Blogging on race is potentially one of those deadly "third rail" topics, but I feel comfortable enough about this one to post it as is, with just one note from me.
I find this kind of "us vs. them" mentality to be depressing. This is not about "empowerment". It's about self-segregation.
ATLANTA - It's been two months since 2-year-old Cori pulled the gold stud from her left earlobe, and the piercing is threatening to close as her mother, Maggie Anderson, hunts for a replacement.
It's not that the earring was all that rare—but finding the right store has become a quest of Quixotic proportions.
Maggie and John Anderson of Chicago vowed four months ago that for one year, they would try to patronize only black-owned businesses. The "Empowerment Experiment" is the reason John had to suffer for hours with a stomach ache and Maggie no longer gets that brand-name lather when she washes her hair. A grocery trip is a 14-mile odyssey.
"We kind of enjoy the sacrifice because we get to make the point ... but I am going without stuff and I am frustrated on a daily basis," Maggie Anderson said. "It's like, my people have been here 400 years and we don't even have a Walgreens to show for it."
So far, the Andersons have spent hundreds of dollars with black businesses from grocery stores to dry cleaners. But the couple still hasn't found a mortgage lender, home security system vendor or toy store. Nonetheless, they're hoping to expand the endeavor beyond their Chicago home.
Plans are under way to track spending among supporters nationwide and build a national database of quality black businesses. The first affiliate chapter has been launched in Atlanta, and the couple has established a foundation to raise funds for black businesses and an annual convention.
"We have the real power to do something, to use the money we spend every day to solve our problems," Maggie Anderson said recently at a meet-and-greet in Atlanta. "We have to believe that black businesses are just as good as everybody else's."
Now, the Andersons are following up with 4,000 people who signed up for the experiment on their Web site to gauge their commitment and set up online accounts to track their spending. Hundreds have also joined the experiment's Facebook page, Maggie Anderson said.
Gregory Price, chairman of the economics department at Morehouse College, said black visionaries like Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey made similar calls to action.
"The idea is a sound one, given that black Americans are still underrepresented in the ranks of the self-employed and that entrepreneurship is a key component to wealth," Price said.
There are one million black businesses in the United States accounting for more than $100 billion in annual sales, according to the National Black Chamber of Commerce. The latest U.S. Census numbers report that blacks have more than $800 billion in expendable income each year.
The Andersons track their spending on their Web site and estimate about 55 percent of their monthly spending is with black businesses for things like day care, groceries, car maintenance and home improvements.
One of the businesses highlighted by the Empowerment Experiment is Brenda Brown's Atlanta wine boutique, a shop with a growing black clientele. She said the project can help overcome the problems many black consumers lament.
"When we were a community of black folks who could not go to the white stores, our community of black stores flourished," Brown said. "When we were given the opportunity to go into the white store, it was like nothing else mattered anymore and we wanted to go to the white store, regardless of what the black store provided. We could have the same or better products if we supported (black businesses) in the same way."
Lewis Peeples, 45, lives in a black neighborhood in southwest Atlanta but didn't think to spend his money with black businesses until a friend told him about the project.
"So often, we make purchases and decisions and aren't even mindful that there is a a need to support our own businesses," said Peeples. "Now, I'm reaching out and making sure I know that I have an option when I look to make a purchase."
Two months ago, he committed to patronizing black businesses and found a black dry cleaner 10 minutes from home. Even when he was dissatisfied with his black doctor, he was able to find a new one. He suggests both to friends and refers others to the experiment's Web site, where he tracks his expenses.
Dallas Smith, who owns a commercial real estate firm in Atlanta, said mainstream retailers have undervalued black consumers. He lives in a black neighborhood in southwest Atlanta, where he tries to dine at black restaurants. He lamented the lack of quality businesses catering to black customers and said blacks should appreciate such businesses more.
"We've still got that 'the white man's water is colder' mentality," he said. "We can't take us for granted. When we go to our establishments, it's almost like we're doing a favor. That ought to be a given for us."
The Andersons remain encouraged by their momentum online and in the media. At the end of 2009, they hope to show $1 million in spending with black businesses among supporters across the country.
"The response has been so huge," Maggie Anderson said. "We think so much can come out of this. We're in movement-making mode now."
Price, the Morehouse professor, said defining the project's success won't be easy, since the real barriers to black advancement are poor access to capital and lack of training opportunities. "It would be nice to see some real, hard data," Price said. "Otherwise, it could just be an episode of ethnic cheerleading."