That Time When Capitalism Beat Racism’s Butt

by Juliette Akinyi Ochieng | October 20th, 2018

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That Time When Capitalism Beat Racism's Butt

R.I.P. Sears

by baldilocks

A great epi­taph for an old friend.

Monday’s announce­ment that Sears would file for bank­ruptcy and close 142 stores came as lit­tle sur­prise to any­one who has fol­lowed the retail giant’s col­lapse in recent years. Still, the news inspired a wave of nos­tal­gia for a com­pany that sold an ideal of middle-​class life to gen­er­a­tions of Americans.

A lesser-​known aspect of Sears’ 125-​year his­tory, how­ever, is how the com­pany rev­o­lu­tion­ized rural black south­ern­ers’ shop­ping pat­terns in the late 19th cen­tury, sub­vert­ing racial hier­ar­chies by allow­ing them to make pur­chases by mail or over the phone and avoid the bla­tant racism that they faced at small coun­try stores.

What most peo­ple don’t know is just how rad­i­cal the cat­a­log was in the era of Jim Crow,” Louis Hyman, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, wrote in a Twit­ter thread that was shared over 7,000 times Mon­day after the news of Sears’ demise. By allow­ing African Amer­i­cans in south­ern states to avoid price-​gouging and con­de­scend­ing treat­ment at their local stores, he wrote, the cat­a­log “under­mined white supremacy in the rural South.” (…)

[T]he cat­a­log for­mat allowed for anonymity, ensur­ing that black and white cus­tomers would be treated the same way.

This gives African Amer­i­cans in the south­east some degree of auton­omy, some degree of secrecy,” unof­fi­cial Sears his­to­rian Jerry Han­cock told the Stuff You Missed in His­tory Class pod­cast in Decem­ber 2016. “Now they can buy the same thing that any­body else can buy. And all they have to do is order it from this cat­a­log. They don’t have to deal with racist mer­chants in town and those types of things.”

Read the whole thing. Sears wasn’t per­fect in this mat­ter, but it was bet­ter than most in that era.

Too bad it was never able to adapt to the 21st century.

Juli­ette Akinyi Ochieng has been blog­ging since 2003 as baldilocks. Her older blog is here. She pub­lished her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game in 2012.

Hit Da Tech Guy Blog’s Tip Jar for his new not-​GoDaddy host

Or hit Juliette’s!

R.I.P. Sears

by baldilocks

A great epitaph for an old friend.

Monday’s announcement that Sears would file for bankruptcy and close 142 stores came as little surprise to anyone who has followed the retail giant’s collapse in recent years. Still, the news inspired a wave of nostalgia for a company that sold an ideal of middle-class life to generations of Americans.

A lesser-known aspect of Sears’ 125-year history, however, is how the company revolutionized rural black southerners’ shopping patterns in the late 19th century, subverting racial hierarchies by allowing them to make purchases by mail or over the phone and avoid the blatant racism that they faced at small country stores.

“What most people don’t know is just how radical the catalog was in the era of Jim Crow,” Louis Hyman, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, wrote in a Twitter thread that was shared over 7,000 times Monday after the news of Sears’ demise. By allowing African Americans in southern states to avoid price-gouging and condescending treatment at their local stores, he wrote, the catalog “undermined white supremacy in the rural South.” (…)

[T]he catalog format allowed for anonymity, ensuring that black and white customers would be treated the same way.

“This gives African Americans in the southeast some degree of autonomy, some degree of secrecy,” unofficial Sears historian Jerry Hancock told the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast in December 2016. “Now they can buy the same thing that anybody else can buy. And all they have to do is order it from this catalog. They don’t have to deal with racist merchants in town and those types of things.”

Read the whole thing. Sears wasn’t perfect in this matter, but it was better than most in that era.

Too bad it was never able to adapt to the 21st century.

Juliette Akinyi Ochieng has been blogging since 2003 as baldilocks. Her older blog is here.  She published her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game in 2012.

Hit Da Tech Guy Blog’s Tip Jar for his new not-GoDaddy host

Or hit Juliette’s!

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