Maggie and John Anderson are not racists because they’ve decided to shop at only black-owned businesses for the entire year. Nor is their “Ebony Experiment,” which is also part of a university study on black consumers and businesses, racist.
I’m breaking my rule of not commenting on things I cover by writing this. And I didn’t ask the Andersons about accusations likely to come from some that what they’re doing is racist, though those claims were sure to surface. What some people can’t seem to understand is why blacks, myself included, are so adamant on black folks “shopping black” more often. Some of the comments from critics may be from the heart but are wrought with ignorance.
I can provide statistics or testimony from experts about the problems facing black-owned businesses and why we as black consumers who live in the communities where they’re located should support them more. I doubt, however, that will enlighten those taking a knee-jerk reaction to the Andersons. Such stats don’t even sway some black consumers who don’t spend their dollars at black businesses. But that is exactly the problem the Andersons are trying to address in their one-year experiment.
Some black-owned businesses struggle to survive. Oak Park’s Afri-Ware, a black-owned store, has struggled to attract new consumers. Now, an uninformed, cynical, knee-jerk reacting critic would say something like this in response: “Maybe that store is selling bad products or has bad employees that turn off shoppers.” None of that is true in Afri-Ware’s case. And, just like the criticisms against the Andersons, it’s based on assumptions, not reality.
This isn’t about being colorblind. It’s not about segregation. And the Andersons said nothing about only allowing black firefighters or police in their home in case of, God forbid, an emergency. This is about basic economics. Black-owned businesses are having trouble attracting their target audience because they’re target audience tends to shop elsewhere. Why is that case? I’m hopeful the Anderson’s experiment will help shed more light on that. Just from personal experience growing up in a black community, there are many factors, and the Andersons addressed a few. Some of the problems go beyond shopping habits.
If you have a bad experience at a particular black business, for instance, you’ll stereotype other businesses perhaps selling the same product. That’s not being a very enlightened consumer. Here’s another issue. On the West Side, where I grew up, there are not enough restaurants selling healthy food. A black-owned, healthy-choice restaurant opened in the Austin neighborhood last August and I’m watching it very closely to see how it does. But if black restaurant-goers are turning their noses up at vegetables and fruits in favor of greasy foods and soda pops, that’s not only bad for the healthy-choice restaurant, it’s bad for the health of residents in that community.
And as the Andersons pointed out, an alarming number of businesses in black communities that sell black products – hair care, soul food, etc. – are not black-owned. Why is that a problem? In other ethnic communities – China Town, Greek Town, Little Village, Ukrainian Village and others – the vast majority of businesses are owned by people belonging to that nationality. That’s not racist. It’s a reality. I’ve always said that the black community could learn something from our Asian and Latino brethren about supporting their own. But that also involves overall ethnic pride and how to support and showcase it.
Malcolm Crawford, an Austin business owner and executive director of the Austin African-American Business Networking Association, recently addressed this topic in a column he wrote for the Austin Weekly News. And no, cynical critic, the association is not some leisure group. It’s a network of business leaders in Austin that help support, mentor and facilitate new business owners in Austin. Crawford was driving recently from a business meeting and passed through China Town and then through Little Village. He was struck by the artwork throughout those communities, on the businesses, homes and streets, showcasing their ethnic culture. Not so while driving through Austin, he noted.
He and I have talked about this for years. There needs to be a change in mindset for some in our community. There needs to be a sense of pride where you live and people dedicated to making that a reality. That also involves where we shop. Near where I live, there are four liquor stores along Cicero from the Blue Line to the Green Line, spanning about five blocks. None of them are owned by blacks. We’ll shop there for booze 24/7 but can’t buy a gift for a loved one at the black-owned novelty shop. That’s long been a problem.
So, say what you will about the Andersons. They should be applauded for supporting black businesses by exposing consumers to smart shopping habits, even if you disagree with their method.