One of the recurrent rituals of American life is the public humiliation of prominent older folks who just can't keep bottled up what they really think about race. (My wife calls this increasing inability to not say exactly what's on your mind "Elderly Tourette Syndrome".)
Aging white sportsmen are frequently subject to these public eviscerations. Notre Dame football announcer Paul Hornung and Air Force Academy football coach Fisher DeBerry both recently got into all sorts of trouble for suggesting that their exclusive colleges should lower admissions standards to recruit more fast black players. Sportswriters claimed to be aghast that anyone could possibly believe the stereotype that blacks tended to be faster runners on the field…or lower scorers on the SAT.
Paradoxically, minorities can get away with more frankness. For example, the black Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker easily survived the brouhaha following his assertion that black and Latin ballplayers tend to do better than white players on humid days.
Last week, though, a famous old civil rights icon resigned his cushy job promoting Wal-Mart to black politicians because he was caught saying what he—and lots of other blacks—actually believe about immigrant shopkeepers.
The giant retailing company has often been frustrated obtaining permits to build stores in the inner city—for example, Chicago city councilmen blocked a proposed Wal-Mart on the South Side. So Wal-Mart hired 74-year-old Andrew Young, who once worked for Martin Luther King Jr., to lobby local governments for them. Young is the former Atlanta mayor who helped capture the 1996 Olympics and made sure that blacks got a sizable hunk of the lucrative contracts—thereby much exacerbating the notorious incompetence of the Atlanta Games.
Asked by an interviewer from a black newspaper, the LA Sentinel, if Wal-Mart displaced mom-and-pop retailers, Young replied:
"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 moved 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 people own these stores."
Ironically, the TV show The Simpsons has similarly satirized its Hindu character Apu, manager of the Kwik-E-Mart, for 16 years:
[Marge places a tiny bottle of aspirin over the counter]
Apu: The aspirin is $24.95
Apu: I lowered the price because an escaped mental patient tampered with the bottle.
Yet, despite protests from Indian-Americans, the show has never backed down from its caricature of a money-grubbing middleman minority.
That's because there is a major disjunction in American public discourse between the relatively wide latitude you are allowed if you claim to be engaged in "observational comedy" and the much more limited set of facts you are permitted to use when seriously analyzing how the world works. That's a big reason America has better comedy than public policy.
But then, most "serious" political discourse doesn't exist to tell the truth. Instead, its purpose is to show off moral superiority.
Needless to say, the fact that mom-and-pop stores in black neighborhoods are seldom owned by blacks has more to do with black entrepreneurial failings than with the moral failings of middle-man minority shopkeepers. And the stores' high prices and poor selection more reflect the risk of operating in crime-ridden neighborhoods and the inherent inefficiencies of small shops than any nefarious plot against blacks.
If blacks owned those stores, the bread would presumably be even staler and the prices even higher.
Conservatives are always advising African-Americans to be entrepreneurial. But ambitious blacks seldom have the extended family structures that would allow them to compete with immigrants. If you are the patriarch of a Greek immigrant family, for example, you are culturally expected to browbeat your children and grandchildren into working in the family business. In contrast, poorer African-American males seldom have strong familial relationships with anyone other than their mothers.
Still, public-spirited black ministers have argued, quite plausibly, that having fewer and less efficient liquor stores in the ghetto would be good for local blacks, because they would then drink less.
After WWII, most of the liquor stores in Los Angeles's black ghetto were owned by aging Jews. Then, following the 1965 Watts Riots, the Jews mostly sold out to black businessmen. When liquor prices were deregulated in the late 1970s, reducing profit margins, the blacks sold out to the harder-working Koreans. The efficient but brusque and disdainful Koreans came to be hated by their black customers, especially after a Korean lady shot a teenage black girl in the back of the head in 1991. Thus, the 1992 South Central riots were in sizable part a drunken black pogrom against Korean merchants.
Nonetheless, even for food and dry goods, Young is right that African-Americans would have perfectly rational reasons for preferring a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood to "vibrant" immigrant-run corner shops.
Wal-Mart provides a much wider selection at much lower prices. As Matt Fellowes of the Brookings Institute has noted in an op-ed entitled The High Price of Being Poor [Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2006], in black and Hispanic Compton, California,
"Instead of large, modern grocery stores, there are more than 200 tiny bodegas, which generally charge higher prices."
So it's a good thing that major retail chains have been expanding to black neighborhoods in recent years as the crime rate has come down.
Another reason: local blacks have a much better chance to rise up the employment ladder at Wal-Mart than in a Korean or Lebanese-owned shop. Immigrant shopkeepers provide few jobs to local blacks because they prefer to hire co-ethnics, especially for management positions.
Why? I can think of five factors:
1. Our absurd "family reunification" immigration policy provides them with lots of relatives who need jobs (including, for example, new spouses imported from the Old Country, i.e. families that were never "united" in the first place).
2. Immigrant businesses operate more smoothly when the employees all speak the same language as the owner/manager.
3. Most immigrants come from what Francis Fukuyama calls "low-trust" cultures like Latin America, the Philippines, China, and the Middle East. In those countries, you can't count upon the legal system for justice, so you must depend on your relatives. They bring this clannish mindset with them.
(Thus my wife once was a waitress at a Golden Nugget restaurant in Chicago. This small chain was beating Denny's in the local market, so outside investors went to the Greek family that owned it and offered to fund their regional expansion. But the clan turned this opportunity down—because they didn't have enough cousins to manage new restaurants…and promoting non-Greeks to important jobs was just unthinkable
4. They often come from patriarchal cultures where the oldest male is expected to force younger relatives to do his bidding through threats of ostracism. This management tool doesn't work terribly well upon native-born employees.
5. Immigrant entrepreneurs are not infected by political correctness. They feel no guilt over holding caustic stereotypes of Americans, especially African-Americans. However unfairly, they tend to see blacks as shiftless, ignorant pilferers, and thus won't give black job applicants the time of day. In contrast, infinitely more visible Wal-Mart is under constant government pressure to "celebrate diversity" in hiring and promotion (i.e., impose racial quotas on itself).
My personal feelings about Wal-Mart are mixed. I used to fly down to Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas on sales missions. Despite the geniality of Wal-Mart's store employees, its corporate staffers were the coldest, most ruthless sons-of-guns I ever did business with.
The normal geniality of American business life comes at the cost of a certain level of corruption—you take your clients' decision makers out to fancy restaurants, golf courses, and NFL games in the hopes of developing a relationship that will cloud their judgment of what they owe their stockholders. But Wal-Mart utterly banned attempts to make friends with their headquarters employees. All meetings between visiting salesmen and Wal-Mart staff took place in windowless cells that wouldn't look out of place in Abu Ghraib. Their negotiating techniques stopped just short of waterboarding.
Since you couldn't take Wal-Mart staff out to lunch, there were no expense account restaurants in Bentonville. Every lunchtime, the Ponderosa across the street from Wal-Mart's headquarters was full of lone men in thousand-dollar suits, ace salesmen all, big wheels who routinely took clients to lunch at The Four Seasons and Charlie Trotter's, each morosely munching his $4.95 chicken-fried steak after a horrible morning of being battered into offering Wal-Mart absurdly low prices, each wondering where in this godforsaken dry county could he get the drink he desperately needed.
I couldn't stand the Wal-Mart people. But I also respected them.
Fred Reed has argued that Wal-Mart is bad for the once independent souls of small town Americans. It ruins both their sense of community, by wrecking their traditional shopping districts, and their individual orneriness, by driving local independent merchants out of business and turning them into low-level managers, dependent on their corporate bosses.
This may well be. But for inner city blacks, it's irrelevant. They don't have much of a sense of community or many independent-minded legitimate businessmen in the first place.
A job at Wal-Mart provides them with some of the same valuable things the U.S. Army offers blacks: jobs, order, and structure.
That the advancement of African-Americans, who are our fellow citizens, would diminish immigrants' profits is just one of those uncomfortable truths that you aren't supposed to mention—even if you are a civil rights icon.
It's not a comedy—and it means bad public policy.