Historical Perspectives of Black Consumer Research in the United States: a Critical Review

ABSTRACT - This paper presents a critical review and reassessment of the U.S. Black consumer behavior studies of the 60s and 70s. The conceptual and methodological inadequacies and the contradictions in research findings of the past research in this topic area were pointed out. A case was made for renewed research efforts on sound lines to reflect the changed circumstances of this important U.S. subcultural market and to remedy the deficiencies of the past research.


Patricia A. Robinson, C. P. Rao, and S. C. Mehta (1985) ,"Historical Perspectives of Black Consumer Research in the United States: a Critical Review", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 46-50.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 46-50


Patricia A. Robinson, University of Arkansas, USA

C. P. Rao, University of Arkansas, USA

S. C. Mehta, National University of Singapore, Singapore


This paper presents a critical review and reassessment of the U.S. Black consumer behavior studies of the 60s and 70s. The conceptual and methodological inadequacies and the contradictions in research findings of the past research in this topic area were pointed out. A case was made for renewed research efforts on sound lines to reflect the changed circumstances of this important U.S. subcultural market and to remedy the deficiencies of the past research.


Historically, Blacks have been affected by segregation from "white society", the socioeconomic conditions of lost educational opportunities, discrimination, and occupational and social deprivation. Blacks were denied equality in income, housing, jobs, services, freedom of movement, travel, dining, entertainment, and even the right to vote. As slaves, Blacks were forced to be submissive and were under their owners1 total influence, bound in servitude to that person and his household as an instrument of labor. They were not allowed to be educated, earn money, nor given the right to choose the clothing they wore, to decide where they would live, or what they would consume in their eating habits. Their masters had full control. This went on for a period which exceeded one-hundred-and-fifty years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation which made the ownership of slaves in the United States illegal. It was not until civil rights groups began to apply pressure on the economic system and government intervention, along with some changes in the attitude of Whites, that brought about some improvements in the life situations which Blacks encountered. Unfortunately, the struggle is not over. More than one-hundred-and-twenty years after being legally declared free from salvery, Blacks in the United States, to some extent by circumstances, condition, and situations, have not yet attained socioeconomic equality with majority society.

Being Black and living in the United States is a struggle, an act of survival and self identity that has nothing to do with desires to be White or any other ethnic group even though this is believed to be true by some researchers. In essence, the consumption and behavioral patterns of Blacks in the United States does not depict their desire to he White anymore than does the tanning of Whites because they wish to be Black. For Blacks, cultural integration did not and does not mean an automatic change in lifestyle or consumption patterns, "whiteness" or having anything to do with skin tone. But rather, assimilation into a democratic system where one's rights are governed and protected by the same Constitution that protects and governs rights of others. The truth is that, Since slavery, Blacks have been forced into incorporating two distinct identities - that of an American citizen and that of a Black American. By having to do so, Blacks are constantly living under conditions where identity, be it ethnic or as a citizen, is dependent upon place, circumstance, or economic conditions. In fact, "the mistreatment of blacks throughout American history has been disgraceful and lasting and cannot be ignored in the study of consumer behavior because many aspects of discrimination continue to have an influence on Black buyer behavior" (Mellott 1984, p. 124).

Characteristics of the Black Subculture

Ever since slavery, and regardless of the socioeconomic advancement and changes that have taken place within the Black subculture, Blacks are yet characterized as aspiring to be like and to emulate the values of their white counterparts. Historically, Blacks have always been swamped and baffled by poverty; labeled with the assumptions of McGregor's Theory X; stereotyped as an economically depressed monolithic group; disadvantaged in terms of education, occupational status, and living conditions; cited as being non-discriminating in their buying patterns; and considered as unworthy of special marketing consideration. If closely examined, marketers would find, as shown in Table 1, that the Black consumer market is potentially very profitable, due to its size and demographic characteristics, ever improving educational achievements, growing income levels, and geographic location of Black population in the U.S.

The Existence of A Black Consumer Market

The United States- free-enterprize society consists of people with divergent ethnic and nationality backgrounds, which contribute to the differences in consumption and motivation. The recognition of a growing and significant Black consumer market lead to much of the research that was conducted in the early 1960s and throughout the 1970s. However, since that time, because of many misconceptions about the marketplace behavior of Blacks, the marketing community (both practitioners and academians) has failed to recognize the growth of a cognizant aspiring group of middle class Black "baby-boomers" who hold middle and upper-middle income positions. The question has been asked time and time again, "Is there a distinct Black consumer market?" A significant growth of Black middle-income families in the last decade or so clearly indicates that "yes", there is an emerging Black consumer -market. The Black subculture represents one of the most important groups of consumers for marketers in the United States - a market identifiable in size (26.5 million), whose total income is $240 billion strong, that is geographically concentrated in 12 of 50 states, and has an identifiable consumption patterns which reflect higher levels of consumer loyalty that has been empirically investigated. It has been declared that, if the United States Black consumers were to be considered as a separate country, it would rank eleventh largest in the free world (Smith 1979). This in itself is enough to show the existence of a marketing opportunity for firms operating in today's competitive environment. Secondly, as revealed by the U.S. Census Bureau (1976, 1980a, b), the income levels of Blacks may not be as low as generally portrayed. Despite income deprivation, the average income of Blacks is larger than it has been in the past, even after accounting for the high percentage of female-headed households. In 1972 the median income for Black husband-wife families headed by a person under age 35 in the North and West alone, was nearly twice as much as those reported by the Bureau of Census (1976, 1980a, b) for Blacks overall during 1970 and 1974. Median income of Black husband-and-wife working families in the North and West was $12,300 compared to an overall $6,279 in 1970 and $7,943 in 1974. Comparable figures for White American families with husband-and-wife earners were $12,170 (1972) and $10,236 and $13,456, respectively overall for 1970 and 1974.


Because of political, social, and economic pressures exerted on marketing practitioners during the late 1950s and early 1960s, they were forced to reevaluate the validity of Blacks as a subcultural consumer market in which the development and implementation of effective marketing strategies should be directed. Further, to acquire more detailed knowledge and an understanding of the marketplace behavior of this group, increased interest was shown by academic scholars during the 1960s and 1970s. Since that time, however, research dealing with Black consumer behavior has declined rather significantly. Of the studies conducted, much of the research can be characterized primarily as exploratory in nature and designed to investigate ethnic factors, the consumption (i.e., product and brand), purchase, shopping, and promotional behavior of Black consumers in a comparative manner (differences between Blacks and Whites were typically examined). To benefit the practitioners, the major objectives of these investigations were to determine whether a distinct Black consumer market segment existed for certain products and brands in the American marketplace.

As with much of the marketplace research that has been conducted on the behavior of Black consumers, investigators have been mostly concerned with the examination of demographic variables (Bauer, Cunningham and Wortzel 1965; Portis 1966; Bauer and Cunningham 1970; Gould, Sigband and Zoerner 1970; Dalrymple, Robertson and Yoshino 1971; Alexis, Haines and Simons 1972; ; Gensch and Staelin 1972; Sexton 1972; Hills, Granbois and Patterson 1973; McKinzier, Goldstucker, Bernhardt and Bellenger 1976). Yet, in so doing, no attempt to investigate the differences among the distinct Black consumer segments was made. A major problem that has been found among these studies is lack of control for the effect of socioeconomic variables. Ethnicity, specifically, has been overlooked as being closely associated with other significant socioeconomic characteristics such as income, education, family structure, and residence; and, as a result, do affect the behavior of consumers. In many instances the confounding effects of race, income, heritage, learned habits, and environments were not separately accounted for in these studies. Consequently, the key question becomes whether a particular observed pattern of behavior is due to subcultural influences; for example being Black, or simply due to one's socioeconomic characteristics. Controls must he implemented in future research efforts designed to determine the behavior of any subcultural consumer group.

The findings, conclusions, and marketing implications drawn in most of these Black consumer behavior studies have brought about many misunderstanding, misperceptions, and stereotypes about the Blacks as consumers. Most of these studies were conducted several years ago at a time that: Blacks were not allowed to go (or were inhibited from going) to certain places for entertainment, shop at certain stores, obtain public accommodations in hotels, or eat in certain restaurants. When the civil rights movement was at its height and civil rights legislations were being enacted, Black consumers were sampled in small numbers to carry out the research investigation. In the original stages of growing Black identity, Blacks told researchers what they thought they wanted to hear and hence these studies can be expected to be somewhat biased. The location was geographically convenient so that the studies could be conveniently carried out. Thus, given these limitations of these earlier research studies in this area,6 they should only be treated as initial data bases for newer studies that reflect current trends and conditions. If researchers are to best understand the marketplace behavior of today's Black consumers and generate valid and useful information for practitioners, then newer studies need to be carried out remedying the past methodological deficiencies.

Early Conceptualizations

Just as advertising agencies stereotyped Blacks in the 1930s and 1940s (Alsop 1984), to some extent, the same has been done by researchers in their conceptualizations of the marketplace behavior of Black consumers in the 60s and 70s. In the past, many apriori assumptions have been made by researchers about the factors that motivate and/or influence the behavior of Blacks without ever considering the fact that one's race, religion, and nationality might also be influencing the values and purchase behavior of this consumer group. For example, Petrof (1967) made the assumption that the behavior patterns of Blacks were influenced by their low socioeconomic status. However, the predominant view has been that the behavior of Black consumers is based on a desire for cultural integration. The primary assumption being that Blacks desire to be like Whites and as a result, they consume in a manner which reflects a desire for assimilation (cultural integration) into the total culture rather than maintenance of a distinct social heritage (cultural distinctiveness). This type of thinking has been exemplified in several of the research studies examined by the authors. Specifically, the assumption of preference for identification with Whiteness and essentially negative Black self-identity was expressed by Bullock (1961) who believes that Blacks attempt to surround themselves with symbols of Whiteness (whatever that is). Research conducted on Black self-esteem by Portis and Washington (1979) shows that the self-esteem of Blacks is not lower than the self-esteem of Whites. Additionally, research that compared basic Black/White values in terms of the Rokeach Value Survey revealed that differences in values that exist between Blacks and Whites are primarily due to socioeeonomic differences (Rokeach and Parker 1970). Ness and Smith (1984), on the other hand, note that both Darden and Frazier were able to show that middle-class Blacks may embrace middle-class American values even more strongly than do Whites. The question now becomes, how is this type of behavior explained by those of the majority population who think that Blacks wish to be like them?

Other researchers such as Bauer, Cunningham, and Wortzel (1965) made the assumption that Blacks as a group had accepted the values established by the majority White middleclass culture. They sought to categorize Blacks into two distinct groups - the strivers and the nonstrivers. Strivers were identified as those Blacks who perceived themselves as having the possibility of achieving a middle-class lifestyle in terms of their present or expected incomes. Nonstrivers are the Blacks who think that they are financially blocked from living a middleclass lifestyle, therefore, do not seek the needed material goods.

In comparison to Whites, Blacks have been found to have larger clothing expenditures. Thus, it has been the opinion of several researchers (Kittles 1956; Schwartz 1963; Erickson 1968; Braguglia and Roseacrariz 1968; Sommers and Bruce 1969; Horn 1975) that Blacks perceive clothing to be representative of social status and portray a positive image of one's self. Yet, on the other hand, the thinking of other investigators is that the expenditures by Blacks on clothing is due to the unavailability of items of purchase to Blacks such as housing and recreation (Alexis, Haines and Simon 1972; Stafford, Cox and Higginbotham 1968). Additionally, other reasons advanced to justify the consumption pattern of Black consumers has to do with the following:

Race - Kielty (1970) and Kindel (1970) believe that "race" is the driving force behind the consumption patterns of Blacks.

Price - According to Feldman and Star (1968) Blacks shop discount stores because they are concerned about prices.

Loyalty - The loyalty in which Blacks show for national brand is justified by Bauer (1966) as being a means by which Blacks reduce risk in quality and product performance.

Status - It is thought by Loudon and Della Bitta (1979, 1984) that Blacks have the tendency to engage in compensatory consumption, and by so doing, an attempt is being made to purchase the material goods that are reflective of their achievement of full status in the American society.

Choice - Stafford, Cox and Higginbotham (1968) believe that Blacks- narrowed spectrum of choice due to their history of discrimination in the purchase of homes, vacations, travel, dining, entertainment, and so on, has resulted in a greater expenditure per unit on other things available to them.

Promotion - According to Loudon and Della Bitta (1979, t984), Blacks listen to Black radio because they feel committed to a medium which specifically gives them an identity and visibility; and because it supplies its listeners with advertising which they can be sure is meant for them.

Readership - It is also thought by Loudon and Della Bitta (1979, 1984) that the reason why Blacks do not redeem coupons from magazines, mail, or packages when shopping is because they have minimum readership of general magazines and newspapers which make tip the major delivery mode.

Shopping - Bullock (1961) accounts for the infrequency of shopping trips by Blacks to their tendency to feel more alienated and defensive when shopping. Yet, Dixon and McLaughlin (1971) attribute the frequency in which Blacks make shopping trips to inadequate refrigeration and lack of transportation.


A substantial amount of research has taken place on the purchasing behavior of the Black consumer, and conclusions were drawn through a comparative analysis of the marketplace behavioral patterns of both Blacks and Whites. From these studies, differences in demographics, lifestyle and purchasing habits were extracted and are reflected in the writings of that era. Nevertheless, these studies provide some bases for market segmentation purposes (as shown in Table 11), even though the findings are often conflicting and sometimes inconclusive. The questions that today's marketers must ask themselves are: What market opportunities presently exist with Black consumers? And, can research of the past be used to accurately understand and predict the behavior of Black consumers in the 1980s and beyond'? To answer these questions accurately, current and future research which takes into account the current state of Black Americans is needed.

Table 11 presents the summary of results obtained from previous research studies. While some studies disclosed that Blacks tend to pay higher prices for products because they are restricted to shopping primarily within their neighborhoods due to immobility as a result of lack of transportation, it should be noted, however, that these circumstances have somewhat diminished in the 1980s. Research has also reported that Blacks do shop outside of their neighborhood to get better deals because of access to public transportation. In regards to the patronage behavior of Blacks for non-food items, no definite conclusion has been drawn. Nonetheless, several studies have revealed that low-income Blacks who are product and brand quality conscious tend to shop at national chain and department stores, while middle and high-income Blacks are most likely to shop discount stores. On the issue, researchers have failed to take into consideration that, during the time in which their studies were conducted, the behavior of Blacks may have been due to desegregation. It was not until the protesting of racial discrimination throughout certain states that forced desegregation of department stores, supermarkets, libraries, movie theaters, etc., allowed Blacks the right to patronize many different types of institutions. In line with this, research has further revealed that more experienced and reputable retail stores were often unwilling and unable to market to Blacks (Caplovitz 1967; Sturdivant 1969; Sexton 1971a).

Research has also attributed the shopping scope of Blacks to that of income rather than race (Goldman 1976); however, it has also been stated that as the income of Blacks increases, their consumption behavior pattern appears to parallel that of their middleclass White counterpart. In these studies, age as a variable has been found to be significant in the buying behavior of Blacks. Younger Blacks have been found to behave differently from older Blacks in the marketplace. In comparison to Whites, Blacks of comparable incomes have been found to overspend only on clothing (Braguglia and Rosencranz t968; Bauer and Cunningham 1970a; Kielty 1970; Oldipupo 1970; Alexis, Haines and Simon 1972; Sexton 1972), personal-care products (e.g. toothpaste, mouthwash, and deodorant), alcohol (scotch), furniture and appliance, and tobacco; while Whites, on the other hand, have been found to spend more on housing, transportation and utilities, food, education, and medical care. Based on these findings, are Blacks really engaging in conspicuous or compensatory consumption? And, if so,-is it because they wish to emulate White middle-class values as suggested by Bauer, Cunningham, and Wortzel (1965)? Unfortunately, researchers have been so intriged wit~i determining the product purchase behavior of Blacks that they forgot about desiring to understand why such product purchases are being made.

Another concern in the marketing literature regarding Blacks has been whether those living in the inner city are subject to price discrimination and price hikes by unscrupulous retailers. The answer to the price discrimination issue has not yet been resolved; however, Blacks have been found to pay more for products. Conflicting results have been reported in this area of inquiry. It has been stated that as Blacks income increases, their interest in the price of products also increases. Further, although Blacks have been found to be loyal to national brands, this loyalty profoundly appears to be among low income Blacks and varies within and across product categories.

Both marketers and advertisers have been confused as to the type of promotional strategies that should be employed to penetrate the Black consumer market, without alienating the general market (Whites). They were afraid that the use of a general media to reach both Black and White consumer markets would lead to a White "backlash" from highly prejudiced Whites (Cagley and Cardozo 1969). Research in this area has also been inconsistent. Yet, marketers in the 1940s began to use Black models in advertising to appeal to Blacks, while the 1960s brought pressures from Civil Rights leaders for larger advertisers and agencies to include more Blacks in mass media advertising, television programming, and in the industry at large. The result was the increasing appearance of Blacks in television and magazine advertisement. Shortly thereafter, the behavior towards models in advertisement was examined and found to differ across Blacks. Low-income Blacks and those having less than a college education were reported as preferring all-Black models in television advertisement. Younger Blacks were found to be less likely to favor integrated ads more so than older Blacks (Carey 1966; Larson 1968; Fletcher 1969; Surlin and Dominick 1970-71). A possible reason why Blacks were found to be less likely to view family oriented television, as shown in Table IL, could have been lack of family oriented programming depicting the lifestyle orientations of Blacks. Only recently have national networks made an attempt to program Black family oriented television. The results of these studies, as others, again lead to conflicting opinions about Blacks and how marketers should penetrate the Black consumer market. While it was believed that Blacks could be reached through general media sources, other scholars thought that the best way to capture this market was through well developed specialized marketing programs using Black media.


Currently, ethnic research interest in the United States has shifted from the Black consumer market to the Hispanics without adequately understanding the marketplace behavior of Blacks. Even though research has assumed that Blacks prefer quality brands; little, if any thing, do we know about the attitude of Blacks toward product quality; the reasons why Blacks make such brand preferences (food and non-food items); or the extent to which Blacks associate quality to the prices paid across products and brands. We have yet to study the consumption patterns of Blacks, comparative to other ethnic groups, as income increases; how the consumption of impulse items is affected by income; the shopping preference and motivation of Blacks; and the product purchase behavior (sales response) of Blacks in reference to model preferences in advertisements.


Black consumers constitute a significant subcultural market in the United States. As a result of changing socioeconomic and legal environmental conditions affecting these consumers in the 60s and 70s, there was increased interest on the part of the marketers in this subcultural market. Concurrently, there was considerable research dealing with the various facets of the American Black consumer behavior. However, a careful and detailed review and analysis of these research studies revealed certain weaknesses of the past research efforts. These weaknesses and limitations of the Black consumer behavior research leaves the marketers without the necessary knowledge base for effectively cultivating this important and growing subcultural market. In recent years there was no evidence of any serious research efforts aimed at investigating the Black consumer behavior in the United States in the 80s. Hence, the following is a case and a suggested program for future research in this important topic area.

First and foremost there is an urgent need to conduct the U.S. Black consumer behavior studies in the later part of the 80s. Because as pointed out earlier, most of the previous studies were conceptualized and conducted during the 60s and early 70s, a period of time characterized by significant changes in the psychology and sociology of the Black community in the U.S. The bulk of the past research studies were carried out during a transitional period of the U.S. Black subculture. Some of the significant socioeconomic changes that have taken place affecting the Black consumers in the U.S. in the past two decades were pointed out earlier. Hence, one may hypothesize that the Black consumer behavior in the late 80s will be significantly different from that of the 60s and early 70s. Under the more settled conditions of the late 80s, Black subcultural research will reveal the true state of affairs with regard to the various facets of Black consumer behavior in the U.S.

Secondly, certain methodological and conceptual inadequacies and contradictions of the past research studies were identified earlier in this paper. For purposes of developing a definite body of knowledge and also to systematically pinpoint the true subcultural influences on the U.S. Black consumer behavior, new research studies need to be conducted. These new research studies should be based on sound conceptual foundations. Additionally, controlling for other confounding variables, other than subcultural influences, should be applied to these future research studies. Such sound research approaches in the future will eliminate the contradictory findings and explanations of the past research in this topic area.

Finally, from a pragmatic point of view, new research studies are warranted in Black consumer behavior. As indicated earlier, the overall size and significance of the U.S. Black subcultural market have increased in recent years. New and affluent segments are emerging among the U.S. Black consumers whose behavioral pattern may be significantly different from comparable segments in the majority community. Also replicating the past research studies to validate some of the earlier research findings such as the higher levels of Black consumer loyalty behavior, etc., will have considerable pragmatic significance. From all these perspectives, the time is opportune for renewing the U.S. Black consumer behavior research track.


In consumer behavior research dealing with the concept of "subculture", the U.S. Black consumer behavior research played a significant role in the past. In the 60s and 70s, extensive research studies were conducted dealing with various aspects of the U.S. Black consumer behavior. However, a critical review of these studies revealed that the research studies of the 60s and 70s in this topic area may not be appropriate for understanding and predicting the U.S. Black consumer behaviors of the 80s and 90s. The socioeconomic and cultural status and milieu of the Black consumers have substantially changed in the past decade or so. Besides, the past research in this area suffered from conceptual and methodological inadequacies and often reported contradictory research findings on the same phenomenon. The time is opportune for a new wave of research studies dealing with the U.S. Black consumers both for purposes of developing a definite body of knowledge and for pragmatic marketing management needs.

Note: Tables cited in the paper and the reference list will be forwarded upon request.



Patricia A. Robinson, University of Arkansas, USA
C. P. Rao, University of Arkansas, USA
S. C. Mehta, National University of Singapore, Singapore


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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