MJ: You talk a lot about the idea of economic enfranchisement. Is that another way of framing this problem you're addressing?
MA: I think it is. When we first did this it was 2008, and we were very happy with what was going on with Barack Obama, and celebrities were involved, people wearing T-shirts and high-fiving in the streets. And we thought, what if black America were that excited about their economic empowerment? What if they were running up and down the streets saying, "Did you support a black business today?" What if they were that high-fivey, or if celebrities were behind our economic empowerment in the same way? I did not realize how absolutely left out of this economy I was until I went into a Walmart one day and looked for products made by black companies. I asked for the manager, and he happened to be black. I asked if there was any way I could have a list of their diverse suppliers, or the products that really showcase their supplier and vendor diversity. He said, "Let me talk to some folks and I'll see."
"Here I am, suburban mom, trying to go shopping—this is just as American as it can get—and I want to support a black business at my big American retailer, and he's showing me two products!"
A week later I came back to see him, and he had made some calls for me. He said "No, we don't have a list," but he said he'd help me find them. And he took me straight to the ethnic hair care part of the beauty supply aisle. First of all, it was like a mile long—the Oak Park Walmart is always full of black people, so there's a huge ethnic hair-care part there. So I said, "Okay, this is just the first stop, right? You're going to take me to other places, right? I mean, black people can do other things. You're going to take me to shoelaces or rulers or hamster wheels; you're going to show me something else." And he said, "No, this is it." He showed me two products. It's like, Jesus, I'm here in Walmart, great American institution. Here I am, suburban mom, trying to go shopping—this is just as American as it can get—and I want to support a black business at my big American retailer, and he's showing me two products! How am I even a part of this?
MJ: What does your experiment tell us about differences between blacks in different socioeconomic classes?
MA: When I speak about it, I'm very vocal in saying that this initiative targets middle- and upper-class consumers. Nothing's going to change for us if the wealthier black people don't start spending more money with our businesses. We have the cultural problem too. For a lot of black folks, you "make it" by getting out of the community, by not buying black, by not living or socializing with black people—that's sort of your badge of honor. So we have, in the middle and upper classes, a tougher challenge: the pride issue, not just the spending issue. Poor folks hear about what my family did and they want to throw a parade. Middle- and upper-class folks will talk about it, but I don't see the fire in their eyes. So the disconnect between the two groups is still very palpable.
But in a lot of our events, I see that kind of thing changing: We'll have wine tastings, but we'll have them at the black-owned bed-and-breakfast in the impoverished community we are trying to help. So my folks are face-to-face with their brothers and sisters who are not making a lot of money, who are unemployed, who are in a struggling business. I'm not saying the Empowerment Experiment is going to bridge that gap, but it's very intentional that we are bringing in middle- and upper-class folks. It's not the poor folks' problem—they're living it, they're feeling the impact—it's the middle- and upper-class folks who need to step up.