Only two cents of every dollar African Americans spend in America go to black-owned businesses. Disturbed by this leakage of money from black communities, Maggie and John Anderson pledged to spend a year buying only from black-owned businesses for themselves and their two young daughters.
They called it “The Empowerment Experiment,” and hoped to start a movement that would harness black buying power and infuse money into local communities. More local purchasing leads to better services and more jobs, and can even help alleviate “food deserts,” areas where residents have few fresh, healthy, affordable choices.
It seemed like a simple idea. And yet, even in Chicago, with its many black neighborhoods, the Andersons struggled to find groceries, clothes, gas, restaurants and household goods. Black-owned businesses simply didn’t exist in most places.
Our Black Year is a blistering, honest journal of the Andersons’ efforts to buy black, and those efforts can only be described as Herculean. Maggie Anderson spent hours driving to far-flung, dumpy minimarts to pick up $6 boxes of sugary cereal and subpar produce. “I felt like it was my duty to keep shopping this way,” she wrote. “If a point was going to be made, maybe it was good that I didn’t have a wonderful option . . . because most Black Americans don’t.”
The Andersons got widespread media coverage for The Empowerment Experiment—and a different, uglier kind of attention, too. Comments on their website ranged from supportive to downright sinister. Some suggested the family move to Africa. Others called them racist, and suggested they wouldn’t give their children medical care unless it was from a black doctor.
Maggie, a business consultant, and John, an attorney, were confounded by the vitriol. “We viewed our project as a moderate, well-reasoned form of self-help economics, something that people across the political spectrum could support. After all, experts of every stripe agree that the problems in America’s impoverished neighborhoods—black, Hispanic, Hmong or rural white—are fundamentally economic. So why were we being tagged as racists?”
Our Black Year is a brisk call to action, offering clear-eyed perspective on how African Americans got to where they are today and what they can do to support black business owners. In Maggie Anderson’s eyes, it’s a moral imperative. “My worst fear is that black people will always be the pitiable, ridiculed underclass,” she writes. “We built nations and empires, invented industries and revolutionary products, and conquered slavery, rape and genocide. We put a black man in the White House. And we’re still stuck at the bottom.”