Maggie Anderson drives 14 miles to buy groceries, which might seem curious given that she lives in bustling Oak Park, Ill. She and her husband, John, patronize gas stations in Rockford and Phoenix, Ill. They travel 18 miles to a health food store in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood for vitamins, supplements and personal care products.

The reason? They want to solve what they call “the crisis in the black community.” They want to buy black.

The Andersons, African-Americans who rose from humble means, are attempting to spend their money for one year exclusively with black-owned businesses and are encouraging other African-Americans to do the same. It is part experiment, part social activism campaign.

They call it the “Ebony Experiment.”

“More than anything, this is a learning thing,” said Maggie Anderson, who grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami and holds a law degree and an MBA from the University of Chicago. “We know it’s controversial, and we knew that coming in.”

But the Andersons said they also have known that a thriving black economy is fundamental to restoring impoverished African-American and other “underserved” communities, and they have discussed for years trying to find a way to address the problem.

What they came up with is provocative. One anonymous letter mailed to their home accused the Andersons of “unabashed, virulent racism. Because of you,” the writer stated, “we will totally avoid black suppliers. Because of you, we will dodge every which way to avoid hiring black employees.”

Apart from that letter, a solid majority of comments they’ve received have been encouraging, the Andersons said, adding that most people see the endeavor as beneficial to all.
“Supporting your own isn’t necessarily exclusive,” said John Anderson, a financial adviser who grew up in Detroit and has a Harvard degree in economics and an MBA from Northwestern, “and you’re not going to convince everybody of that.”

The undertaking “is an academic test about how to reinvest in an underserved community” and lessen society’s burden, John Anderson noted. Focusing the estimated $850 billion annual black buying power on black businesses strengthens those businesses, creates more businesses, more jobs and stronger families, schools and neighborhoods, the Andersons and other advocates said.

“When a thriving African-American or urban community is realized, certainly as a society as a whole, we all win,” John Anderson said.

They are using a public relations firm, have created a slick Web site — www.ebonyexperiment.com — have been laying the groundwork for nearly two years and have enlisted researchers from Northwestern University to detail and extrapolate the impact of their spending. Still, the first two months posed challenges in finding stores that meet what Maggie Anderson called her “exacting standards.” Her latest crisis is finding shoes and clothes for the couple’s toddler daughters.

The Andersons buy gasoline cards from black-owned stations in Phoenix and Rockford and use the cards elsewhere. After several weeks of searching, Maggie Anderson found Farmers Best Market, a black-owned grocer in Chicago 14 miles from their home, and God First, God Last, God Always Dollar and Up General Store, a black-owned general merchandise establishment 18 miles from their house.

They moved their personal accounts to Covenant Bank in Chicago, but have been unable to switch their mortgage and student loans to black-owned financial institutions. Their utilities payments will continue going to the companies collecting those now. Maggie Anderson said she has struggled to find financial support for the Ebony Experiment’s grander plans, and she lamented the campaign’s low national prominence.

Lawrence Hamer, associate professor of marketing at DePaul University, called the Andersons’ project “brave and courageous,” and said its logic was “exactly right.” But it probably will be futile in achieving meaningful impact in the black economy, he added.

“It’s just so hard for a small group of individuals to have an impact on something that’s so huge,” said Hamer, an African-American. “It’s almost like a viral marketing campaign. It only works if enough people catch the virus.”

Even if they do catch the virus, Hamer said, it is extremely difficult “to get people’s attention to change their behavior in any significant way.”

Maggie Anderson conceded that “it’s still little by little and it’s still a lot of work, but I’m still very committed to this.” 

Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services