Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Ebony Experiment: Stop Asking 'Is it Racist?'

When John and Maggie Anderson of Oak Park, Ill., started The Ebony Experiment on January 1 of this year, they thought of it as "an academic test about how to reinvest in an underserved community and lessen society's burden." For one year the family has pledged to buy everything they possibly can from black-owned businesses--health and beauty supplies, gas, clothing, food, books, medical services, etc.

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. And they haven't changed utility companies. (The LA Times, Family buys black for one year)
The Andersons hope to strengthen African-American communities, to build wealth in black neighborhoods, and encourage economic independence and responsibility. John Anderson told the LA Times last month, "When a thriving African American or urban community is realized, certainly as a society as a whole we all win."

From The Ebony Experiment website.

So, you'd think everyone, seeing the crippled state of many black communities in America--hearing of the crime on the nightly news, reading about the higher rates of unemployment, learning of the crisis in inner-city education--would cheer the Andersons on, but you'd be wrong.

In addition to watching the CNN video above, you may also see at Electronic Village an MSNBC interview with the Andersons in which the couple addresses common criticism of the project. In it Mr. Anderson says it's not about exclusion but about self-help economics and that he and his family are guinea pigs in a study. The Ebony Experiment website has other interviews posted, including one with the Urban League that's also at YouTube. In that interview they stress that they hope to dispel the myths about black-owned businesses. I assume they mean the stigma of inferior services and quality associated with black businesses.

While some people wonder how can they join the Ebony Experiment, others off-handedly declare it racist and against the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Limiting yourself to stores based on the criteria of race and not quality of service or merchandise is, of course, racist but also runs the risk of supporting stores that might not be worth saving. That's one of the reason I avoided the Christian stores, I would rather base my purchase on quality, not some claim to kinship that may or may not be true. (Reformed Chicks Blabbing)
I don't think the writers at Reformed Chicks Blabbing, a blog on Belief.net, are women of color, and so the call to participate in the Ebony Experiment is not made to them. You know, sometimes you have to know if you are the person to whom others are speaking, and if you're not and what's being spoken of doesn't harm you, then let it go.

Ironically, the declaration that The Ebony Experiment is racist is the knee-jerk response of people who see in black and white and think to be color-blind is to be free of racism. They are wrong!

Another faith blog written by an African-American male shares a broader, more informed view:

In today’s crippled economy, is there a place for the Kwanzaa principle of Ujamma, or cooperative economics? ... This issue elicits many questions, particularly the one alluded to in the excerpt above concerning the criticism that if members of the white community promoted something as brazenly separatist and racialized as this, they would be immediately castigated as racists. And that suggestion of a double standard is understandable. Yet, whether we agree or disagree with that contention, I think it’s important to acknowledge the complexity of our national history around the issues of race, slavery, segregation, and social justice. Though we’ve long since repudiated and attempted to move forward from our nation’s biggest failures on the matter of race, a lot of the residue of our failures continue to inform our personal and institutional relationships today. To ignore that fact only hinders our efforts toward true progress and reconciliation. (Ed Gilbreath at The Reconciliation Blog)
A note at the end of the full post attempts to put this topic in the perspective of Obama's win and so-called "post-racial" America.

I keep hearing about post-racial America in the Age of Obama and while I loathe the "Obama the Magic Negro" song, as I listen to people go on about the end of racism in the Obama age, I see the validity of some points David Ehrenstein made in his opinion piece, the one that supposedly inspired the offensive jingle. There are Americans out there, mostly not people of color, who think Obama's election induced a mystical exorcism of all things racist. They're deluding themselves.

Since I've mentioned Ehrenstein, let me add that people who can't separate the insulting song from Ehrenstein's commentary seem to be stricken with a Boolean logic mentality that strips them of complex thought. There is no magic potion for racism and the evils it births, and under magic potions and fairy tales fall notions of a color blind society, one black savior, paternalistic white knights, benevolent plantation masters, that American economics is pure capitalism, and the ideology that all humans are tubs that must only sit on their own bottoms and never get help from other tubs. But back to the Andersons' undertaking.

I appreciate Ed Gilbreath's reference to the Kwanzaa principle Ujamaa, with the exception that invoking Kwanzaa gives the impression that cooperative economics within the black community is a concept as young as Kwanzaa. In the early 1900s Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant, built the largest African-American organization in history promoting black economic independence. Before Garvey, educator Booker T. Washington, author of Up From Slavery, was "an advocate for African American economic power" in the late 1800s, reports a scholar quoted at the LA Times.

Today the world has shrunken, and so it's unlikely any group can ever claim true economic independence again unless it's in its own nation behind impenetrable walls. We are all connected, as the current global economic crisis makes clear, but prosperous black communities is a dream that can be followed and claimed. Yet, how can it come to pass if more African-American men and women don't succeed at owning their own businesses and use their business skills to cater to the needs of African-American communities the same way that the Italians have, the Irish have, the Jewish people have, the Asians have, etc.?

Comments from Jack and Jill:

Yes, whites of a certain mentality hear that black people seek to strengthen their communities through mutual support and they scream foul, charge racism, and say blacks have a double standard? For those who know American history, however, it's clear that critics of black self-help have a double standard. As the commenters at Jack and Jill Politics say, other ethnic groups have always done in their own groups what the Andersons propose. Why is it wrong when African-Americans do the same? More curious, I suspect some of the same people who call the Ebony Experiment racist also say at the dinner table, "Black people are always looking for a hand out from the government. When are they going to solve their own problems themselves?"

Slavery, Segregation and Economics

Slavery prevented African-Americans from having the experience of building the ethnic economic base that other groups have built in this nation. Upon their arrival, blacks were immediately stripped of cultural identity--language, customs, family connections, control of their own bodies, and whatever material wealth, even the grit of African sand--was stolen. The abolition of slavery, the demolition of segregation, did not magically restore these losses. Neither does the election of a black president.

So, when I saw the Andersons' story and read that the family has received hate mail accusing them of racism and threatening to not ever buy from black businesses again, I wasn't alarmed. Boycott, I thought, Princess Bride revisited, joins the word "Inconceivable!" Boycott ... "You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means."

A white person supposedly speaking for other white people threatening a boycott against black business is the perfect example of a fool speaking and removing all doubt that he is a fool.

The threat sent to the Andersons reminded me of hearing Pat Buchanan on a local talk show, The Austin Rhodes Show, in Augusta, Ga., in the 90s, ranting about either Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton calling for a boycott of businesses. Buchanan blustered, "I think that we (whites) should boycott black businesses!"

I asked for a tape but was told, just minutes after the show ended, that they'd lost it; however, hearing Bucahanan say whites should boycott black businesses was enough to convince me he may have mental issues.

If you're not African-American, tell me now how many times have you purchased your car, clothes, groceries from a black-owned company? How often do you open a copy of Black Enterprise magazine?

If you exclude Motown, even much of the music you may have purchased by black recording artists did not come from a black-owned recording studio and distributor. Motown itself is no longer a "black-owned" business. So, unless you buy lots of HipHop from independent producers, it's unlikely that even your entertainment comes from a "black" company. How can you boycott something you don't use anyway? And no, Oprah doesn't count here. The point being made is not that white people should feel guilty for not "buying black," but that white people who make stupid statements like "I'm not going to buy anything from black businesses" because the Ebony Experiment is racist or label it racist show that they're out of touch with reality.

Just as any specious "white power movement" is a redundancy of the predominant social system, attempts to assert "buy white only" is a redundancy of the predominant economic system despite the rise of China. The perception of some whites that the Ebony Experiment is racist is another example of blindness to privilege. Having no conscious sense of the power of white skin and wealth, some whites misinterpret black empowerment and any search for black independence as racism, meaning the same method of oppression white institutions have employed for years against people of color, but it's not the same.

A blogger who seems to have a similar view is Renee at Womanist Musings. After posting objections to The Ebony Experiment she found at The Black Informant, she writes:

The resounding theme in the above commentary is white panic and a denial of white privilege. I personally love the question of what if whites only supported white owned businesses? Since the majority of the business in the United States are owned by white people chances are you already do. You will further note that the WET (white entertainment network) argument made its usual appearance. When I see this supposition, I often want to ask about the status of ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and in particular FOX news; they clearly are not devoted to promoting diversity either in their news, or entertainment programming and BET which is barely managing to stay in business is a threat. The bottom line is that unless something unfairly promotes whiteness it is deemed racist by those that are determined to maintain undeserved white privilege. (Renee at WM)
Just how many people slept through history class is what I've been wondering. Since I first heard about the Ebony Experiment in March, history and how we arrived at this point in time, has poked me.

America was once a legally segregated nation. As a result, there were businesses within the black community owned by black people that thrived, but a stigma clung to them. Blacks went to black-owned establishments because they had no place else to go that wouldn't force them to sit in the back or enter through the kitchen door. Entry into white establishments was forbidden and as a result white businesses carried the mystique of a wonderland. Conversely, black businesses were viewed as inferior.

When segregation ended, blacks could shop and eat wherever they wished and so flocked to what had once been taboo, abandoning black business owners who had served them for decades, assuming they had arrived at a better place. Or, as scholar James E. Clingman told The Times, blacks "began patronizing white-owned businesses under the misconception that buying white signified blacks' upward socioeconomic mobility."

Another casualty of segregation was the reputation of the black professional who had been educated in black schools. Separate was not equal. My parents and grandparents could see that with the raggedy books that landed on their school desks, torn and worn by white children who used them first. The perception grew that white children received a better education, which was true in many ways, and the consequence was that white professionals educated in white schools were assumed to be superior to black professionals educated in black schools.

I remember my grandmother saying that she wouldn't go to a black doctor. Later I understood it was because she believed the white doctor was not necessarily smarter but that the white doctor had access to the latest in equipment and the best medical schools.

But let's go with the positive side of the Anderson story. According to the LA Times, the hate mail they've received is a small part of the Anderson's correspondence. Most of the comments have been supportive--"people see the endeavor as beneficial to all."

The Andersons' story also appears in the Chicago Tribune.

Look for this post to be cross-posted at BlogHer.com later. I decided to add this post to The Urban Mother's Book of Prayers because strengthening the black community's economy will directly impact the quality of city life because many major cities have large black populations.

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