NEAL CONAN, host:
Maggie Anderson travels 14 miles to the grocery store. She can no longer use her favorite brand of shampoo, and she's yet to find a toy store. No, she didn't move to the South Pole. She just made single change in how she shops. She and her husband John decided to patronize only black-owned businesses. The couple is only four months into their experiment, but they've already attracted thousands of followers through their Web site and their Facebook page - and some critics, too. When spending your money, do you give preference to your own ethnic group? If so, how's that working out for you?
Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Maggie Anderson is buying black for year - today, joins us now from her home in Chicago via Skype. Nice to have you with us, today.
Ms. MAGGIE ANDERSON: Hi. Nice to be here. Thank you.
CONAN: And when we were asking you to get the headset to use your computer via Skype to join us for today's interview, this became a problem.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ANDERSON: It was a little problem, yes. We found a work-around, but I have not been able to find a major black-owned electronics distributor. If I had more time, I probably could have done some research and found something. But with the time that I had today, no, I wasn't able to do that and adhere to my pledge.
CONAN: And what rules do you set for where you're shopping? If the manager of the Radio Shack or the Best Buy or whatever was African-American, that wouldn't count?
Ms. ANDERSON: Nope. That wouldn't count. We are trying to promote, through our pledge, ownership, entrepreneurship. We want there to be more black owners of businesses across America. So that would probably - that wouldn't work for the parameters that we've set for ourselves. We want to increase the awareness about - especially in areas like electronics, where there is a high concentration of blacks on the consumer end, where there's a paltry representation in terms of black ownership. So, yes, we are supporting businesses that are owned - not operated by - black entrepreneurs.
CONAN: And if it's a publically traded company, presumably, some of the shares - the owners of the company are African-American, too.
Ms. ANDERSON: Yes. Yes. So it's been a little trickier when we come to these, you know, the huge conglomerates. But when you come down to, let's say, like a Wal-Mart or a JCPenny or a Sears or something like that, the premise is those are American success stories that were started by a family, an entrepreneur. And wouldn't it be nice if at least one of those wonderful stores can start from an African-American family? We've been here for 400 years. We've accomplished a lot in this country. But we'd like for there to be more to say about all that success coming out of the business world. And we've - I'm sorry?
CONAN: I was just going to say, as our introduction indicated, this has not always been easy.
Ms. ANDERSON: Oh, no. No. It hasn't been. It's been a wonderful journey. It's been very fulfilling. But no, it's not easy at all. And that's what we hope people will focus on is not, wow, that must be so hard. What an insane way to live. It should be why is it so hard for someone - whether or not you agree with our goals, our methods, it shouldn't be that hard to find businesses owned by black Americans, considering how long black people have been in this country. It would not have been as hard for an Hispanic woman trying to practice self-help economics, or an Asian woman - Asian family, or a Middle Eastern family or other ethnic groups, like a Jewish family, or a white American family to do this.
It's impossible for a black family to do it. And that's what our point is. It should not be impossible. This shouldn't be news. If I were an Hispanic woman that said, you know what? I'm going to try my best to live off of Hispanic businesses, it probably wouldn't be news, because it's much easier for persons from other groups to support businesses from people of those groups - to practice self-help economics.
CONAN: And this presumably extends to service providers, doctors, lawyers, (unintelligible), those sorts of…
Ms. ANDERSON: Sure. Sure. Yes. Yes. I actually made an appointment for my daughter, Corey(ph), for her new dentist that we're going to see next weekend. My husband just went to that same dentist last week. So, yes, it does extend to professionals, because one of the important outputs of this, we hope, over the years to come would be more role models for black kids coming out of the business world.
Right now, for black kids, you know, if they want to be successful in life and they look at what's around them, the most successful people coming out of these, you know, underserved, predominantly or 100 percent black communities are the neighborhood drug dealer, the neighborhood gangbanger or, you know, they have that lofty remote possibility of being LeBron James or 50 Cent or Jay-Z.
And they need more choices than that. And for black kids to be the only group of kids in America that don't have the thing that we take for granted - a luxury to just go to the corner store and think that maybe the owner may be someone who looks like them. I mean, that's a shame. And that's why we do support professionals as well. We want to promote entrepreneurship, more professionals, whatever the case may be, as long as our kids have more role models coming out of the business world.
CONAN: Isn't that, at least in part, the result of black professionals, once given the opportunity to move elsewhere, deciding that they didn't want to live downtown and they moved to a nicer place in the suburbs?
Ms. ANDERSON: You are absolutely right. Guilty, that's me. I grew up in Liberty City, Miami. I don't know if you're very familiar with that part of town. But all of my friends, all the people I grew up with, most of them are dead, are in jail, gangbangers, or gangbangers' horse. I mean, that's what you do when you grew up where I grew up. And there's actually an award named after me at my high school. It's the Maggie Wade Award(ph) - Wade is my maiden name…
Ms. ANDERSON: …because I made it to college. And, you know, just had that kind of, you know, American dream life. People from my community don't make it to college. And it's much worse now than it was then. And I made it to college. I was successful in college. I made it to law school. I made it to business school after that. I married my Harvard husband and we have our apple-pie beautiful life, great life in Oak Park, Illinois, a predominantly white suburb.
And I have everything I need here. Beauty salons, big department stores, great restaurants, parks, great schools, clean streets. There's no reason for me to ever shop on the west side of Chicago or the south side of Chicago, where I do most of my shopping now.
And that is the problem, to the extent that our kids - black kids not having role models because there aren't any great black businesses in their community or they don't see like my kids see, more black professionals and entrepreneurs because they don't have that kind of thing in their community. To the extent that that has to do with people like me, black, middle class folks who make it and leave, then that has to change. And that's what I'm promoting, that you can have a wonderful life. But just try to make little sacrifices to support those businesses that are going to turn out more role models for our kids. Otherwise, things are just going to stay the same.
None of my money went to black businesses last year because I did all my shopping in Oak Park, just like most Oak Park residents do. And I was doing nothing with the little power that I have as a consumer, as a mommy, as a free American, to do anything about west side of Chicago, which is less than two miles from my home. But I just drove over the west side of Chicago to get to my nice downtown office and continue living my life. So, yes, it has a lot to do with us. And not just the fact that we leave the community and don't invest our money back into those struggling communities, that we proactively try not to support black business.
It's a cultural problem throughout the black community, where we believe that our businesses are inferior to other coop's businesses. And that's why self-help economics - one of the reasons self-help economics has failed miserably for our community. We don't support our own businesses because we think they're not as good as anyone else's. So I'll take the blame.
We - a lot of it has to do with us. That's why we're so proud of what we're doing. We're not asking for a government program or asking people to do anything. We think it's our problem, so we think that we need to work together to solve it.
CONAN: Maggie Anderson vowed to patronize only black-owned businesses for a year. She's with us from Oak Park, Illinois. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Joey's on the line from Greenville, South Carolina.
JOEY (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Go ahead.
JOEY: Yes. I just wanted to make the comment that I feel that modern-day civil rights movement is sending out a mixed message. On one level, they say don't pay attention to race, color doesn't matter. Then I hear things like this where they say, oh, by the way, color does matter. And I just wonder if the panelist really - how they feel about that. And do you worry that there's a mixed message thing? I'm a white guy, and I'm just confused.
Ms. ANDERSON: And I appreciate the confusion and I appreciate the civil way you asked your question. There has been some violent, virulent attacks of what we're doing. And I hope that you will at least bear with me for a second as I try to explain that this has nothing to do with divisiveness or racism. This really is about a middle class family trying to give back to our community.
But to answer your question and try to clear up some of your confusion, it would be very easy for me and I would prefer to be able to address the problem that I am trying to address. And that problem is that black people are disproportionately impacted by - in every measure of social and economic progress in America. Highest incarceration rates, highest dropout rates, highest unemployment rates, highest rates of gangs and drugs and AIDS penetration in our communities.
And these are horrible facts that make me cry at night. And I understand that it's kind of the way things are in America right now. But I can't live like that anymore, knowing that that is probably going to be the hallmark for my people in this country, that we've come all this way but we're always going to be at the bottom. So that's the vantage point that I'm working from. It's - I'm not trying to take anyone else down, but you have to try to appreciate that vantage point. Now, working from that vantage point, I know that a cause of that problem is the economically deprived communities that most black people live in in America.
So I am trying to, with all the smarts and the experience that I have, come up with an economic answer to those problems. I wish it would be as simple as my shopping in Gary, in Detroit, in the west side of Chicago. But there's plenty of shopping going on there. The problem is those economies are not thriving because the dollars that are spent shopping there leave. Most of the business -and this may be a shock to many people. Most of the business in Gary, in the west side of Chicago, where maybe zero percent white people live, zero percent Asian, Hispanic or whatever. It's 100 percent black. Most of those businesses are not black-owned. Those people have businesses there, they're successful, but they take that money out and go back to their communities.
And they have every right to do that. That's perfectly fine. The problem is those economies suffer. And the social crises that are perpetuated because there's no money in that community, they grow. So those kids don't have role models. Those kids go to jail and not go to college, and those kids don't have the luxury of going to the corner store and seeing someone that looks like them.
That's a horrible way to live. So I wish I had a better answer. None of it comes from racism. It just happens to be that to the extent that these crises disproportionately impact our race and have to do with our history, our problems and our culture, maybe some of the solutions have to do with our race not coming together enough to solve them.
CONAN: Joey, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. We're talking…
Ms. ANDERSON: I'm sorry, I went on for so long.
CONAN: That's all right. You've gotten the question before, I can tell.
Maggie Anderson is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And an email from A.J. in St. Louis. I try to buy from independent businesses. I imagine these black-owned stores are also independent. I find it difficult to find everything I need at prices I can afford. Have you had this problem? My mother made sure that all my doctors were female to show me, growing up, that females could be doctors. I did not decide to become a doctor, but it was nice to have the option. I think it's amazing that you're doing a similar thing for your children. I also understand you may have to drive across town to do this. My dentist is 20 minutes away.
Ms. ANDERSON: Yes. Now, we've had that issue a lot about having to spend more money. Now, this is the way it's worked out. Actually, because our choices are limited and because we don't have the luxury of an impulse-buy, because we have to be so strategic on how we buy things, and I can only go to three restaurants. I only have one place for general merchandise. I only have one grocery store. I only have two places I can buy clothes at.
Since our choices are limited, we spend a lot less money. And that's been a real disappointing part of this project. I don't want to spend less money. I want to give as much money as I can to, yes, independent black entrepreneurs so that one day, maybe Kareem Biyah(ph), who owns Farmer's Best, it's a beautiful grocery store in the heart of the south side of Chicago, will have a chain of grocery stores that all Americans are supporting.
I want to give him more money. I want to give more money to (unintelligible), but, yes, because they're independent I have limited choices, I have spent less money. Now, in terms of just proportionately spending more money than I did last year, item for item, apple for apple, that has not been the case. And I think that's one of the stereotypes that I'm hoping our journey helps to dispel. At our grocery store…
CONAN: I was just figuring the driving cost and the gasoline might be a little more, but…
Ms. ANDERSON: Oh, yes. The gasoline - now, we've definitely spent more money there. It's cancelled out because I'm not able to spend - I'm not able to buy as much, period, as I would have bought last year. But we are spending a lot more in gas, and that's a problem with this project because I am very environmentally conscious. And I feel bad about driving my SUV as much as I've been driving it and burning that much gas. We try very hard to plan our shopping trips more so that we don't burn as much gas. But we are spending a lot of money on gas. But there is…
CONAN: Where do you buy your gas?
Ms. ANDERSON: Well, actually, we have a creative solution for that.
CONAN: Very quickly, if you will.
Ms. ANDERSON: There's only - very quickly. There's only about six gas station owners, black, in all of Illinois. Yeah.
CONAN: Ah, but they're franchise owners.
Ms. ANDERSON: Franchise owners, so I send my money to a BP owner in Rockford, Illinois that's like 60 miles from my home. And I buy a gas card so I can go to any of the BPs around me, but that gas station owner got my money.
CONAN: Maggie Anderson, thanks very much for your time today. And good luck.
Ms. ANDERSON: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: Maggie Anderson. You can find a link to their Web site at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
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