It was a bold experiment. An Oak Park couple set out to buy everyday necessities —from groceries, gas, clothes to household items — from black-owned businesses for an entire year.
The Empowerment Experiment, co-founded by John and Maggie Anderson, was an eye-opener and a challenge for the couple who sought to trigger a discussion on black capitalism but instead found themselves in the midst of controversy.
Three years after their 2009 experiment began, Maggie Anderson has penned a book chronicling their experience in Our Black Year. Anderson wanted the book to be more than just a summary of their effort. She wanted to open a dialogue about self-help economics and conscious consumerism so blacks can leverage their own buying power, worth an estimated $1 trillion.
“What we did is a yearlong experiment to study and expose some problems so that we … can talk about and do something about fixing those problems,” said Anderson, speaking at a Sunday book signing at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St.
She noted that too often people ignore the elephant in the room — that America’s economy is “racially divided and functions in a way that hurts black neighborhoods the most.” She explained that every ethnic group can set up shop in black neighborhoods, prosper off black dollars but do little to provide jobs.
“America has not lived up to its ideals until the black community plays a better role in this economy,” Anderson said. “We can’t just be consumers and workers. We are owners. We are patriotic, hard-working, taxpaying Americans, and we are worthy of support.”
But support must work both ways. For black businesses to survive, blacks must spend their dollars there. Black Americans have $1 trillion in purchasing power but less than 6 percent of those dollars stay in black communities.
That divestment, Anderson said, leads to poor schools, high crime and explains why quality black-owned businesses generally don’t exist in black neighborhoods. Many businesses the Andersons patronized throughout their experiment are now closed, including a black grocer, two shoe stores, a winery and a children’s apparel store.
Maggie Anderson contends many bourgeois black Americans who’ve made it out and into affluent suburbs are reluctant “to fight for real equality in our economy.” Black people’s lack of support for each other angers her even more than the one-sided way corporations take advantage of black dollars.
“We came together to fight for black people’s civil and political rights. Is it taboo to come together to fight for economic rights?” she asked.
Anderson candidly pointed to integration as a factor in the demise of black economic empowerment. Black consumers began to spend their money outside their community, she explained, causing support for black businesses to wane when segregation was lifted.
In the 1930s, she noted grocery stores were the largest category of black enterprise. During that time, black-owned grocery stores totaled 6,400. The number now has dwindled to eight, compared to 28 Hispanic grocery store chains.
“I don’t know how we are going to come together to recreate the homespun economic empowerment black people used to have when we were legally segregated,” she said. “But now we are a legally integrated society where poor black folks are still segregated but their money isn’t.”
The Andersons’ endeavor was not without controversy. While their experiment grabbed media attention, with it came a torrent of criticism. Comments labeled the couple racist and they even received death threats.
Anderson insisted the effort to support black business is nothing new. It’s a concept already in practice by Jewish, Latino and Asian consumers. Where is the reciprocity? Anderson wonders.
“Every other ethnic group does exactly what I am trying to get more black people to do — practice self-help economics — but they are not racist,” she said. “Why is it not racist for Jewish, Chinese and Greeks to support their own? Why is it just communal pride then, but racism when black people try to do it?”
More troubling than the backlash was the lack of support from prominent black figures like Oprah Winfrey, BET founder Bob Johnson or Al Sharpton. She hoped they would challenge more blacks to embrace this idea of self-help economics. Anderson called that revelation “disheartening.” The couple, at one point, pondered abandoning the experiment.
“This experiment was the best shot that this community has had to really get this message out there,” said Anderson who along with her husband has formed a foundation to promote this cause.
The foundation’s goal is to promote conscious consumerism, track supplier diversity in corporate America and promote strategic entrepreneurism. The latter goal is to urge diversity among services black businesses offer.
The book offers advice for those wanting to support black capitalism. Anderson suggests buying gift cards from black-owned franchises or patronizing businesses like a black-owned dry cleaners or black-owned car washes regularly. Also chambers of commerce are another source to find and support black businesses. She doesn’t evangelize “buy black only.” Instead, she encourages more people to make the effort.
“I tell people to make small sacrifices so black businesses can be supported too. I tell people to support black businesses a little more because 2 to 6 percent is not enough,” Anderson explained.
Oak Park resident Trina Wade described herself as a conscious consumer. But learning of the Anderson’s experiment “sparked an energy” in her to make an active choice to patronize black businesses even if prices are higher than at white retailers. She contends blacks would patronize their own more, but may not know where to start.
“I know it is important to us, but the thing is the word is not out there enough,” Wade said.