Camera Lucida

August 24, 2006

The corner store

Filed under: Society — CL @ 10:13 pm

Andrew Young is in trouble for something he said. In one sentence, he managed to insult Jews, Koreans, and Arabs. In an interview in the Los Angeles Sentinel, Young is quoted:

    When asked about Wal-Mart moving into areas and displacing the “mom-and-pop” stores, Young had this response. “Well, I think they should; they ran the ‘mom-and-pop’ stores out of my neighborhood. But you see those are the people who have been overcharging us—selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and retired to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs. Very few Black folks own these stores.”

In Slate, Timothy Noah tries to explain:

    Various African-American writers, including the estimable Clarence Page and Erin Aubrey Kaplan, have suggested that what Young was trying to say, in his admittedly ham-handed way, was that blacks historically have not owned the mom-and-pop stores in black neighborhoods, and that this is a source of legitimate frustration in the black community. A perfectly valid point, but not, you’ll notice, the one that Young made in the interview. Young didn’t say that more blacks ought to own mom-and-pop grocery stores in black neighborhoods; he said that the people who have owned and operated these stores have “been overcharging” blacks for “stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables” and then “sold out and retired to Florida.” They have “ripped off our communities.” They have done this, Young implied strongly, because they are not themselves black.

This is a remarkable comment – blacks have not owned these stores, and this generates “legitimate frustration in the black community”. I don’t see it that way.

Mr. Young fashions himself a spokesman for African-Americans. Has he asked himself why it is that “very few black folks own these stores”? The Jews came and went. The Koreans came and went. The Arabs came, and someday they will leave. All this time, black people have been customers, but it seems that they never owned the stores. Why is that? At no time in the last 30 years were there any laws that prohibited blacks from buying grocery stores. Indeed, if there had been any such laws, they would have been properly challenged as illegal under any number of laws.

Why exactly is it a legitimate source of frustration in the black community that blacks do not own the stores that serve their neighborhoods? As far as I can tell, the only reason that that is the case is that blacks have not chosen to participate in that segment of the economy. There may be a number of explanations for why that has happened, but lack of opportunity is not one of them.

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