When immigrants control commerce in the inner city

May 27, 1999|By Salim Muwakkil

THE arrest of two Yemeni nationals in the slaying of a black man in Detroit has churned up smoldering resentments between immigrant merchants and the city's African-American population. It has showcased -- once again -- the high social costs of cultural misunderstanding.

Kalvin Porter, 34, was allegedly beaten with a tire iron and strangled by two employees of a gas station after he argued with them about an inappropriate remark one reportedly made to his 12-year-old daughter. The two men, Fadhel Mazeb, 46, and Adel Altam, 26 -- both immigrants from Yemen -- were charged with second-degree murder.

But their arrest has done little to calm the protests that were provoked by the slaying. Since the May 14 incident, the gas station has been shut down and African-American protesters have demanded it remain closed unless it changes hands and is run by blacks.

Arab-American leaders said Mr. Porter's death was not a racial matter. "The situation was tragic, to say the least," said Ed Deeb, president of the Michigan Food and Beverage Association, which represents more than 3,000 Arab merchants in the Detroit area.

In the early 1970s, Arab immigrants began to dominate the grocery store, liquor store and gas-station businesses in Detroit. They replaced many of the white merchants who fled the inner-city neighborhoods after the 1967 riot. Metropolitan Detroit contains about 200,000 people of Arab descent, one of the largest such concentrations outside of the Middle East.

In Detroit's black community, Arab immigrants are the source of the friction, but in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, N.Y., it's Koreans. In Cleveland and Chicago, it's both. In Washington, D.C., it's Salvadorans.

Ethnic tension

The dynamic is the same in every location: A culturally coherent immigrant group arrives with a work ethic and willingness to locate in America's least attractive (but easily exploitable) neighborhoods -- predominantly black inner cities. Although these neighborhoods have been victimized by economic disinvestment (shunned even by black entrepreneurs), many African-Americans nonetheless are angered by the commercial prominence and sometimes abrasive cultural differences of the immigrants.

These immigrant merchants often find themselves enmeshed in a historical racial drama in which they are merely bit players. According to a study by the Urban Institute, 93 percent of immigrants wind up living in urban areas. Because of America's troubled racial history, many of these areas are starved of resources and wracked by poverty-related social ills.

Foreign scapegoats

When immigrant merchants step into this combustible socio-economic mix, they often become scapegoats. But they sometimes exacerbate the situation with either their racist assumptions -- endemic to their culture or quickly assimilated from American society -- or through simple cultural misunderstandings.

"Mr. Porter's death is a tragic example of festering problems of ill will and ill feelings" between African-Americans and some Arab-American store operators, said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. "The African-American community has too long been the victim of mistreatment and disrespect by some who operate and work in stores and gas stations in our neighborhood."

Mr. Anthony's comments are typical of those heard in various cities where incendiary friction has developed between blacks and immigrant merchants, and they reflect the hard feelings held by many African-American residents. In some respects, these feelings are understandable, given how some immigrant groups historically have replicated the anti-black biases of mainstream America.

But these increasing conflicts also reveal how African-Americans have been pulled into the nativist current that is sweeping the United States. Many of the same black activists who once gave lip service to the notion of "Third World solidarity" are now fanning the flames of ethnic antagonism.

They're fueling the same xenophobic forces that are responsible for much of this country's racist history. This may come back to haunt them.

Salim Muwakkil is senior editor of the Chicago-based In These Times magazine and is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

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