Buying with Purpose

(Vida Kuang)

“Our Black Year,”  a new book by writer and UofC Law School graduate Maggie Anderson, opens with the author and her Harvard-educated financier husband savoring a celebratory lobster in a chic Gold Coast restaurant. The ensuing tome, in a harshly ironic twist, expends most of its bulk following the same couple as they dodge “unsavory types,” rummage around for something edible in derelict minimarts, and crisscross the South and West sides frantically searching for nutritive food for their two young children.

No, this is not the story of a formerly affluent day-trading couple laid low by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The Andersons’ perplexing and ultimately moving culinary desperation was entirely self-imposed. They were well off, African-American, and appalled at the egregious inequality in their racial community. To do something about it, the Andersons decided to buy exclusively from black-owned businesses for an entire year, and document every cent spent.

That this was a challenge is unsurprising. That it should be next to impossible in Chicago, the long-time center of Black America, punctures the myth of a post-racial society and illustrates an income gap that obstinately refuses to narrow.

In July 1931, when the country was mired in worse economic doldrums and Jim Crow was the entrenched and seemingly unshakable law of its lower half, W. E. B. Dubois wrote, “If we once make a religion to spend our meager income so far as possible only in such ways as will bring us employment consideration and opportunity, the possibilities before us are enormous.” Continually stymied in his relentless rhetorical push for political equality, Dubois came around to the belief that the only way to alter the racial status quo was for the black masses to more aggressively leverage their economic clout.

Eighty years later, the Andersons attempted to put Dubois’s plan into action. The couple shifted their investments to black-owned banks, switched to black physicians, and bought gift-cards from black-owned gas stations and restaurant franchises. They were determined but not unreasonable; there are no black-owned health insurance companies in the United States and they weren’t about to let their children go without it. Their receipts were then to be handed over to researchers at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, to keep tally of their progress.

As residents of Oak Park (placid, prosperous, and mostly white), the family understood that taking on this challenge would necessitate a lot of increased travel-time to the South and West sides. The first hurdle was just discovering which businesses were black–Maggie, it’s worth noting, had opted to make running the experiment into her full-time job. While there are a handful of black business directories for Chicago, they proved incomplete. The Andersons therefore were reduced to going in-person to businesses in black neighborhoods at random and asking if they were black-owned. Almost unfailingly, the answer was no.

Even a full-service grocery store proved next to impossible to locate. At the time Dubois was writing, this was the single largest category of black businesses in the United States.  After starting the project with a certain degree of publicity in May of 2009, the Andersons simply could not find one. The narrative is bookended by visits to the closest thing to an ordinary black-owned food provider they could initially locate–J’s Fresh Meats.

“Almost nothing here was worth buying,” she writes. “There were not price tags on anything and there was no meat…fresh or otherwise at J’s fresh meats.” To top it off, this dubious oasis attracted the kind of clientele that often made Maggie Anderson unwilling to get out of her car.

For a time, the Andersons found a supermarket and became fast-friends with its African-American owner.  Within months, however, it became clear that the Andersons were among his few regular customers.  They organized fundraisers at their church and received many verbal statements of support from a theoretically galvanized black community, but in the end few people proved willing to ditch Jewel or Publix on principal.  Eventually (mercifully toward the end of the Anderson’s economic odyssey) the store was shuttered and the Andersons were forced, frustrated, to resume their urban foraging.

Food was not the only basic necessity the Andersons found in short supply. The Anderson adults were able to rely for the most part on a pre-set stock of clothing, but their daughters had no such luxury. With growing girls and no black-owned children’s clothiers, essentials like new shoes were aggravatingly hard to come by. There were also fewer visits to Chuck-E-Cheese (a hardship this reviewer takes to heart).

The book makes an incisive and important argument, but there are distracting elements. Occasionally, the seriousness of the disparity Anderson is trying to dramatize is undermined by a tone that has trouble finessing the boundary between motivational and preachy. When confronted in a gas station by a drink-sodden pan-handler looking to trade food-stamps for habit-sustaining cash, Ms. Anderson publically upbraids him before treating the reader to a series of pages on how he has failed the civil rights movement. When approaching a woman with a toddler behind the register, Mrs. Anderson “also noticed–because it is [her] habit to look whenever [she] see[s] a  young Black woman who appears to be a mother–that she wore no wedding ring.”

Accounts of the married couple’s domestic bliss and surprise at its reluctance to unspool under strain continue long after the point has been made. There are also a few too many remarks along the lines of,  “John was dying without his bagels. I missed my sun-dried tomatoes, feta and boursin cheese, and ahi tuna.”

This is understandable, and honestly sounds delicious, but given that much of the book laments the food deserts that force African-Americans to eat junk or schlep to white communities to get basic foodstuffs, the pining for boursin cheese is perhaps better left out of print.

These are minor quibbles, but the central charge that has been leveled at the experiment since its inception, namely that its pro-black aims and assumptions are racist, is patently ludicrous. Maggie Anderson chronicles the discomfiting frequency with which this slander was raised by both blacks and whites. The fact that any person could say this with a straight face, displays a level of ignorance about the nature of the divide that this book does much to correct.

The ripple effects of even a little extra cash flowing into embattled black businesses could, over time, transform neighborhoods. After reading “Our Black Year,” no one can deny the scope of the problem. Of the few black owned firms around, 40% of them operate in the red. In the book’s epilogue, Anderson reveals that since she and her husband ended the experiment, many of the places that sustained them have since gone out of business. Bronzeville coffee is gone, though Kimbark liquor, as many readers will be aware, isn’t going anywhere.

At a time when the country is singing a hymn to a post-racial era and the Supreme  Court appears poised to strike down Affirmative Action of any sort, economic barriers to black success are more formidable than ever before. The U. S. Census Bureau reported that the median net worth for a black household in 2009 was $2,200 while for whites it was $98,000. That’s not a typo, it’s the largest racial wealth chasm ever recorded.