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A family's year of 'buying black'

In the 'Ebony Experiment,' an Illinois couple travels far to buy groceries, gas, even vitamins from black-owned businesses. What, they wonder, if all African Americans made the same pledge?

March 10, 2009|Ted Gregory

CHICAGO — Maggie Anderson drives 14 miles to buy groceries, which might seem curious given that she lives in bustling Oak Park, Ill. She and her husband, John, travel 18 miles to a health food store in Chicago for vitamins, supplements and personal care products. They drive some distance for gasoline too.

The reason? They want to help solve what they call "the crisis in the black community." They want to buy black.

The Andersons, African Americans who rose from humble means, are attempting to spend their money for one year exclusively with black-owned businesses and are encouraging African Americans across the nation to do the same.

They call it the "ebony experiment."

"More than anything, this is a learning thing," said Maggie Anderson, who grew up in the crime-ridden Liberty City neighborhood of Miami and holds a law degree and an MBA from the University of Chicago. "We know it's controversial, and we knew that coming in."

But the Andersons said they also knew that a thriving black economy was fundamental to restoring impoverished African American communities. They talked for years about how to address the problem.

What they came up with is provocative. One anonymous letter mailed to their home accused the Andersons of "unabashed, virulent racism. Because of you," the writer stated, "we will totally avoid black suppliers. Because of you, we will dodge every which way to avoid hiring black employees."

Apart from that letter, most comments have been encouraging, the Andersons said, adding that most people see the endeavor as beneficial to all.

"Supporting your own isn't necessarily exclusive," said John Anderson, a financial advisor who grew up in Detroit and has a Harvard degree in economics and an MBA from Northwestern, "and you're not going to convince everybody of that."

The undertaking, which began Jan. 1, "is an academic test about how to reinvest in an underserved community" and lessen society's burden, he said.

If focused on black businesses, the estimated $850 billion in black buying power in the U.S. each year can expand businesses, create jobs, and strengthen families, schools and neighborhoods, the Andersons and other advocates said.

"When a thriving African American or urban community is realized, certainly as a society as a whole we all win," John Anderson said.

They are using a public relations firm, have created a website -- -- have been laying the groundwork for nearly two years and have enlisted researchers from Northwestern University to detail and extrapolate the effects of their spending.

Still, the first two months posed challenges in finding stores that meet what Maggie Anderson called her "exacting standards." Her latest crisis is finding shoes and clothes for the couple's toddler daughters.

The Andersons buy gasoline cards from black-owned stations in Phoenix, Ill., and Rockford, Ill., and use the cards elsewhere.

After several weeks of searching, Maggie Anderson found Farmers Best Market in Chicago, a black-owned grocer 14 miles from their home, and God First, God Last, God Always Dollar and Up General Store, a black-owned general merchandise establishment 18 miles from their house.

They moved their personal accounts to Covenant Bank in Chicago, but have been unable to switch their mortgage and student loans to black-owned financial institutions. And they haven't changed utility companies.

Lawrence Hamer, associate professor of marketing at DePaul University, called the Andersons' project "brave and courageous," and said its logic was "exactly right."

But it probably will be futile in achieving anything meaningful in the black economy, he added.

"It's just so hard for a small group of individuals to have an impact on something that's so huge," said Hamer, who is African American. "It's almost like a viral marketing campaign. It only works if enough people catch the virus."

Even if they do catch the virus, Hamer said, it is extremely difficult "to get people's attention to change their behavior in any significant way."

Maggie Anderson conceded that "it's still little by little and it's still a lot of work, but I'm still very committed to this."

Although it may be one of the more well-organized and -monitored projects of its kind, the experiment is not the only venture of its kind, said James E. Clingman, a prolific writer on African American economic empowerment who teaches a class on black entrepreneurship at the University of Cincinnati.

African Americans have been buying black for more than a century, Clingman said. Booker T. Washington, long an advocate for African American economic power, was an early proponent, and African Americans have been forming black-buying cooperatives for decades, he added.

But thriving black businesses began dissolving in the mid-1960s, when African Americans focused on political power and civil rights and began patronizing white-owned businesses under the misconception that buying white signified blacks' upward socioeconomic mobility, Clingman said.

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