Andrew Young, whom I remember as a smart and decent guy although I didn’t agree with him about everything, has been at the center of a profoundly saddening flap over remarks he made flacking for Wal-Mart. His observation is that Wal-Mart bettered the lives of people in his Atlanta neighborhood, which I infer to be mostly black, by out-competing small merchants who sold bad goods at low prices, instead offering good stuff cheap. What he got in trouble for was observing that these small local merchants had been successively Jewish, Korean, and “Arabs”; “almost everyone who has come into my community has moved in, made money and moved out and moved up,” he said. “That process is still continuing.”
Not surprisingly, the sky has fallen on him, and he had to quit his nice job fronting for Bentonville. But the tragedy in this story is not a Gibsonesque racist moment, but his complete failure, even when he realized he had to do some explaining, to think about the phenomenon he described. I think he got the facts right (though his Arabs are almost certainly some other middle eastern group). It’s not racist to observe that a sequence of immigrant ethnic group domination of various urban retail specialties is familiar in most American cities. In New York, the Jewish coffee shops were taken over by Greeks (with almost no change in the menu, but an innovation of “Greek paper cups” in blue and white with classical pictures on them) when the Jews’ kids went to college, and with the same generational transition denying the Greeks family to take over, they seem now to be mostly Vietnamese owned and operated (though the coffee cups, charmingly, remain). Who will sell bialys and bagels with coffee in Hercules cups to New Yorkers in twenty years; Dominicans? Uzbeks? Wait and see. Korean greengrocers, Italian fishmongers, Chinese laundries…the stereotypes reflect realities of one or another historical period.
What Young is bitter about, obviously, is the minimal salience of black entrepreneurs of any kind in black neighborhoods, and what he should have done is ask why this has been the case. Have white lenders financed Koreans to buy out the Jewish shopowners but denied such loans to blacks? Have black community leaders not made it clear to the kids that the business of America is business? Are the Koreans and “Arabs” getting a better education in the public schools, so they outcompete blacks who try to go up against them with fresh produce and low prices? Are blacks making more money in some other line of work; (the Irish in NY and Boston were little occupied with retailing in the early last century because they tended to be employed in the civil service, especially the police, and in construction)? Has someone been teaching his neighbors that anyone offering to sell you something is a hostile presence, so they don’t shop at black-owned stores and they can’t stay in business?
As it stands, his anger at the only people who are providing his neighborhood with a quart of milk within walking distance seems quite misplaced, especially considering the crushing hours required for a family to make a living with any kind of mom-and-pop store, extra-especially one in a low-income neighborhood. Young is right to draw attention to the apparent state of affairs, but a former mayor could be expected to do better in a public forum than to wallow in economic naivete and just wave a bloody shirt. What he did was deplorable because he was intellectually lazy (or politically cowardly), not because of the racist flavor everyone is detecting.