Conservative Spotlight: National Black Chamber of Commerce

“Four years ago I had a very hard decision to make. My being president and CEO of the largest black business association in the world forced me to publicly and personally support a candidate for President. . .,” wrote Harry Alford of the National Black Chamber of Commerce on July 16. Alford solicited pitches from the major presidential candidates. Gore ignored him, whereas “the other candidates explained their plans well. But with George W. Bush I saw that–besides the sincerity–he actually understood business, small business in fact. He explained his game plan and put timelines with it. I was convinced and stepped forward. For the first time in my life, I supported a Republican for the presidency of the United States.” Bush received 9% of the black vote.

Alford does not regret his choice: Bush has been good for black-owned businesses. The Small Business Administration is lending money to black businesses at a rapid clip, he wrote. “Minorities, particularly black and Hispanic, are receiving contracts in record numbers,” he noted. And Bush’s Africa initiative is helping blacks overseas, said Alford, and not just through handouts. “In fact, through the White House efforts, more than 150,000 new jobs have popped up in Africa and at least $437 million in business growth will be realized this year,” he wrote.

Alford takes the Booker T. Washington side of the debate over how to improve the condition of black Americans. “This argument is 100 years old,” he said in a recent interview. “If you go back to Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Ala., he said lift up the bucket where we are and get to work. …Washington said, ‘Let’s not worry about segregation. Let’s get to work.'”

Alford said that W.E.B. DuBois and other Washington enemies formed the NAACP, which took a primarily political approach to solving blacks’ problems. Alford recommended Washington’s book The Man Farthest Down as even more relevant for today’s readers than his most famous work, Up From Slavery. “He shows that the descendants of slaves were not farthest down,” he said. “Recent immigrants were farther down. There were men from Greece, from Eastern Europe and other places with no money, who couldn’t even speak the language. They succeeded.”

Instead of waiting for salvation from the NAACP and Jesse Jackson, NBCC’s members work to improve their own lives. Alford said more African-Americans need “the entrepreneurial spirit” so often displayed by recent black immigrants. “Eighty per cent of black-owned businesses in New York City are owned by immigrants from the Caribbean or Africa,” he said. “It’s the entrepreneurial spirit in the household, nothing to do with race.”

Alford and his family are entrepreneurs and are about to embark on a new venture importing gourmet coffee from Kenya. And Ghana is proving a fertile ground for African-American entrepreneurs, he said.

The NBCC “was incorporated in Washington, D.C., in March 1993,” says the group’s literature. “This business association represents 95,000 black-owned businesses and provides an advocacy that reaches all one million black-owned businesses.” Alford said that American blacks are rapidly gaining affluence, noting that in 1993, there were only 400,000 black-owned businesses in the country. “I know a black man who sold his IT business for, I think, $100 million,” he said. “Ten years ago, that was unheard of.” He pointed out that wealth is generally acquired through ownership, not through working for wages or a salary. “We need entrepreneurship,” he said.

The NBCC, a 501(c)3, advocates free market policies. It favors the abolition of the estate tax and Social Security reform. “African-Americans are shortchanged by Social Security,” said Alford. “We don’t live long enough to get our money back.”

Most conservatives will disagree with Alford when it comes to affirmative action. For example, he believes that government-run facilities, such as airports, should contract with businesses whose owners reflect the racial composition of the local area–which conservatives believe means quotas.

But it’s hard to disagree with Alford when he says that the party of most conservatives, the Republican Party, has failed to develop an effective outreach to black Americans. “They don’t connect with the grassroots,” he said. “They don’t use prominent black Republicans.” The Bush Administration is sending some heavy-hitters to the NBCC’s annual convention such as Alfonso Jackson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Hector Barreto, head of the Small Business Administration. A rising conservative black GOP star, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, will receive an award.

Alford insisted that Bush will do much better among blacks than he did last time. “Things are changing,” he said.