Hustle Culture's Black Roots : Code Switch "Hustle" is just one of many buzzwords in a culture obsessed with productivity. But before the gig economy, hustling was tied up in both stereotypes and realities of working as a black person.

When The 'Hustle' Isn't Enough

Dani Pendergast for NPR
a black man with lots of baggage on his back jumps into a frame, while white professionals look at him
Dani Pendergast for NPR

It seems like everyone has a hustle nowadays. Driving for Uber is a hustle. Starting a "gr8nola" company is a hustle. Picking up a side gig (or three) is a hustle. As the novel coronavirus pandemic grips the world, putting the economy in crisis and confining most people to their homes, personal finance pundits insist that now is the time to get a side hustle.

Hustle is just one of many buzzwords in a culture obsessed with optimizing, grinding, and life-hacking. Why TGIF when you can #ThankGodItsMonday? Why work for the man when you can be your own #girlboss? Hustle culture says it's fashionable to work yourself to death—or at least look like you are. And with the economy in shambles and the unemployment rate skyrocketing, there's an added pressure to generate any and all supplemental income.

In the past few years, hustle has been co-opted to describe an empowering, even lucrative project that someone—often a white person with means—takes on outside of their "day job." There's Lingua Franca, a clothing company that sells sweaters with EVERYDAY I'M HUSTLIN or ORIGINAL GANGSTA embroidered on them for hundreds of dollars. And there's WeWork, the workspace-sharing corporation that emblazons "Hustle Harder" on its office walls. Those companies started as "side-hustles." But for more than a century before that, hustle has been tied up in both stereotypes and realities of what it means to work as a black person.

So let's go back in time. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, hustle comes from the Dutch word "husselen," meaning "to shake or toss." Over time, the word expanded, meaning "to hurry" and "to obtain by begging."

By the late 19th and early 20th century, hustle started being used to mean "gumption" or "hard work." A 1914 job ad from The Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, said delivering the paper was an "easy task" for "any wide-awake boy with a little hustle in him." A year later, the paper profiled Little Arthur White, a 12-year-old "newsy" who was "encouraged to hustle and work in early age."

Around the same time, hustle also referred to illegal activities — sex work, stealing and common scams. An 1894 article from The Los Angeles Times recounted how a young woman was sex trafficked and "told that she must 'hustle' for herself." A 1935 article from The Baltimore Afro-American said that by promising a nonexistent scholarship, "the [University of Maryland] president was admitting that he was giving the applicant a 'hustle.'"

In other publications, hustle—or a lack thereof—was invoked to make an association between blackness and laziness. "The average colored man does not know how to hustle," Timothy Thomas Fortune wrote for The Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist African American newspaper, in 1888. Fortune, a black economist himself, argued that black men enjoy "exceptional opportunities," like public libraries and free night schools, but were too "ignorant" to take advantage of them. In short, he concluded, "colored men have themselves oftenest to blame." (For what? He doesn't say.)

This idea—that black people struggle due to their own failures, rather than systemic oppression — was widespread. As the U.S. underwent rapid economic growth during the Gilded Age, black Americans had to hustle against the forces of redlining, school segregation, employment discrimination and white supremacist violence.

But despite the many obstacles to black opportunity, the idea of being someone who hustles has held a lot of appeal to many black communities. The myth of being able to hustle to overcome challenging circumstances "fits the common desires we all have for some degree of control over our circumstances," Lester K. Spence writes in his book, Knocking The Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. It didn't mean black people were buying into the racist idea that they weren't working hard enough—but that some held onto hope that by "working twice as hard" they might be able to get by, or even in some cases get ahead.

Throughout the 20th century, hustle was used to describe the reality of what many poor black people had to do to make ends meet. In his 1965 autobiography, Malcolm X wrote, "everyone in Harlem needed some kind of hustle to survive." whether that meant illegal gambling, selling drugs, or flipping stolen merchandise. A 1969 passage from New Black Voices, a literature anthology, reads, "I got me a good hustle. I write over $200 worth of numbers a day, which gives me a cool 40 bucks."

In the 1990s and early 2000s, black rappers started to fold the idea of hustling into their lyrics. This framing of hustle would "explicitly exalt the daily rise-and-grind mentality black men...need to possess in order to survive and thrive," Spence notes in his book.

And often, the hustle of these lyrics celebrates a particular kind of black masculinity—doing whatever it takes to make ends meet and support one's family. Ace Hood in his 2011 song "Hustle Hard" says he's "out here tryna get it, each and every way" because "Mama need a house, baby need some shoes." In his 2005 song "I'm a Hustla", Cassidy raps, "I can sell Raid to a bug / I'm a hustler, I can sell salt to a slug." In 2003, Jay Z invoked the idea that a hustler can be his own boss: "I'm a hustler homie / you a customer, cronie. Got some dirt on my shoulder. Could you brush it off for me?"

Black rappers made hustling cool, weaving it into a narrative about black resilience and self-empowerment. But importantly, their lyrics acknowledged that hustling was what black people needed to do to survive in a rigged system. The work itself—selling drugs, working long hours, taking on multiple side-gigs—was not glamorous. Instead, the strength and ingenuity needed to toil through this hard work was what was glorified.

So, as with so many concepts that black rappers have made cool, corporations saw an opportunity to cash in on the term and distance it from blackness. In 2015, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick introduced a set of values that included, "Always be hustlin' — Get more done with less, working longer, harder, and smarter, not just two out of three." (Kalanick was ousted in 2017 after, among other scandals, a video of him cussing out an Uber driver surfaced. That "hustlin'" value has since been scrapped.)

To entice potential workers, online and app-based services market the tireless labor of hustling as an empowering act in itself. Handy, a house cleaning service, promises "independent service professionals" that they'll make "great pay." DoorDash, a food delivery service, claims, "As a dasher, you can be your own boss." By implying that the hustle functions within a meritocratic system, companies are able to fashion low wage, inconsistent work with minimal benefits as freedom and self-reliance.

The use of the term hustle by large corporations is an example of linguistic appropriation, says Maciej Widawski, a professor of English linguistics at UKW University in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

"The proliferation of [hustle] outside African American context suggests...stylization and attractiveness of African American experience as a disadvantaged minority," Widawski says. "By identifying with it, many slang users, especially white, verbally show their disdain for mainstream society without actually having to change their lifestyle or status."

The upper echelons of corporate America are beginning to reject so-called "hustle culture." The founders of Unhustled and Unhustle (completely separate companies) decry the long work hours at their former finance and digital-marketing jobs, respectively. Entrepreneurs, like the founder of 1-800-GOT-JUNK, are speaking out against "performative workaholism." For society's elite, hustling may be slowly going out of fashion.

The problem is, hustling still isn't a choice for people who aren't at the top. There's a world of difference between staying late at the office to score a promotion and peeing in a bottle to keep your job at an Amazon warehouse. As Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote for Time magazine, "Everyone is hustling, but everyone cannot hustle the same."

44 percent of American workers earn low wages, a median annual pay of only $17,950. Middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was two decades ago. As the economy is supposedly booming, many Americans—especially black people—are forced to take on multiple side-hustles in order to survive. To make matters worse, gig workers are often classified as independent contractors instead of employees, allowing companies to elude laws that govern most traditional workplaces, like health, safety and discrimination laws.

"People are hustling, working hard and not even being able to stay afloat. Forget about moving up," says Marcela Escobari, an economist at the Brookings Institution. "They need to complement [their job] with a second or a third job."

America's hustle culture is predicated on its embrace of human capital, according to Spence. In this view, hustle is an equal-opportunity venture, wherein hard work is the only thing that separates poverty and wealth.

But the pandemic and subsequent economic fallout have made one thing abundantly clear: So-called "unskilled" workers are essential and always have been. They're just harder to ignore now that much of the country is staying home and relying upon essential workers to help feed and sustain them. Grocery store clerks replenish shelves as America hoards beans and toilet paper. Instacart workers deliver medications. Postal workers ship packages under "Christmas-like" demands.

As the world hunkers down in quarantine, the social pressure to constantly produce continues. And while some are calling for an end to productivity culture during the pandemic, it's not that simple for low-wage workers, who often don't have paid time off or the option to work from home to pay the bills. Even during a global health crisis, they have to hustle harder.