According to a recent survey by Experian, African-American consumption grew by over 50 percent from the year 2000 to 2008 ($590 billion to $913 billion), and it is expected to grow to over $1.2 trillion dollars by the year 2013. The study also shows that blacks are more economically optimistic than whites, with 36 percent of us stating that we expect our financial future to improve, as opposed to 31 percent for all adults.

The Experian study says a couple of things: First, it says that black people love to consume and that we are getting better at it. In fact, black people have historically been very good at buying things and working hard to get them, but we are not very good at production, investment and saving our money. We grab our tax refunds and run to the mall. We become highly paid corporate lawyers in order to purchase the house and car we really can’t afford. We are chubby kids in the economic candy store, accelerating our collective addiction to the monetary engines controlled by corporate greed.

The extraordinary optimism of black consumers is surprising in light of the disturbing state of black joblessness. African-American unemployment still stands at well over 16 percent, with black male unemployment faring even worse. In spite of having relatively abysmal economic circumstances, black people have reason to be optimistic when compared with whites. The outlook differential is primarily due to the fact that we’re still climbing our way out of hundreds of years of staunch oppression. As a result of this oppression, many African-Americans are first-generation college students, bringing upward mobility to their families and sharing the spoils of their success.

In fact, according to a survey at UCLA, 62.9 percent of African-American college students are first-generation, compared with only 13.2 percent of whites. When you’ve spent so much time at the bottom of the financial ladder, almost every new position is better than the one you had before. Additionally, first-generation students are more likely to go to college to study in fields with higher salaries, such as business and engineering.

The question here is “What do we do with all this buying and spending power?” As I write in my book, Black American Money, African-Americans must learn the value of financial capital and redefine our perception of how money is to be used. The cash in your bank account is not simply meant to be re-donated to the local Wal-Mart. It is intended for the creation of ownership opportunities which allow you to have greater control of your economic and social destiny.

Most importantly, money is power. By bringing together our collective buying power for the pursuit of meaningful political objectives, African-Americans can dig into a gold mine of influence that is both untapped and unprecedented. We can liberate black men from the modern day slavery of the prison system by not buying products from corporations which operate on prison labor. We can support outstanding charter schools like Urban Prep Academy in Chicago, which sent 100 percent of its African-American male senior class to college. We can help our Historically Black Colleges break free from their financial strangulation.

There are many more things we can do with our trillion dollar impact that go beyond buying the next pair of Air Jordans. Black consumption and economic optimism must translate into something more meaningful if we are to realize our true potential. There’s really no way around it.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. For more information, please visit BoyceWatkins.com>