Alumna's book describes year-long quest to 'buy black'

By Mary Loftus | Emory Magazine | Dec. 7, 2012

Our black year

In 2009, 1993 Emory College graduate Margaret Waite Anderson, of Oak Park, Illinois, decided to undertake an experiment: could her own African American family — husband, John, and their two children — patronize only black-owned businesses and exclusively support black professionals for a year?

"Two weeks before the launch, we researched business directories and collected phone numbers of organizations and individuals who could help us find black-owned businesses," Anderson wrote.

But the "empowerment experiment," as it came to be called, evolved into much more than simply buying from black businesses, as recounted in Anderson's recently published book "Our Black Year: One Family's Quest to Buy Black in America's Racially Divided Economy" (cowritten with Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune reporter Ted Gregory).

In an interview with fellow Emory alumnus Kai Ryssdal on NPR's "Marketplace," Anderson said, "Of course you want everybody to support the mom-and-pops. You should have a black dry cleaner. You should try to go to black restaurants twice a week. But we need the corporations to do a lot better with doing business with our businesses. That's the bigger part of the story. And think about the fact that in the top 500 privately held companies, none of those are black."

Anderson, a consultant, and her husband, a financial planner, thought of the experiment as they paid for an expensive anniversary dinner in a Chicago restaurant, feeling guilty that they weren't spending more of their dollars in their local community.

Even in Chicago, finding a black-owned, full-service grocery store was difficult: there was exactly one within driving distance. Discouragingly, the majority of the businesses they found in black neighborhoods with all-black customers were not black-owned or even locally owned.

"We were naïve," says Anderson. "How were we supposed to shop at black-owned businesses when next to none exist?"

After the year of the experiment was over, Anderson, who majored in political science at Emory and went on to get a law degree, set off on a book tour to share the message.

"The civil rights movement is not dead," she says, "because we realize that our liberty and political equality are moot if our economic power is disregarded and delegitimized."

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