The Black and Brown community in Cambridge and COVID-19

The Black and Brown community in Cambridge and COVID-19

Learn what the Black and Brown business community in Cambridge is doing to respond to Covid-19

Over the past several months, the sickness of our society has been in full view. Many would argue that this nation, the United States, has been sick for far longer than any of these recent symptoms suggest. It is not just the visceral pressure of a global pandemic tied into the circumstance of an election year where the citizenry has never been more divided. The United States has gotten sicker because of its society’s ever increasing economic stratification which we continue to allow to grow, and because of racial tensions which call into question the character of the oldest multi-ethnic democracy that the world has continuously known. The global outbreak of Covid-19 has only intensified the symptoms which are a product of these deeper underlying issues in American society.

Social strife rising up in response to the heinous slaying of George Floyd and the pervasive rippling economic destruction of the pandemic, are two manifestations of this nation's major problems. This pandemic has laid tectonic societal issues bare in the context of everyday life. This is true in communities across America, and Cambridge is no different. As with many awful truths of this pandemic, is the fact that it has affected black and brown communities in an aggressively adverse process. In addition to the disease, the pandemic has brought on an economic crisis which fell upon black and brown owned businesses in an especially acute way. Issues ranging from lack of access to capital, information and proper procedural documentation, plague the black and brown business community. Unfortunately, Cambridge is also no different in this respect.

“The reality is there are not that many black and brown businesses to start with in Cambridge” said Michael Monestime executive director of the Central Square Businesses Association in a video panel discussion on Covid-19’s affects on the black and brown businesses in Cambridge, “ the store frontage on Mass ave is some of the most expensive retail space per square foot in the Commonwealth.”

Currently, a five year plan is being developed by the Massachusetts Commonwealth Dept. of Revenue to rebuild wealth lost in economic destruction brought on by Covid-19. However, it is likely that small black and brown businesses will not be able to benefit from most of the assistance provided by the plan, says Monestime.

This is because many of the owners do not have time to navigate the tedious bureaucracy which is necessary for the Department of Revenue to implement a wealth rebuilding program; as small business owners they must operate their own stores and manage their day to day. Many of the panel speakers reiterated this point and agreed that there isn’t a lot of room to learn pages of procedure, regulation and special documentation during this pandemic, says Dennis Benzan, co-owner of La Fabrica Restaurant

“One of the areas we can come up with a solution to these problems is creating a directory of accounts for brown and black businesses to access” said Benzan.

Benzan says that with a resource of this nature, many of the difficulties around access and information during this crisis could be mitigated. He also says there needs to be legal and financial advice available to business owners who are trying to navigate the applications and loan programs created to treat the economic aftershock of Covid.

Another precariously positioned group is young people in the black and brown community, who are coming of age at a time when the job market has been crushed by the economic environment of a post covid world. Many speakers during the video panel discussion took the time to speak on the individual's role in making it through difficult times, such as the ones we are currently faced with.

The speakers, some drawing on lessons they gathered from immigrant experiences of their parents, highlighted the great importance of work ethic in achieving personal success.

“People think it's magic, it’s not. People think it's easy, it's not” said City Councillor and former Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons. “They say you own your own business but what they don’t tell you is that the business owns you.” Simons would go on to elaborate on how owning a business will require you to set your personal time aside in order to get ahead in the economy.

In addition to good work ethic, the importance of accessible opportunities at a young age was also touched on. Monistiane says that one of the key ways to take advantage of opportunities at a young age is to learn transferable skills which can be improved upon as an individual ages and can be applied throughout a variety of disciplines and endeavors. However there was another message that resonated with all the speakers.

“When it comes to success, no one ever achieves something entirely by themself,” said Segun Idowu executive director for the Black Economic council of Massachusetts.

Idowu made it clear that whether the help comes from parents, schools, mentors, or any other facet of the community, there is always a behind the scenes coalition for an individual's success. Even in the advanced stages of building a business, an individual will always need specialized people to fill the gaps in areas of skill which they lack.

Despite everything that an individual Black or Brown business owner can do to secure themselves in the wake of the Covid-19, there are still extra societal forces which shape the landscape. The police slaying George Floyd has thrown gasoline on the fire of racial injustice and ethnic tensions in the United States. In order for Black and Brown owned businesses to survive and prosper in the heat of the current climate, Benzan noted the intersection of social justice with economic justice.

“It is easy to say defund the police, we need to hold their feet to the fire more than what we’ve done in the past with regards to the economic side of things,” Benzan said.

The history of racial policies in this nation has led to serious economic consequences for the Black and Brown communities. Consequences which leave these communities ever more vulnerable to the slew of economic devastation and new challenges brought on by Covid-19.

“This interest in black businesses will be short-lived if it is just a response to what happened in Minneapolis or LA or wherever,” Idowu said. The executive director for BECMA articulated that Black and Brown firms employ thousands of individuals and contribute to tax revenue which allows the commonwealth to function. The Massachusetts economy is reflected in the performance of it’s businesses.

“The future of the commonwealth is based on black businesses, have that understanding and we will see prolonged investment in our communities,” Idowu said.