In the black

Maggie Anderson, JD’98, MBA’01, and her family spent a year trying to patronize only black-owned businesses.

By Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93
Photography by Chris Strong

The clown is late.

Maggie Anderson had hoped to book Ding Dong the Hip-Hop Clown for her daughter Cori’s third birthday party, a get-together of about 25 friends and family at the Andersons’ home in Oak Park. But Ding Dong was unavailable November 15, so Maggie booked a magician, who never showed up. Nearly an hour later, UBU Party Store—where she also bought the decorations—is sending a substitute: “A clown that does magic,” says Maggie’s husband, John, who’s been on the phone arranging it. “Interesting.”

For Anderson, hiring a black clown for her daughter’s birthday party, like much else during the year’s exercise, proved complicated.

The plan was magician, pizza, presents, but the kids are getting hungry. “Pizza! Pizza!” Cori shrieks as John opens the boxes.

It’s a typical experience for the Andersons, who have spent the past ten-and-a-half months living what they call “the Empowerment Experiment”—trying to patronize only black-owned businesses, most of which they have never patronized before. Sometimes the services are reliable, sometimes not. Sometimes the products are terrific, such as the pizza, which comes from Reggio’s, and the ice cream, from a Marble Slab Creamery franchise on South Michigan Avenue. Sometimes they are not so terrific, like the soda, an off-brand purchased at a South Shore dollar store.

When 2009—the year of the Empowerment Experiment—began, Maggie Anderson had no idea how much legwork she would have to put in to find that dollar store, where she planned to purchase items she ordinarily would have bought at Walmart. “How many of you have seen at least ten ‘dollar stores’ in the average Black neighborhood?” Anderson wrote on her blog in January. “Wow, look at all the hands go up!” Yet to her surprise it took hours of research—checking black business directories online, calling local chambers of commerce, and finally phoning dollar stores individually—to find the only black-owned one in Chicago: the mellifluously named God First, God Last, God Always, Dollar And Up General Store.

There is no black-owned Athlete’s Foot or Church’s Chicken, Anderson discovered, though these stores also are common in black neighborhoods. And African American businesses tend to be either high-end or low-end, with nothing in the middle: there’s no black-owned Macy’s, Sears, or Target. So John, who needs conservative clothing for his job as a financial adviser, spent 2009 wearing bespoke button-down shirts from a black-owned franchise of J. Hilburn, with dollar-store undershirts underneath.

Certain items were easy to find, such as personal-care products: Anderson lists Soul Purpose (“Our Mary Kay, for lack of a better term,” she says) and Nubian Heritage goat’s-milk and chai soap among her favorites. Others were impossible. When older daughter Cara, 4, outgrew her dress shoes, Anderson couldn’t find new ones in time for a cousin’s christening. So Cara wore a sundress and sandals to church while all the other little girls had on frilly dresses and stockings. Anderson recalled the fallout during a speech at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business later in November: “She cried, and her grandparents looked at me sideways.”

Although the experiment sounds extreme, Anderson is a moderate at heart. So if a business was majority black-owned, she counted it. She did not lean on friends and family to agree to the pledge, and she gratefully accepted their gifts. In the summer the girls wanted a paddling pool, but Anderson couldn’t find one—so a cousin bought Cara a pool for her birthday. Other friends bought Cori a comforter after she outgrew her baby blankets.

The Andersons have tried to explain the experiment to their older daughter in simple terms. When referring to skin color, “we say ‘brown,’” Maggie says. “I’m not sure she would even get ‘black,’ since, you know, no one is actually black. I say, ‘There are a lot of poor brown people, and we want to help brown people by going to their stores.’ That’s easy for her to understand.”

At Cori’s party, despite the AWOL clown, the mood is calm and relaxed. There’s just one other problem: the kitchen lights keep cutting out intermittently. “Now I have to get a black electrician,” Anderson says. “You see how my life is?”

Maggie and John first thought up the Empowerment Experiment on August 21, 2004. For their fifth anniversary, they made a reservation at Tru, an exclusive Streeterville restaurant. (Like a typical married couple, they quibble over details: John insists they ate at MK.) Over dinner they discussed the seemingly intractable problems in the African American community. Then the check arrived: the total was more than $500. 

“That’s when we realized that we are a part of the problem,” Anderson wrote later on her blog. “Our people needed that money. Our businesses needed that money.” African American spending totals nearly $1 trillion a year, yet only a fraction of that amount goes to businesses owned by African Americans. Together John, with a BA from Harvard and an MBA from Northwestern, and Maggie, a marketing executive, earned more than $200,000 annually. With that amount of spending power, they wondered, what could they accomplish if they spent their money only at black-owned businesses?

Maggie’s passionate identification with the black community—she always uses the first-person plural when writing or talking about it—is particularly noteworthy; she could just as easily have considered herself Latina. John has a common background for African Americans: his ancestors were slaves in South Carolina, and he grew up middle-class in Detroit. But Maggie is the daughter of working-class Cuban immigrants; she speaks only Spanish with her mother.

Party guests finally enjoy their pizza, and the Andersons pose for a photo with the replacement magician-clown.

“My father looks like Morgan Freeman,” she says. “My mother is very fair. If you put me next to my mom and her relatives, we’re just a bunch of Latin women. But with John and the people you saw at my party, I’m black. That’s something I’ve dealt with all my life.”

It was her parents, she says, who insisted that she was black, as a reaction against the Cuban-on-black racism they encountered in the poor Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. “Cuban people who are even darker than my dad would treat someone like John with disdain,” she says. “Cuban people would say, ‘You let her date that gusano (earthworm)?’ That’s the crazy psychological experiment I grew up in. So my parents always taught me, ‘Your ancestors were slaves. Don’t let anyone ever tell you you’re not black.’”

Soon after the Andersons’ anniversary dinner at Tru (or MK), they started a family, so they postponed their buy-black idea. Cara was born in 2005, Cori the following year. By 2009 both girls were in preschool, Maggie had returned to strategy consulting on a project basis, and the time seemed right to try “the exercise,” as she called it: “I liked ‘exercise’; John liked ‘experiment.’” 

Originally the Andersons had planned to try their exercise/experiment for a month. But in the meantime, the extreme-lifestyle-change-for-a-year trend had emerged in American culture and publishing. There was the man who tried to follow the Bible literally (The Year of Living Biblically, 2007) and the woman who blogged about her obedience to Oprah’s commandments (this year she published Living Oprah). Other experiments were economic: the Compactors promised to buy nothing new, while a former businessman in England survived without any money at all. But Anderson’s inspiration came from a less likely source: 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy. “Do you remember that couple who had sex every day for a year?”

The yearlong construct may be new, but the larger point is not. “The idea of fostering a black entrepreneurial class of self-sufficient individuals,” says Gregory Price, chair of the economics department at Morehouse College, “has been around since Emancipation.” Tuskegee Institute was founded on that principle, and its first leader, Booker T. Washington, established the National Negro Business League. Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey and the Nation of Islam later espoused more radical versions of this idea, calling for a separate black economy. And shortly before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. asked African Americans to strengthen institutions in their community by choosing black-owned banks and insurance companies. Still, Anderson says, as far as she’s aware her family was the first to make a buy-black pledge.

From the beginning, Anderson, a former speechwriter for the mayor of Atlanta, had big ambitions, including a book and an academic study. The summer before the experiment began, she wrote a formal abstract and put together an advisory board, which included Georgetown sociology professor and commentator Michael Eric Dyson and Steven Rogers, a former professor of John’s at Kellogg.

With the help of an acquaintance who worked in PR, Anderson crafted a press release. It stated that the “Ebony Experiment”—as it was then called—was not just a yearlong stunt but that her family hoped to start a movement. Echoing W. E. B. DuBois, who called for the “talented tenth” to “save…the Negro race,” the Andersons asked the richest African Americans to lead the push: “There are nearly 2.5 million Black households with incomes over $100,000. The Ebony Experiment targets these middle-class and upper middle-class families and asks them to make commitments to buy Black.”

Anderson’s cold call to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Cheryl V. Jackson prompted the first news story about the experiment, “Their Year of Buying Black,” on December 20, 2008. The article also appeared on the newspaper’s home page. Anderson was thrilled—until readers began posting comments.

“if i could go back in time 200 yrs i would pick the cotton myself just to shut you negros up,” wrote one. “the majority of black people cry they have it so bad go back to africa and see how you like it there.”

“heres an idea….” wrote another (ellipsis in original), “lets go back in time to 1964 and break Johnsons fingers so he cant sign the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT….I’ll have the KKK omelet….‘whites only.’”

Devastated, Anderson considered giving up before the experiment even began. Although John had anticipated an ugly reaction, she was taken by surprise. “I cried,” she says. “I thought, ‘These people live in Chicago?’” She wrote a long, heartfelt e-mail to Rogers, who advised her to change her terminology: rather than “buy black,” say “self-help economics.” “But that didn’t help with my feelings,” says Anderson. On John’s advice, she stopped reading the comments, even though that meant she could not report them to the Sun-Times as abuse.

In January the black-owned PR firm Flowers Communications offered to represent the Andersons pro bono. In March the Chicago Tribune ran a front-page story. Soon afterward, they honed their message, changing the name from the “Ebony Experiment” to the “Empowerment Experiment.” The Trib article launched the Andersons onto the national scene: they appeared on the Fox Business Network (“I think it’s very smart,” anchor Neil Cavuto said about the experiment) and twice on CNN, including The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. May brought an Associated Press wire story, which led to coverage on CBS News, Fox, MSNBC, and NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

The publicity stirred more backlash: a Facebook group called Stop the Empowerment Experiment. Founder Greg Krsak of Portland, Oregon, even took out a Facebook ad for ten days. (Only 89 people joined, including some African Americans who defended the experiment.) “The Empowerment Experiment,” Krsak wrote in an instant-message interview, “is as much based on ‘choosing not to do business with someone’ as it is ‘choosing to do business with someone.’ And it’s based on skin color, which no one can change. I think that’s where I draw the line. Race equality is too important for me, ethically.”

The views of more moderate critics such as Krsak (“I'll never know as much about being black as Maggie Anderson does,” he admits) are not actually that far from the Andersons’—it’s more a disagreement over timing. Krsak believes the playing field has already been leveled; the Andersons disagree. “I hope my girls, or maybe grandchildren, grow up in an America where race is not so much an issue,” says John. “I think we’re progressing toward that. But we’re not there.”

“People on the West Side,” says Maggie. “Are they not entitled to asparagus?” Apparently not, she found. During the experiment she had planned to shop at Leamington Foods, a West Side grocery chain, despite its less-than-desirable reputation: “This store is typical of a neighborhood that is a food desert,” a reviewer wrote on Yelp. “There were about 40 different versions of those stupid kids’ sugar drinks. They come in all flavors…diabetes, heart disease, obesity.”

Nonetheless, on January 2 the entire family arrived for a shopping expedition. At this early point in the experiment, Anderson had assumed Leamington was black-owned because it advertises heavily on African American radio stations and its stores are bedecked with signs and murals featuring King, Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson. But in the parking lot, when she asked a customer with a cart full of groceries if the store was black-owned, “the response was, ‘Please. Are you crazy?’” she says. “Almost hostile.” Try Moo and Oink, another chain on the South and West sides, several friends suggested. Despite similar marketing, this store, she found, was also not black-owned.

Then Anderson discovered Farmers Best Market, a small but high-quality store on 47th Street. Chicago native Karriem Beyah had opened it in June 2008, and “it was dying on the vine in January,” says John. In articles about their experiment, the Andersons mentioned Farmers Best again and again. Yet in spite of—or perhaps because of—the press coverage, the store closed in August. (Beyah told the Tribune in January 2010 that if he had stayed “under the radar” with African American customers, they might have supported the store.)

With Farmers Best gone, Anderson says, not a single black-owned grocery store in Illinois remained. “It’s a perfect example of the psychosis in the black community. If it’s a black-owned store, we think it’s inferior.” She rolls her eyes at African Americans who blame “the Man” for such failures. “It wasn’t the Man. It was you.”

The experiment was always directed primarily at other African Americans, to “send a message about greater ownership of our own issues,” John says. The lack of support for black-owned businesses is well known: “We joke about it behind closed doors,” John says. “Yeah, you tried. You went to one black place five years ago, it wasn’t very good, and you wrote the whole race off.”

Luckily for the Andersons, summer had arrived by the time Farmers Best closed. From August to November, they could buy fruit and vegetables from black farmers at three different farmer’s markets. For pantry items, Anderson came up with a brilliantly desperate solution she calls “guerilla-style grocery shopping.” She bought gas cards through the mail from a black-owned BP in Rockford, 90 miles away, and from a black-owned Citgo in Harvey, 25 miles away. Having then “bought black,” she used the cards at convenience stores attached to non-black–owned BPs and Citgos throughout Chicago.

The gas-station stores all sold milk, eggs, and potato chips, but “you can’t buy salmon and chicken,” Anderson says. “There was no skim milk. Sometimes you can’t find butter. So we went without. They always had frozen burritos and bologna, but we don’t eat that.”

Then the farmer’s markets closed. Facing a winter without produce, Anderson’s maternal instincts trumped her politics. She designated certain staples—apples, bananas, broccoli, carrots—“emergency items” and bought them at a local, Hispanic-owned produce store. “We did have to cheat,” she says, “and that’s going to be in the study.”

On January 6, 2010, Maggie and John have big plans: dinner at their favorite Oak Park restaurant, Winberie’s, where they haven’t been in a year. Says John: “I am not going to make it to January 7 without a dynamite stick”—a spicy appetizer. This weekend they’ll go shopping: a big-girl bed for Cori, car seats, pots and pans, a coffee maker—none of which they could find at black-owned businesses.

Although their yearlong experiment is over, the Andersons still plan to keep much of their money within the African American community. But to their relief, they can drop the businesses that don’t meet their standards. No more waiting outside the dry cleaner that doesn’t open on time. No more dollar-store bubbles that don’t last through their daughters’ baths.

According to Anderson’s saved receipts, the family spent $90,344.53 at black-owned businesses. The best of them made it onto the “favorite finds” section of their Web site, Heritage Link Brands (a wine distributor), Health-Conscious Coffees, Jordan’s Closets (an upscale resale boutique), It’s Clean USA (hand sanitizer), and T. T. Patton (fine pens and stationery), among others.

In January Anderson gave her 12 envelopes of receipts, as well as a year’s worth of notes, to Northwestern’s Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice, where Rogers and institute fellow Thane Gauthier plan to write up a study. Anderson has signed a deal with agency William Morris Endeavor, which is shopping around her book proposal. Her coauthor will be Ted Gregory, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Tribune reporter. Dyson will write the forward.

Anderson also has hit the lecture circuit. A charismatic speaker whose style at times brings a preacher’s cadence to economic issues, she is scheduled to give keynote addresses at the Black Herstory Task Force in March, the National Alliance of Market Developers in April, and the FraserNet PowerNetworking Conference in June.

On the experiment’s Web site, Anderson downplays her family’s sacrifices, describing 2009 as “a very special year for us.” Their goal for 2010 is to transform their experiment into a true national movement. They hope to help not only black Americans, they say, but all Americans: “A thriving African American community,” says John, “certainly benefits America as a whole.”


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