by La Risa Lynch
For New Pittsburgh Courier
CHICAGO (NNPA)—John and Maggie Anderson were celebrating their wedding anniversary and chatted about the social ills impacting the Black community. They discussed how Black purchasing power is nearing a trillion dollars, but that money rarely circulates back into the community. Then the bill came.
“Wow, we just spent a couple hundred dollars on our dinner, and we were discussing these issues and then going back home and really nothing happens substantially,” said John, a financial adviser with a Harvard University degree and a MBA from Northwestern University.
|FAMILY—John and Maggie Anderson with their daughters.
“We figure that a lot of our problems come from the fact that our communities don’t have the money to be the vibrant wonderful places that we deserve,” added Maggie, a University of Chicago alum. “We knew that and still didn’t do anything.”
The Chicago area couple realized that they were part of the problem, but thought of an unconventional solution. For a year, they decided to forgo shopping at the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world and buy all their necessities from food, clothing, to furniture from quality Black-owned businesses or professional service providers.
The couple’s buy Black campaign or the “Empowerment Experiment” garnered national headlines as well as some criticism for promoting racism. But the Andersons, who live outside Chicago in suburban Oak Park, Ill., saw their experiment as a lesson in self-help economics.
The Andersons wanted to change Black America’s mindset from just being consumers to being more conscious of how they spent their money and with whom. It wasn’t too long ago that Blacks largely patronized Black businesses, said Maggie, formerly a business consultant who now heads the Empowerment Experiment full-time. Before the fight for integration in this country, Blacks had little choice but to support their own. She said integration was a good thing, but for Blacks “integration was bad economically…because we lost that sense of duty to shop with our own.”
“Integration, economically, was just permission for us to shop with everyone else, and opportunity for everyone else to make money off of us,” said Maggie, a mother of two daughters, Cara, 4, and Cori, 3. Blacks are a distant third in entrepreneur success rates compared to Latinos and Asians, a stark contrast from 20 years ago, when Black businesses were first, she said. Black communities now subsist on the usual suspects of chicken shacks, barbershops and braid salons, and are still poor and rundown, Maggie added. Patronizing Black businesses allows them to grow, hire and contribute back to the community, she noted.
The Anderson’s push for self-help economics has been criticized as racist, a notion Maggie finds absurd. She said other ethnic groups “openly and proactively support their own,” but critics call it racist when Blacks want thriving business communities comparable to Little Italy or Chinatown.
“In 2009, the era of the first Black president, every other group can open up shop and find success in the Black community, but there is no reciprocity for us,” she said, adding that White Americans rarely connect “bigotry with economic exploitation.”
Seeds for future, fruits of Empowerment
They did ground their experiment, which will end this year, in an academic study to monitor the potential and economic impact of buying Black. They plan to use their website, EEforTomorrow.com, to track spending habits. Supporters can register at the site and will be able to log what they’ve spent with Black business. The technical infrastructure is currently being worked out to support pledges and receipt tracking on the website. They hope to have that section up and running by March 2010. The site currently has more than 8,000 supporters.
The goal is to determine if a concerted effort to buy Black would reduce unemployment, spur job creation, increase an area’s tax base or reduce crime. Maggie noted that only five percent of African-American’s purchasing dollar stays in the Black community. She wants that number to rise into the double digits.
To encourage more Black Americans to join EE, the Andersons took their cause on the road. The couple traveled to Atlanta, Dallas, Washington D.C., Detroit and Cincinnati with planned tours for Miami, New York and Los Angles. Maggie noted that those who join the movement do not have to follow exactly want they did, but make subtle changes in their spending habits or buy Black for two or three months.
“We ask that they do a little more than what they currently do,” she said, adding that the experience would be an eye opener.
“We have absolutely no clout, no control of our economic situation,” she contends. “When you do EE, that’s how your consciousness is raised. It is not just about buying Black. It is about feeling that love and pride of your own.”
The website is key in leveling Black economic power. Having a tally of how much Blacks spend on what products and where gives EE leverage to go to major retailers and drugstores to give Black products more shelf space.
“Right now, we just want people to support quality Black businesses and professionals and buy Black-made products that are already out there,” she said. The couple has established a foundation to solicit donations for their endeavors.
They have found most of the businesses by canvassing Black neighborhoods. They also found others on the Internet. “It was definitely a struggle at the beginning of the year, but I’d say around March, it got easier,” John said. “We were used to how our lifestyle had changed, three-fourths more shopping in bulk, visiting two or three businesses in the same geographic area at the a time.”
“How much money can we keep if we were to spend 20 percent more of our income with Black business?” Maggie asked, urging Blacks to join the movement.
While Black purchasing power nears $1 trillion, revenues from Black businesses only equaled $88 billion in 2002, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.