Photo: Corey Jenkins
On Sunday, New York announced that the state now accounts for roughly 5% of coronavirus cases worldwide, and nearly 2,000 of those who tested positive for the virus in the state have been hospitalized.
In response, a growing number of governors, from New York to California, have ordered various restrictions on public gatherings and businesses. Such measures, necessary though they are, have crippled the economy at every level, from corporate to small business to individual.
Recognizing the moral imperative of the moment, Congress has proposed a $1.8 trillion economic stabilization package to aid families and businesses affected by the pandemic. (That’s nearly double the size of the expected federal budget deficit this year, but market stabilization and Americans’ well-being takes precedence in a moment like this.)
A bailout of this size and scope is unprecedented. Every industry is being devastated by the coronavirus. The American public and industries need immediate relief, and for the first time, voting in favor of a bailout will not cost an elected official their position. There are no conversations around deficit spending when the Las Vegas Strip is closed for business.
Unlike businesses selling goods like clothing or food, barbers can’t transition their business to online commerce or takeout service; there are no unemployment benefits to apply for. A vanity service doesn’t immediately come to mind for a bailout — and it won’t without a representative convincing legislators of its worth.
For far too long, when it comes to our nation’s well-being, the role of government intervention in citizens’ lives has come down to a single rhetorical question: Is it a moral obligation or a constitutional right? In both finance and health, the answer has mostly been a “no.” America’s economic engine is based on capitalism and the strength of the free market, with the occasional assist from tax cuts and interest rate adjustments; public health has likewise been treated as an individual responsibility, with the limited support of a social safety net in the event you fall.
Both systems have existed relatively independent of each other — at least until coronavirus struck, bringing America to an unprecedented standstill. It is here that the question is no longer rhetorical, and it is here that the answer is starkly clear: It is, without question, a moral obligation.
Yet, all money and business sectors are not created equal in the proposed stabilization legislation. The amounts that trade groups and lobbyists are asking Congress to allocate to their respective industries are numbers unseen during a presidential election year: $1.4 trillion for the manufacturing sector; $4 billion for museums; $100 billion for doctors, nurses, and hospitals; $325 billion for restaurants; $60 billion for Boeing; $250 billion for the travel industry.
The resulting allocation of funds will be a civics lesson in the power of political currency. Which industry has the best access to the politicians drafting legislation? Who has the juice? In the lobbying world, it’s a matter of who is best positioned with the party in control of the government. Their advocacy on behalf of their clients will determine not only what is included in the stabilization package but at what amount.
The major industries will, of course, be well taken care of in the bailout — but what about the industries that aren’t major? The small neighborhood businesses that are too small for representation by powerful lobbyists, but too big to fail in the community? The business that sits on the front line of services for Black men, but is the most affected by six-foot social distancing mandates? The business that not only is an economic driver of a neighborhood but a gathering spot for social commentary that challenges opinions and nourishes the soul?
The barbershop has been part of the bedrock of Black community — and there’s no Black barbershop lobby on K Street fighting for these business owners.
Unlike businesses selling goods like clothing or food, barbers can’t transition their business to online commerce or takeout service; there are no unemployment benefits to apply for. During this pandemic, the barber is one of the most vulnerable — not merely because of the nature of the business, but the value it is assigned. A vanity service doesn’t immediately come to mind for a bailout, and it won’t without a representative convincing legislators of its worth.
To understand the economic role that Black barbershops play in the community, you first have to understand the history and origin of the institution. In the book Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, Quincy T. Mills writes that the Black barbershop can be traced back to the early 18th century when enslaved men and women acting as plantation barbers and hairstylists would groom fellow slaves on Sunday mornings — “the only leisure time they had for proper grooming.” Early barbershops were essentially the original Black-owned businesses; free and enslaved African Americans hired out by their masters “seized the opportunity to become entrepreneurs in an industry void of white competition, with minimal startup costs and significant profit potential.”
For many Black men in the U.S., barbers are ambassadors of entrepreneurship, the first Black-owned small business that we support. But due to the close relationship a black barber has with his clients, it never feels transactional. Instead, it’s a frequent ritual that over time becomes a bond of friendship rather than a service. That’s wonderful, but it also minimizes in clients’ minds the financial responsibility being shouldered by barbers, whether rent, taxes, utilities, or any other operating expenses — costs that don’t disappear when incoming revenue does. Like say, now.
The case of the Black barber is representative of the economic trickle-down effect the coronavirus is having on all industries. In particular, similar professions that provide a service, that in good times, are viewed as optional (although I’d challenge you to find any Black man that views a weekly haircut as optional). But due to low numbers of the profession as a whole — in 2018 there were just short of 80,000 barbers in the United States, of all races — these are the professions that can go unnoticed during a global pandemic. Without the storytellers, the advocates, the lobbyist on Capitol Hill, finding financial relief will be challenging.
The current debate in Congress regarding the proposed stabilization package centers on two competing ideologies on the allocation of funding: either an emphasis on people or on big corporations. At stake is the $500 billion program within the package that would award loans to states and cities as well as businesses. The program would be administered through the Department of Treasury, at the discretion of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
I’m not sure the last time Mnuchin has been inside a Black barbershop, but it’s important for him to know that these noncorporations are still giants in the community. They may not have boards of directors, but they’re large holding companies of community interest, held together by collective bargaining agreements, with work environments that allow for Black men to show up as their authentic selves — and Six Sigma certified to deliver a consistent, guaranteed, product weekly.
Even if K street hasn’t come in for a fade.