Maggie Anderson had a simple goal in early 2009: Spend all of her money with black people for a year. She and her husband, John, called it the Empowerment Experiment. Their frustrations and lessons learned are chronicled in “Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy,” which was published in February.
Q: What exactly were the rules?
To qualify as black-owned for our experiment, it had to be at least 50 percent ownership.
Q: What was the hardest part of the experiment?
It was friends, our networks and folks. We just knew once we showed them some businesses to support, that they would support them. And they didn’t.
Q: Would you consider it a success?
The experiment was very successful in that for the first time ever, we were getting reporters to talk about the important causes to why black people suffer. All of the media focus on how many of us are killing each other and dropping out of school. It’ll be wonderful if they ended that statement with an, “Oh, by the way, only 2 percent of black people’s buying power stays in their communities.”
If we can get this conversation into the mainstream so the powerful folks can see it, maybe it can be a movement. That didn’t happen. I wish it could be a grass-roots movement. But knowing how our economy works, it’s going to have to come top down. We need our wealthy business owners to invest in this. To the extent that we weren’t able to get that started during that year, I feel like we failed.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
Maybe The Empowerment Experiment was doomed to fail. On the one hand, we had angry Whites calling us racist, and on the other, we had Blacks tearing into us for a number of reasons, saying we were ignorant for believing that Black-owned businesses were competitive with White-owned ones — or could ever be.
Q: What were your findings in terms of black-owned businesses? How much did you spend?
We spent $90,000 that we wouldn’t have spent before, and over 90 percent of that went into underserved black neighborhoods. We could not find most of the businesses that we needed. We were happy to find, though, a black-owned hardware store in our white neighborhood.
A lot of our more successful businesses were franchises. They were in non-black communities, and they didn’t position themselves as black-owned. You didn’t even know who the owners were. Then we found some of your stereotypical black businesses that are in the black community, owned by business owners that quite frankly should not be business owners. What’s disheartening about those is because they’re around, the good folks with the great businesses suffer because we cling to the bad experience at the negatively stereotyped business.
Q: What is your advice for those who want to try it?
My calling in life now is to ask people to just get started. At a minimum, go put your money in a black bank and get subscriptions to black-owned media. Look at gas stations, banks and media. Buy gift cards from those black-owned franchises, and save your receipts. We could create so many jobs for our community.
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