Boycott by blacks revives debate over merits of tactic

N.Y.C.'s African-Americans are urged to stay home during biggest shopping day of the year - a controversial effort to protest their treatment by retailers.

Peering through chic Chanel glasses, Shawnee Pareoca is examining the gold chains at Lord & Taylor's jewelry counter.

She's buying some holiday gifts early because the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year, she and thousands of other African-Americans in New York City will stay home.

They're boycotting stores to protest what they see as retailers' racial intolerance and to demonstrate the black community's growing economic clout.

"We are spending some $400 billion a year with people who seem to hold black consumers in contempt," says Bob Law, chairman of the Citywide Leadership Alliance, the local civil rights group that is organizing the boycott. "We are followed around the store, accused of theft. We're treated as though they really don't want us there."

Since the 1954 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., the purse has been a powerful weapon in the civil rights movement's arsenal - even if it hasn't always been used effectively in more recent decades. But now, as the movement repositions itself, the economic boycott is reemerging as an important, and increasingly controversial, tool for bringing about social change.

In the past two years, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has started grading hotels and telecommunications companies on their hiring practices and behavior toward the black community. Those that fail get boycotted. In Miami, a 1,030-day boycott of the area's tourist industry produced the development of the first black-owned hotel on Miami Beach this summer.

Dramatic growth of the black middle class is a key reason the boycott is back. As World War II began, only 10 percent of the African-American population was classified as middle class. Today, 50 percent fall into that category - and their combined incomes are larger than the gross national product of several industrialized countries.

"In this last election you saw a demonstration of the political clout of the African-American community, and in the future we'll see the economic clout demonstrated more often," says Democratic pollster Ron Lester. "Politics is one means to bringing about social change, and economics is another."

But as the use of the economic boycott increases, some social activists have questioned the effectiveness of using it too often.

"As a general rule, economic boycotts in today's complex economy are very difficult to justify," says Milton Morris, president of Creative Futures International, a consulting group based in Washington. "Although there are circumstances when they can be effective today, it must be used in a very limited and targeted manner."

Mr. Morris does not believe the New York Thanksgiving boycott meets that standard. He says the intent - to demonstrate economic muscle - is too vague and thus will make it difficult for organizers to mobilize a large base of support.

"I doubt that such an undertaking is either effective or desirable, which could discredit the strategy," he says.

Other researchers and activists have echoed the concern that the black community may be crying economic wolf too often, thus diluting the boycott's effectiveness.

But the organizers in New York dismiss such concerns, saying that even if the Nov. 27 boycott fails, a seed will be planted.

"We're asking people who are addicted to consumerism to kick the habit; we're asking people who by and large have not been involved in a major civil rights movement to join one," says Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based legal and civil rights think tank. "It may not be as effective this year as one would want, but it sets the stage for next year."

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