The Common Good

Is the 'Ebony Experiment' Wrong?

An article in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention this week. It's about the "Ebony Experiment," an Oak Park, Illinois, couple's controversial mission to "buy black" and spend their money exclusively with black-owned businesses for an entire year. John and Maggie Anderson's purpose is to encourage the growth of African-American business and entrepreneurship and help solve what they call "the crisis in the black community." Here's an excerpt from the article:

"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 have 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 University degree in economics and an MBA from Northwestern University, "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 said. Focusing the estimated $850 billion annual black buying power on black businesses strengthens those business and creates more businesses, more jobs and stronger families, schools and neighborhoods, the Andersons and other advocates said.

In today's crippled economy, is there a place for the Kwanzaa principle of Ujamma, or cooperative economics? Furthermore, is there a legitimate place for this kind of activism in the lives of people, like many of the readers of this blog, who desire racial and social reconciliation in an already fragmented nation?

This issue elicits many questions, particularly the one alluded to above 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 our nation's biggest failures and attempted to move forward 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.

This commentary by blogger Fredric Mitchell presents some interesting food for thought that, at the very least, can help bring context to our thinking on topics like the Ebony Experiment.

Still, there's so much to ponder here: Isn't this Ebony Experiment inconsistent with the Obamaesque notion of a "post-racial America"? Is there a place for an ethnically-exclusive approach to economics in our day and age? And, if so, what does it say about our commitment to diversity, justice, and reconciliation?

portrait-edward-gilbreathEdward Gilbreath is director of editorial for Urban Ministries Inc., editor of UrbanFaith.com, and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity. He blogs at Reconciliation Blog.

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