By James Clingman
I am now doing what I said I would not. I am writing a column in which I mention the items Skittles and Iced Tea. I cringed every time I heard those words during the pursuit of justice for Trayvon Martin and his family, and throughout the trial of George Zimmerman. They became synonymous with Trayvon himself, and were mentioned just as much as his name. As far back as March 2012, demonstrations and protests were held, one of which took place in Liberty City, Fla. that featured protesters holding up bags of Skittles and cans of Arizona Tea.
In case you have not yet figured out the connection by reading the title of this article, as Booker T. Washington said many years ago, “Beneath politics, beneath education, even beneath religion, lies economics.” And I would add, even beneath protest lies profit. Understanding that nothing happens in this capitalistic society until something is sold, when I read about the windfall profits of Wrigley and Mars, makers of Skittles, that truism hit home even more.
Having discussed this phenomenon in a previous column (“Marching in Place”), I felt compelled to finally write one that includes the words: Skittles and iced tea. Our protests leave an admittedly residue of profit for many companies, some of which is unavoidable. But in the case of Trayvon Martin, the protests in which people purchased candy and tea, and even hoodies in many instances, resulted in unexpected, incremental, and welcomed profits by the manufacturers of those products. What a country! Huh?
It is safe to say that the vast majority of the protest items were purchased from stores that are not owned by Black people, which points once again to the fact they we prefer symbolism over substance. And in Liberty City, of all places, which was once a bastion of Black-owned businesses and economic empowerment for Black folks, according to a 1986 INC. magazine article by Joel Kotkin, titled, “The Reluctant Entrepreneurs,” the irony of profitable protests looms even larger.
The article says, “Back in 1957, when Sonny Wright arrived in Miami, business was lively and vibrant in such black inner-city neighborhoods as Overtown and Liberty City. Independent laundries, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels–many of them black-owned –flourished along the main streets of the steamy resort city. ‘We had a thriving little business community,’ Wright remembers, ‘the black entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole stayed in our hotels. Blacks bought from blacks.’”
“Wright continued, ‘now all that has changed. Ever since integration, everything is gone, the smart guys went to work for the government or moved to the suburbs. Nobody stayed around. Nobody created jobs in the community. Integration set everything downhill for black business in this town.’”
Sad to say that now protesters of a senseless killing of a young Black man cannot even buy their Skittles and tea from a Black-owned store in Liberty City and most other cities across this country.
We protest while others profit. And as I said in my previous article, we count people “at” our protests while others count profits “from” our protests. Symbolism over substance. Arizona Beverage and Wrigley/Mars, although innocent and unattached to the tragedy, received windfalls from it. Mark my words, someone will soon, if they have not already, go to these two companies for money, thus, exploiting even further the death of Trayvon Martin. I wonder who will be first at that feeding trough.
Quite honestly, Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea had absolutely nothing to do with George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin, and yet they have become “symbols” in the aftermath of his death. If young Martin had nothing in his hands that night, would it have made any difference? Absolutely not. Would it have made any difference at Emmett Till’s funeral if they announced what brand of bubble gum he bought in that store? Of course not. But folks back then had a little more sense than we do now. They did not rush out and buy the bubble gum and wave it during their protests and mail it to the police chief of “Money,” (another irony) Miss.
Now some may say this is a trivial thing and maybe even question why I chose to write about it. Well, my intention is to get us to see, once and for all, the role Blacks play in the economics of this country – yes, even in the face of tragedy. I want us to understand how to keep the main thing the main thing in all that we do, especially when it comes to economic empowerment. If this article does not at least cause you to think about our collective actions and the futility thereof in many cases, if it does not make you know that many times our dollars just don’t make good sense, then I have failed to do my job. I will keep trying though; you can count on it.
Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and can be reached through his Web site, blackonomics.com.