Couple Who Sought to Buy Only From Black-Owned Businesses Found Effort ‘Difficult’

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The Andersons Buy BlackIt’s been a year since John and Maggie Anderson, an African-American couple who rose from modest beginnings to academic and economic success, embarked on a controversial adventure in empowerment to spend their money exclusively with African-American businesses in 2009.

They’ve learned a few things, not the least of which was that they were a little naive.

“It was more difficult, to be honest,” Maggie Anderson said as the year concluded. “We went out all starry-eyed.”

As with most wisdom, the more meaningful lessons emerge from the more demanding struggles. So it was with the “Empowerment Experiment,” said the Andersons, of Oak Park, Ill.

“There were certainly some challenges,”

John Anderson said. “But at the same time, the relationships we have cultivated ? not only with the business owners but also in mobilizing so many people across the nation who have embraced the message ? that’s been the biggest blessing of this whole year. It has been a wonderful year.”

The most discouraging challenge came in August, when the black-owned, full-service grocery store they would drive 14 miles to patronize closed. The couple also had to face jaded perspectives from other African-Americans who told the Andersons that black-owned businesses were inferior to white-owned enterprises and that the couple’s over-arching goal of creating robust black businesses would never work.

And facing them at almost every turn was the insistence from some whites that the Andersons’ experiment was an exercise in racism, a charge they reject.

The effort, particularly in the last three months, generated a great deal of momentum, the Andersons said. Maggie Anderson received an overwhelming response when she spoke at Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas. She also was the opening speaker at the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce meeting in September.

A week later, she spoke at the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual convention in Washington, D.C. Northwestern University’s Kellogg Black Alumni Club honored the Andersons in November. Overall, John Anderson said, about 75 percent of the reaction the couple received was encouraging. The remainder was critical.

“There was a feeling that now we have really created a vehicle to force ourselves to look into the mirror and address some of the issues we don’t want to talk about,” John Anderson said. Most notable among those issues, he said, was the belief among middle-class blacks that disassociation from African-American businesses is a sign of success.

“We’re having those discussions much more often now,” he said.

The Andersons ? he’s a financial adviser with degrees from Harvard and Northwestern; she’s a business consultant who works from home and has a law degree and MBA from the University of Chicago ? said they came up with the “Empowerment Experiment” to help solve persistent ills surrounding “underserved communities.”

They note that African-Americans carry nearly $850 billion in spending power but that very little of that money circulates through those “underserved” communities. Most businesses in those neighborhoods are owned by people of other races who live elsewhere.

After their story in the Chicago Tribune in March, the Andersons gained widespread media exposure. They were interviewed on CNN, Fox News and CBS Morning News.

One of those who jumped onboard the movement after seeing the CBS segment in July was Viel Robinson of Greensboro, N.C.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is great,’ ” said Robinson, adding that she began making a conscious effort to support more black-owned businesses. “This is something I was already interested in anyway.”

She said, however, that she found it “sometimes challenging” to find black-owned companies that provided goods she needed.

“I know that there’s a lot of economic power behind the African-American dollar,” she said. “If more of us thought about doing this, it could create a real spark.”

Then and now, the Andersons ask critics to look beyond racist implications. In March, they changed the name of their project, originally called the “Ebony Experiment,” to “better articulate what’s in our heart and what our end game is,” Maggie Anderson said.

They contend that robust, black-owned businesses help restore impoverished African-American neighborhoods, which yield less crime, more jobs, less drug abuse, stronger families and better schools.

“This is really about African-Americans taking ownership of a problem,” John Anderson said. “It’s a way for us to be less reliant on the government. It’s a way for us to create role models. All that stuff.”

But it’s complicated.

First, the Andersons said, it was difficult to find black-owned businesses that met their standards. Apart from the long drive for groceries, they purchased gift cards from black-owned gas stations in Rockford and Phoenix, Ill., so they could then fill up wherever they were. They drove about 18 miles to a health food store in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood and a similar distance to a general merchandise store. For Christmas, they bought their 3- and 4-year-old daughters clothes at a re-sale boutique and Afro-centric books and DVDs.

And, in August, Karriem Beyah closed his grocery store, Farmers Best Market, where the Andersons had shopped.

“That was probably the worst day of the experiment,” John Anderson said, “because he really was trying to do the right thing.”

They were able to shop for food at several black-owned outlets until November, the Andersons said, when difficulties finding fresh produce and meat prompted them to begin shopping at mainstream grocery stores.

Beyah, 47, is ambivalent about the “Empowerment Experiment.” The awareness and enthusiasm the Andersons created was important, he said. But Beyah added that his business may have suffered from being highlighted as an enterprise owned by an African-American.

“If you’re under the radar, then maybe you won’t get that belief from customers that the other guy’s ice is colder than yours,” he said. But, “I’m not giving up.”

Beyah added, “It’s one of those things that makes you stronger.” He plans on opening another store in a few months.

The Andersons estimated that they spent about 70 percent of their dollars, or slightly less than $70,000, with black-owned businesses in 2009. This year, they are pushing the experiment into what Maggie Anderson called “movement mode.”

She will become the face of a national campaign to gain commitments from many African-Americans to support black-owned businesses and forward their spending records to researchers who will gauge the impact and extrapolate what it would mean on a larger scale. Maggie Anderson is planning to hit the speaking circuit, and the couple will write a book.

For inspiration, they may recall the response she received from the church in Dallas.

“Those people were in tears, standing on their feet,” Maggie Anderson recalled. “To get that kind of reaction really made us feel like we were doing something for the community, that we were earning the respect of our community leaders.”

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (c) 2010.