rights icons and organizations are backing the blackout -- including Martin Luther King III and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- all of whom say "the system" is failing the U.S. The groups also are trying to rally protesters for a November 16 march on the Justice Department in Washington.
Sharpton said in a statement that until recently the federal government had a good record of combating racism over the past 50 years.
President Eisenhower defended the Little Rock Nine, President Kennedy protected the Freedom Riders and President Johnson stood up for voting rights, "but this federal government has done nothing for the Jena 6 or to stem the rising tide of hate that includes a proliferation of nooses and swastikas," Sharpton said.
Ballentine, who goes by the radio handle "the people's attorney," said he also is dismayed by issues like shoddy imports from China, the outsourcing of jobs overseas, the housing market's flood of foreclosures and President Bush's request for $196 billion in war spending and his veto of a children's health insurance bill.
The latter two issues are particularly disappointing, Ballentine said, because they send a message that the U.S. doesn't care about its next generation.
"I think it's almost embarrassing that Congress puts together a bill that's already funded and [Bush] says, 'No, that's too much for our children,' " Ballentine said. "In the same breath, you ask for $190 billion for a war?"
Though the endeavor predominantly targets the black community, Ballentine said injustice is colorblind and he is "appealing to anybody who's humanitarian, anyone who believes in justice."
Ballentine said he realizes it will be impossible for everyone to make it through the day without spending a dime. If you have to spend money, Ballentine said, be conscious of where it's going.
"Spend it with people or organizations that are actually doing things to help us and our community," he said. "My hope is that we can all come together. Part of our healing is working together."