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Purchasing Power

Black Kids and American Consumer Culture

2001
Author:

Elizabeth Chin

Purchasing Power

An exposé of the realities facing poor black children in our consumer society.

What does it mean to be young, poor, and black in our consumer culture? Are black children “brand-crazed consumer addicts” willing to kill each other over a pair of the latest Nike Air Jordans or Barbie backpack? In this first in-depth account of the consumer lives of poor and working-class black children, Elizabeth Chin enters the world of children living in hardship in order to understand the ways they learn to manage living poor in a wealthy society.

This is a courageous, insightful, and deeply loving book. Elizabeth Chin demystifies a key process in American culture: the shaping of the consumer. Using a participant-observer approach, she shows how cruelly the inequities of class, race, and gender constrain the experience of popular culture. She also shows how young African-American girls and boys creatively use what opportunities they find. Chin offers us both understanding and a challenge to action.

Pat Aufderheide, American University

What does it mean to be young, poor, and black in our consumer culture? Are black children “brand-crazed consumer addicts” willing to kill each other over a pair of the latest Nike Air Jordans or Barbie backpack? In this first in-depth account of the consumer lives of poor and working-class black children, Elizabeth Chin enters the world of children living in hardship in order to understand the ways they learn to manage living poor in a wealthy society.

To move beyond the stereotypical images of black children obsessed with status symbols, Chin spent two years interviewing poor children in New Haven, Connecticut, about where and how they spend their money. An alternate image of the children emerges, one that puts practicality ahead of status in their purchasing decisions. On a twenty-dollar shopping spree with Chin, one boy has to choose between a walkie-talkie set and an X-Men figure. In one of the most painful moments of her research, Chin watches as Davy struggles with his decision. He finally takes the walkie-talkie set, a toy that might be shared with his younger brother.

Through personal anecdotes and compelling stories ranging from topics such as Christmas and birthday gifts, shopping malls, Toys-R-Us, neighborhood convenience shops, school lunches, ethnically correct toys, and school supplies, Chin critically examines consumption as a medium through which social inequalities-most notably of race, class, and gender-are formed, experienced, imposed, and resisted. Along the way she acknowledges the profound constraints under which the poor and working class must struggle in their daily lives.


Purchasing Power

Elizabeth Chin is associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Purchasing Power

This is a courageous, insightful, and deeply loving book. Elizabeth Chin demystifies a key process in American culture: the shaping of the consumer. Using a participant-observer approach, she shows how cruelly the inequities of class, race, and gender constrain the experience of popular culture. She also shows how young African-American girls and boys creatively use what opportunities they find. Chin offers us both understanding and a challenge to action.

Pat Aufderheide, American University

Professor Chin has written a humane and critical account of consumer behavior in an imperiled subculture. Marketers and public policy makers can no longer afford to neglect the issues she raises in her study, nor can researchers fail to follow her lead.

John F. Sherry, Jr., Northwestern University

This book uses many personal stories to show how inequalities of class, race, and gender constrain young African Americans’ popular culture, and also how they creatively use the opportunities they find. Recommended for the general public as well as professionals.

Choice

In Purchasing Power we see a view of young Black consumers who are media savvy, socially conscious, have strong race identity, and possess a keen sense of self-worth. An insightful assessment of the consumer behaviors of African-American youth. Purchasing Power is written clearly and passionately, making it accessible to a wide audience and a mandatory read for all journalists who cover the urban youth beat.

Mosaic

Elizabeth Chin’s Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture has both vitality and immediacy, thanks to Natalia, Tionna, Asia, and the other pseudonymous children of Newhallville whose voices we hear. The book’s purpose is well served, too, by an identifiable first-person narrator whose relationships with several of her ‘subjects’ grow close and affectionate. Chin’s vignettes from life with the Newhallville kids are touching, funny, troubling, strange, and familiar.

Ruminator Review

Compelling. As a result of a multilevel perspective, the reader gets to see firsthand how these African-American children struggle each day with the inequality of their economic status. Not only is this book a primer for the uninitiated in ethnographic research, it also serves as a valuable tool for the seasoned reader interested in such participant-observer studies. Chin adds significantly to the literature of an understudied area-minority children as consumers.

MultiCultural Review

Chin clearly demonstrates how a focus on consumption can expand, rather than limit, the analysis of larger social parameters and relations. Chin’s writing is unpretentious and clear. Purchasing Power effectively shows how racism, class, and segregation are manifested in interactions and confrontations at the point of purchase. More profoundly, it reveals how such interactions work to constitute a whole range of the children’s behavior and reshape their sense of the world around them. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in consumption, or the ethnography of children.

American Anthropologist

Purchasing Power

Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments

1. Consumption in Context
2. The Shadow of Whiteness
3. "What Are You Looking At, You White People?"
4. Hemmed In and Shut Out
5. Anthropologist Takes Inner-City Children on Shopping Sprees
6. Ethnically Correct Dolls: Toying with the Race Industry

Conclusion

Afterword: The Return to the Scene of the Crime
Appendixes
Notes
Bibliography

Index