Only ‘buying black’ is a tough sell

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How many times have we sat around a family table with a relative discussing how we need to bring our dollars together and support black businesses? Black Americans, whose combined buying power has passed $900 billion, are projected to have a one trillion dollar combined GDP by 2011, which would put us among the world’s 20th largest economies on our own. However, only an estimated five to seven percent of our combined buying power is spent with black-owned business.

In America, a dollar is turned over nine times in white communities and eight times in Asian communities before leaving those areas. However for blacks, that dollar doesn’t even turn once before leaving our community. This has ramifications for wealth building, entrepreneurship, employment, and building up cultures and communities in black America.

In his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington said: “At the bottom of education, at the bottom of politics, even at the bottom of religion, there must be for our race economic independence.” Along with education, he saw business as a vehicle through which black Americans would achieve freedom in America. This is why he started organizations such as the National Negro Business League.

So I was intrigued when I first heard about, The Empowerment Experiment a project created by a Chicago-based couple John and Maggie Anderson. Their idea was to patronize only black-owned businesses for one year. This past week, I set about replicating their experiment but as a city resident (they live in the western suburbs) and as a single, middle-class woman on Chicago’s South Side who primarily uses public transportation to get around. After I explained what I had been doing, the Andersons’ publicist Ron Childs told me that I was possibly the first journalist to call him who had actually undergone the experiment.

I had high expectations when I started this experiment. I believe in black-owned businesses – I have relatives who are business owners and I have a micro-business myself. I also believe in conserving the best of black America, and I’ve even been called “a right-wing black nationalist” on my own blog.

I live in Chicago, a city with plenty of black people. Chicago is arguably the citadel of black power – President and Mrs. Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and businessmen like John Rogers. and Johnson Publications are all from Chicago – so I thought this shouldn’t be too difficult. Not so fast. It was harder than I thought it would be.

The first thing that I do in my day is something that I don’t think about much: I withdraw money from my usual ATM machine. I then realized that my bank is not black-owned. Oh boy. Bad start.

The next day, I decided to take a trip to Farmers Best Market, a black-owned full-service grocery store that opened up last year not far from my neighborhood. I was excited because I had been meaning to try out this black-owned grocery store, which I had read was the only one of its kind in Illinois. However, when I got there, things weren’t good. Why? The Farmers Best Market went out of business back in the summer.

I called the Market, thinking that perhaps they’d moved. A young woman answered and said that they had closed. I later found out that another grocery store is set to open in the old Farmers Best Market space later this year. It will be owned by Hispanics. I was frustrated and worried that the experiment was already going wrong so early. I also felt a twang of guilt, thinking that had I made my way over to the store months earlier – and had others done the same – it would still be open. However, there was a backup. Jimmy’s Foods is another black owned business also not far from my neighborhood. While not quite like my usual grocer, it does the trick for my grocery needs.

Two days later was my usual hair appointment with a Nigerian-born woman named Eunice Njoku who is based 45 minutes out in south suburban Chicago. As Eunice was braiding my hair, I told her about the experiment and asked her thoughts. “Interesting”, she said. “It’s good to help black people. But I am black, and I want anyone to come to me. I like to shop where I like the people and they treat me good, not [based] on their race.” Eunice, for whatever reason, then changed the subject.

The next day, I set out for Bronzeville Coffee & Tea, a black-owned coffee shop in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood where folks like my grandparents migrated to from the South during the Great Migration. I’d never tried this coffee house, even though it is not far from where I live. While there with my pastry and coffee, I thought about my ancestors and elder living relatives who once walked those streets in hopes of a better life and how I could further build upon their dreams.

Mr. Childs, publicist to the creators of The Empowerment Experiment, told me that there has been a backlash against the Andersons’ experiment. Some have called it “racist” for black folks to do what every other group does and Mr. Childs mentioned that there’s even a Facebook page against the experiment. However, I do not view my actions this past week as racist. I view myself as someone exercising their freedom of association, and diversifying their consumer choices. While difficult – at times I bypassed several businesses, wondering where I could find a black-owned business instead – the experiment was nevertheless rewarding. It led me to ask more questions of myself.

For instance, what can I do to put more dollars in black business owners’ hands? What is the role that population density can play in this arena? Many black-owned businesses, at least in Chicago, are scattered across sizeable territory, thus making them hard to frequent if you do not mainly use a car.

People talk about free market costs, which involves doing business where it is most cost-efficient and service-worthy to do so. However, it must be acknowledged that there are other costs when black people do not patronize black-owned businesses as other groups do their businesses, which can be seen in the lack of strong business districts in too many of our communities.

I am also now armed with the names of businesses that I was previously unaware of. Having done this experiment, I now feel that I can make more informed choices about where I want to put my dollars in the future.