A Family's Year Of Buying Black

Many consumers try shopping consciously by going to local stores or ones owned by certain faith or ethnic groups. Maggie Anderson and her family spent a year trying to shop exclusively at African American-owned businesses. They chronicled their efforts in the new book titled Our Black Year. Maggie Anderson talks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's Mardi Gras. When else can you see grown men promenading around town in extravagant suits of feathers and beads and the so-called Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans may be the grandest of all.

But there's more to their story than glitz and parades. We'll have more on that in a few minutes.

But first, to a matter of personal finance, one we think might be of interest during Black History Month. Now, many people these days are trying to shop with a conscience, which is to say, to steer their consumer dollars to causes and companies that they believe in. That means different things to different people. It can mean bypassing mega-stores for a local independently owned retailer to buy things like clothes or books. It might mean making a special effort to seek out businesses owned by members of your faith or ethnic community.

Maggie Anderson and her husband tried their own twist on that back in 2009 when they tried to meet their family's needs by buying exclusively from black-owned businesses. They tell the story in the new book, "Our Black Year: One Family's Quest to Buy Black in America's Racially Divided Economy." And Maggie Anderson joins us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MAGGIE ANDERSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You describe the scene where you and your husband are sort of talking about this. You're going out for a nice dinner. You and he are very successful, well educated. You, you know, have the means to patronize pretty much any businesses in the area that you want.

So how did the idea strike you? Set that scene for us.

ANDERSON: Well, it's a conversation that happens all the time, especially among folks like us, the educated, professional class in the African-American community. We keep talking about these social crises that disproportionately impact us and we talk about all the problems we face socially, economically, educationally; our kids choosing gangs over college, all that stuff.

But we never connect it to how we spend our money. And what was wonderful about that evening was that it was that typical scene, a black professional couple talking about how they're going to give back to their community and, as always, we talked about it in terms of mentoring, of maybe giving more to our church, but never made the connection that just supporting businesses that invest in our community or employ black people or provide role models locally for kids in underserved communities. We didn't talk about it that way until that bill came and we paid about 600 bucks...

MARTIN: Six hundred dollars for dinner?

ANDERSON: ...at this place and that's when it hit me. Uh-huh. Six hundred dollars for dinner.

MARTIN: Can I come next time?

ANDERSON: It was our anniversary.

MARTIN: This way - OK.

ANDERSON: We thought we were doing something...

MARTIN: OK.

ANDERSON: ...because we spent $600 in a place that has - we have no idea how they spend their money, who they employ and what hit us was, you know, all this talking we're doing. What are we doing about it? And just by maybe going to a black restaurant or maybe throwing a party at a black bar or something like that, we could have been countering all those problems just in celebrating our anniversary.

So we thought about - why don't we do something that would inspire others to start making these same connections, to start thinking about where our money goes, this trillion dollars in buying power.

MARTIN: It actually was much harder than you thought it was going to be, even though you live in Chicago, which is...

ANDERSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...the center of African-American commerce. I mean, there are African-American, you know, hair care companies like Ebony, you know, publishing company and things like that.

ANDERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: It actually was harder than you thought it should have been.

ANDERSON: Well, actually, especially in the realm of children's gear, children's stuff. We really did believe that it was just a matter of awareness, and we also thought it would be as simple as just driving a couple of miles to the West Side of Chicago. In the west side, predominantly black area, you have all of the plight that we're hoping to counter by spending more money with the businesses.

So we thought, OK. We'll do a little more shopping on the West Side and we'll support all those businesses that we know exist. We just haven't taken the time to find them, so that's what we thought it would be about.

Not at all. No black businesses there, except for your stereotypical fried chicken shacks, fried fish shacks, barber and braid salons and a couple of funeral parlors.

What we've learned is that the West Side didn't use to be that way. It used to be that we had dry cleaners, drug stores, department stores, hardware stores, banks, insurance companies; all owned by black people who lived in those black communities.

With integration, we were just so ready and revved up to prove to the world that our dollar is just as good as your dollar, that we, in effect, abandoned all those businesses to shop with those businesses who would not let us shop with them before. So, in flexing our economic might, by proving that we can shop wherever we want, in so doing, we abandoned a lot of those businesses.

The point is a lot of this was our own fault.

MARTIN: Well, you're putting a judgment to it, which is one of the things I want to ask about in a minute. And if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the book, "Our Black Year." It chronicles the efforts by one African-American family to try to buy exclusively from black-owned businesses for a year.

I'm joined by Maggie Anderson, co-author of the book and she's the mom in this family. You say that it's our own fault, implying that people should not have pursued these opportunities. I just want to ask you about that because there's a lot of judgment. I mean, obviously, you're making a judgment.

ANDERSON: It is. It is.

MARTIN: But there has also been a lot of judgment directed at you and your family for this effort.

ANDERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: One of the things I found fascinating was that you got some local media attention for your efforts kind of early in the process and it evoked kind of a furious reaction.

ANDERSON: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: Tell me about that.

ANDERSON: Oh, it tore me up. We really thought, when we were kind of planning this and putting this whole thing together, that, you know, people wouldn't really see the impact or the story or the message that we were trying to convey by doing this for a whole year. We really did not think that folks outside of the community would respond as viscerally and violently as they had in their responses to the news media.

We were called racists, the N word, go back to Africa, horrible things said about my children and my family, horrible indictments on black people, saying that the reasons our businesses fail are because we're not cut out to be entrepreneurs and we should just be happy with where we are in America. And just really, really awful stuff.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think that's about? But I'm particularly interested in the whole thing about black people aren't cut out for whatever. Well, OK. Look at the White House, but we can, you know, set that aside.

But what about the argument that it's racist? It's racist for you to try to steer your dollars toward African-American businesses in an effort to support them. First of all, what do you think that's about and how do you respond to that?

ANDERSON: We obviously didn't see it as racism and we're not racist. We didn't come out to do this to take down another race or take down anyone's institutions or get back at anyone. That was never the spirit of the experiment, so we were thrown for a loop.

Our point was how dare you even call us racists? How can we be the racists when here we are in the era of the first black president and the black community is the only place where every other ethnic group and white businesses can come and set up shop and thrive and send their kids to college and plan and fund their family vacations and set up intergenerational wealth, but there's no reciprocity for that.

No one talked about the racism from the other angle. Where are the thriving black businesses in Little Italy and in Greek Town? If you really want to talk about racism, we should be looking at it in the other way. Unless we wake up, especially as black people, and think about the money that we spend every day and think about where it's going and counter that with - and balance that with what's happening to our kids in our neighborhoods, nothing's going to change. We have to bear the responsibility and be a little more accountable for what's going on in our community.

MARTIN: So no more Starbucks for you?

ANDERSON: Well, you know, I was so heartbroken when Magic Johnson decided to sell those stores because we were supporting the Magic-owned Starbucks. So, no. I do - I buy my coffee from local black-owned coffee shops and that's just one of the easy things that people - especially the ones who live in places like Atlanta and D.C. and Chicago - you can find a black-owned coffee shop. We call these, you know, no-excuse propositions.

So little things like that, we all can be doing and it really can make a difference. We proved that in the study that's attached to the experiment.

MARTIN: OK. Maggie Anderson is the co-author of the new book, "Our Black Year: One Family's Quest to Buy Black in America's Racially Divided Economy." And we caught up with her at member station WCLK in Atlanta.

Maggie Anderson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ANDERSON: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure. Thank you so much.

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