Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
It sounded like a good idea when Maggie and John Anderson came up with it: Patronize only African-American owned businesses for a year. But, as Maggie Anderson, with co-author Ted Gregory, writes in “Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy” (PublicAffairs Books, 320 pages, $25.99) buying “Black” turned out to be much more complicated.
The Andersons live in Oak Park, Illinois, an upscale Chicago suburb just west of the almost entirely Black and Hispanic Chicago neighborhoods of Austin and Lawndale — neighborhoods the upscale Andersons wouldn’t consider living in. I checked out the racial makeup of Oak Park, which I knew from living and working in Chicago many years ago and visiting many times since. My first job out of college more than 50 years ago was in Chicago and one of my sisters has been a resident for many years, so it’s a town I know.
I was surprised to discover in my online research that Oak Park, also famous as the hometown of Ernest Hemingway, is more racially diverse than I had suspected: The village (Illinois has some large villages, including the largest, Cicero!) of 52,000 has a substantial minority population: as of the 2010 census, the racial makeup of the village was 67.7% White American, 21.7% African American, 0.2% American Indian, 4.8% Asian, 2.0% from other races, and 3.6% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 6.8% of the population.
Oak Park is an affluent community and the Andersons are typical; the median family income, according to a 2007 estimate, was $103,840 yearly. When I think of Oak Park, I think Frank Lloyd Wright, the Wisconsin-born architect who had his home and studio there. There are many Wright designed homes in the community and the Unity Temple that he designed in the early 20th century is a national landmark. Oak Park has always been a beacon of tolerance in one of America’s most racially divided cities; in 1968, it passed a fair housing law — at a time when urban rioting and white backlash in nearby Cicero was roiling the nation. My guess is that’s why John and Maggie Anderson decided to buy a house in Oak Park, convenient to his job in far western Oak Brook and Maggie’s downtown office.
Although Maggie and John Anderson were successful African American professionals raising two daughters in a leafy, relatively safe suburb with architecturally significant houses, they felt uneasy over their good fortune. Most African Americans live in economically starved neighborhoods. Black wealth is about one tenth of white wealth, and black businesses lag behind businesses of all other racial groups in every measure of success. One problem is that black consumers—unlike consumers of other ethnicities— choose not to support black-owned businesses. At the same time, most of the businesses in their communities are owned by outsiders.
On January 1, 2009 the Andersons embarked on a year-long public pledge to “buy black.” They thought that by taking a stand, the black community would be mobilized to exert its economic might. They thought that by exposing the issues, Americans of all races would see that economically empowering black neighborhoods benefits society as a whole. Instead, blacks refused to support their own, and others condemned their experiment. Drawing on economic research and social history as well as her personal story, Maggie Anderson shows why the black economy continues to suffer and issues a call to action to all of us to do our part to reverse this trend.
My problem with the whole experiment is that it neglects to take into account the history that Maggie Anderson herself relates in this fascinating book; Blacks had more successful businesses, in Chicago, Durham, NC, and Tulsa, OK, to cite three of the communities mentioned, in the segregated period of the 1920s. 1930s and 1940s, for example, than they have today. All three communities had successful Black entrepreneurs in businesses of all kinds, including banks, insurance firms, funeral homes, grocery stores, department stores, doctors and lawyers and other professionals. I knew about this from my past reading.
I’m glad the book was published by PublicAffairs Books, an outstanding publisher of nonfiction books founded by distinguished journalists, because the book comes with comprehensive notes and an excellent index. Thus, I was able to trace the opposition to the project’s name from the unlikely source of Johnson Publishing Co., the Chicago-based publishers of Ebony magazine, which — as Maggie Anderson herself points out — has a special place in African-American households.
On Pages 88 ff, Anderson discusses the opposition of Johnson to the original name for the project, The Ebony Experiment. I can understand the opposition of the publishing company, since the name sounds as if the experiment was sponsored by Johnson Publishing — which it wasn’t. After legal threats, the Andersons decided on the name The Empowerment Experiment.
In their year of trying to buy Black, the Andersons discovered that stores with African American managers and workers were not necessarily Black; many of the stores were owned by Arab Americans, a large minority in Chicago (many of them are Christians), as well as entrepreneurs from the Subcontinent of India and Pakistan.
The few stores owned by Blacks had a poor selection of substandard merchandise and very little fresh fruits and vegetables. Liquor stores predominate, with the only food on sale of the junk and snack variety. The Andersons discovered a Black-owned grocery on Chicago’s South Side, traditional home of most of the city’s African Americans, and even located a Black farmer who sold fresh produce from his Downstate farm (In Illinois, “Downstate” is everything outside the Chicago metro area). Unfortunately, the Black grocer couldn’t sustain his business, due in large part to lack of support by African Americans. Maggie Anderson relates a saying I never heard of, but which explains this lack of support: “White man’s ice is colder.”
Some facts about the Andersons’ “Black Year”:
* They had to drive to a South Side location fifteen miles away to find their Black-owned grocery store, and it closed halfway through the experiment.
* The Andersons encountered a surprising resistance to the experiment from the media, including Black owned media; leading academics; large corporations, and individuals who withdrew their support of the experiment for “fear of being perceived as racist”.
* During their year of “Buying Black,” the Andersons spent about 70% of their after-tax income — about $70,000 — at Black-owned businesses.
* One economist found that in the Asian community a dollar circulates among local businesses, banks and business professionals for up to 28 days before it is spent with outsiders; in the Jewish community, a dollar circulates for 19 days; in the African-American community a dollar is gone within 6 HOURS!
* White-owned firms have average annual sales of $439,579; Black-owned firms: $74,018.
A lack of Black entrepreneurs isn’t unique to America: Living for several months in 2008 in Belize, a Black majority country the size of New Jersey in Central America with just over 300,000 residents, I quickly discovered that most of the stores in the largest city, Belize City, are owned by Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, and Asian entrepreneurs. The lack of Black entrepreneurs in most countries would make a great book.
“Our Black Year” is an eye-opening book that should be read by anyone interested in the nation’s racial and economic divide. I agree with Anderson that it would be better if there were more Black entrepreneurs, but I see many reasons why African Americans are attracted to careers with more job security, including civil service positions, staff medical jobs and academia. Being an entrepreneur is walking a tightrope without a safety net, as the owner of the South Side grocery store quickly discovered.
About the authors
As CEO and cofounder of The Empowerment Experiment Foundation, Maggie Anderson has become the leader of a self-help economics movement that supports quality black businesses and urges consumers, especially other middle and upper class African Americans, to proactively and publicly support them. She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and CBS Morning News, among many other national television and radio shows. She received her BA from Emory University and her JD and MBA from the University of Chicago. She lives in Oak Park, Illinois, with her husband, John, and their two daughters. Website:www.eefortomorrow.com. Ted Gregory is a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Chicago Tribune.