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Maggie Anderson, Black Distributist

February 28, 2012

Maggie Anderson is an affluent black woman and Chicagoan who, one day while buying groceries in Oak Park, realized that her money would be better spent at a grocery store in the impoverished West Side, where it would benefit a business owner from the black community she grew up in. This realization became the impetus for the much larger project of only buying products from black businesses for an entire year – a project that inspired her new book, The Empowerment Experiment. It’s a simple idea and yet it is an idea no one seems to think of in this era of big business and big government.

Liberals tend to take capitalism simply as a given, praising it as an engine of economic growth, while pointing out that it is imperfect and needs to be brought into line with democratic ideals. It’s a narrative I’m certainly sympathetic to. If we have learned nothing else from the Obama presidency, it is that campaign promises to fundamentally transform Washington must necessarily be broken and that transformative ideas are therefore best implemented locally. To denounce capitalism and plot against one’s government – as did the radicals of old – would be an exercise in folly. To denounce capitalism and run a green party or libertarian candidate for president would be an exercise in futility. But to buy one’s groceries from a local business seems to me a meaningful step toward authentic change. And whether or not one has a theory about capitalism, the immediate effect of doing so is to challenge the concentration of property that is characteristic of capitalism (and, incidentally, socialism). Power follows property.

Well-intentioned liberals, whose policy preferences are, no doubt, at least part of the solution to the systemic racism that still plagues America, do not often realize this point, and instead seek to extend the benefits (i.e. profits) of capitalism to historically marginalized groups. That is why, as Anderson points out in an interview with Mother Jones

when we talk about black people, the black situation, problems in the black community, you know, we start with, “Black kids are least likely to graduate from school; black unemployment is four times higher than the national average,” all these numbers.

She goes on to ask:

But why can’t we include that over 90 percent of businesses in the black community are not owned by black people or local residents? If we were to add that to the conversation, maybe folks would say, “Oh, well no wonder things are so bad there,” and start thinking about things in a different way instead of allowing those awful numbers to be a reflection of our propensities. Why is it that my people are just supposed to be the perpetual consumer class, and everyone else is supposed to benefit from our money?

To reiterate: closing the education gap so as to prepare black kids for economic success is a necessary and important goal. And yet, as wealth becomes increasingly concentrated at the top, economic success (i.e. a middle class income) has become increasingly elusive for countless Americans. Preparing a black kid to compete in the American job market seems a bit like preparing a black kid to compete in a Roman coliseum. In other words, it seems like throwing a black kid to the lions.

Going back to Maggie Andersen’s much simpler alternative (an alternative that is, incidentally, also favored by GK Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc), if there is no way to convince the 1% to play fair, there nevertheless remains a way to stop playing their game altogether – which is to stop giving them our Monopoly money. To be clear, there is nothing inherently virtuous or magical about buying local. A worker in India or China needs and deserves a job every bit as much as a friend or neighbor in Chicago or Minneapolis. Moreover, given that there is a McDonalds in nearly every city block of every major city, buying local is not by itself the solution. The issue isn’t actually place per se, but ownership, as Andersen makes clear:

. . . easily over 90 percent of the businesses on the West Side—and it’s the same way all over the country—are owned by people who are not black and do not live in that community. So it’s not a “buy local” thing, because these folks set up shop in the black community, sell their wares, make their money, hardly ever employ the local people there—and they put the steel bar over the door, pack up at 6:30, get in their car, drive to their suburb, and take that money with them.

Empowering the black community is no different than empowering any other community. It is not a matter of redistributing wealth while leaving existing power structures in place, but of distributing wealth equitably to begin with. And that is accomplished not by taking away private property, as socialists mistakenly argue, but by spreading it as widely as possible.

A few quick points about race. First, Anderson mentions in her article that she has been repeatedly charged with racism (i.e. with undue favoritism toward African Americans) – a charge repeated by several commentors in the Mother Jones article. What Anderson’s critics fail to realize, it seems to me, is that “black” is not just a skin color; nor is it even a cultural identity (though it is that too); it is a community to which some people happen to belong. In that respect, black is unlike white. There are, I’m told, still pockets of Irish or Pole or Italian communities. But, for the most part, being white simply translates into membership in the dominant group, which, as we all know, rejects communal identity in favor of individualistic pursuits – for the most part, the pursuit of wealth. So choosing to buy black is really on par with choosing to buy local; it is voting with one’s dollars to empower ordinary people and voting against the 1%.

In another sense, buying black is obviously different. For if a black grocer or mechanic is in one sense an ordinary person, she or he is also a person whose ancestors happen to have been viciously and violently oppressed. Here is where Maggie Anderson’s project should be of particular interest to Catholics – and especially during this time of Lent. For an individualistic Protestant or agnostic, the notion of collective guilt makes no sense. But Catholics recognize that we belong to a tradition larger than ourselves and are therefore, in a sense, responsible for that tradition. (A very good illustration of the contrast between individualistic Protestants and agnostics with Catholics is provided by Ross Douthat, who points out the absurdity of Brad Delong’s attempt to disassociate himself from European colonists.) Moreover, Catholics still acknowledge that guilt is something real; something more than an clumsy effort on the part of an insidious church hierarchy to gain power over you. White guilt is not a bad thing. We should feel guilty. We are guilty.

Of course, as Catholics, we also believe in forgiveness, but not without penance. Why not support black businesses as an ongoing act of penance (albeit a potentially pleasurable one, which complicates things)? Why not start by buying a book about putting into practice the very distributist ideas that we hold dear?

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