Hidden in Young's gaffe are lessons for revitalizing neighborhoods

August 22, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- After making what he admits were "demagogic" remarks about Jewish, Asian and Arab business owners, Andrew Young has done the right thing. The former civil rights leader, Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador found himself guilty and sentenced himself to resign as head of a Wal-Mart advocacy group.

Mr. Young, 74, stuck his wingtips in his mouth during an interview published in Thursday's Los Angeles Sentinel, the West Coast's oldest and largest black-owned weekly. He was asked whether Wal-Mart squeezed small stores out of black neighborhoods.

"Well, I think they should; they [big stores] ran the mom-and-pop stores out of my neighborhood," he told the Sentinel. "But you see, those are the people [owners of mom-and-pop stores] who have been overcharging us - selling us stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables. ... 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."

Unlike the case of Mel Gibson's infamous drunken slurs against Jews, Mr. Young was apparently sober and trying to say something that anyone familiar with urban commerce knows to be quite true. The problem was the way he said it.

There's nothing new about the "black tax" that residents of economically abandoned urban neighborhoods have had to pay for goods and services in recent decades. It is part of the economic dynamic of old urban neighborhoods that waves of immigrants, including black immigrants from the South, operate mom-and-pop stores, become successful, and eventually move on to better neighborhoods.

In cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York, many black neighborhoods saw black, Jewish or Italian merchants move their stores in the wake of riots in the 1960s, only to be replaced by Arab merchants and, later, Korean merchants.

But like Wal-Mart, these middleman minority merchants provide commerce in communities that have little or none, and they stir resentment from the very communities they serve.

Long-simmering resentments toward mostly Asian merchants in South-Central Los Angeles boiled over during that city's 1992 riots.

Mr. Young could hardly have picked a worse place to reopen old resentments than Los Angeles, a city that has been trying ever since 1992 to cool its heavily immigrant stir-fry of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians. Yet he also provides a "teachable moment."

Instead of getting mad at Mr. Young or at immigrant merchants, we should take a lesson from neighborhoods that are bringing businesses back, including a new wave of locally owned mom-and-pop stores and franchises. Through public-private partnerships, neighborhood-based community development corporations in many cities are pooling resources to help lure major chain stores to serve as anchors for the development of smaller businesses.

The real problem Mr. Young uncovered is not ethnic but economic and educational. Better schools provide the tools that enable people to take care of themselves and their families, ride out economic hard times and help their children move on to better lives.

And, in our market-driven society, economics determine the market conditions that create the engines of upward mobility that enable low-paid workers to move up to higher-paying jobs. Capitalism obviously works. Our challenge is to make it work for every American.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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