Saturday, August 19, 2006

Andrew Young's Words Tell A Story, But Not The Full One

First it was Mel Gibson's drunken rant after being pulled over for DUI. Then it was Senator George Allen's sober remarks referring to a man of Indian descent as a "macaca." Now, civil rights leader, former Atlanta mayor, former UN Ambassador and newly former Wal-Mart spokesman Andrew Young finds himself in hot water after an interview with a Los Angeles newspaper.

During a question-answer session with the weekly Sentinel, Young was asked about whether he was concerned Wal-Mart causes smaller mom-and-pop stores to close. "Well, I think they should; they ran the mom and pop stores out of my neighborhood," Young said. "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."

Young had been hired by Wal-Mart to be chairman of its lobby group, Working Families for Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart established Working Families to help counter accusations that the company was anti-union, anti- small business and to help strengthen its reputation in the Black and Latino communities.

Young came under much criticism from the civil rights community when he decided to take the position, with many saying that he had "sold out" to the corporate giant. Now, as Wal-Mart deals with its first quarterly profit decline in 10 years, it must also deal with a public relations nightmare created by a man it hoped would help polish its image.

What hasn't been discussed, however, is how much of what Young said is supported by some in the Black community. These are not beliefs that are somehow new. One can even find it given the movie treatment in the 1989 Spike Lee film "Do The Right Thing" when three older Black men discuss whether or not to spend their money at the corner grocery which is owned by a Korean family.

There has always been a measurable level of mistrust and resentment exhibited by some in the Black community towards small business owners of other races. During the turbulent 1960's, many of the neighborhood businesses that were burned in the riots in Watts, Detroit and other large urban cities were owned by Whites, many of them Jewish. After millions of dollars of damage, inner-city incomes and property values were depressed for years to come.

Business owners fled for the now upwardly mobile and much safer suburbs. Some stayed longer in the inner city, with a few still in the same neighborhoods to this day, but there was a vacuum created when most of them left. That vacuum offered opportunities for Black entrepreneurs to start businesses of their own, like small corner groceries. I know...my Uncle George was one such entrepreneur.

For over 20 years, he owned at least one and at times multiple corner grocery stores. With pride he, and other Black grocery store owners, served the communities where they lived. Initially, he thrived. Growing through the late 60's and early 70's. Struggling, as every business, small and large, did in the middle and late 70's. Rebounding in the 80's. Soon, new competition began to emerge. Not the corporate giants just yet, but the new Asian grocers, the new influx, the next rung on the ladder.

My Uncle's struggles didn't start because the Asian grocers did anything to his business specifically. It was just because they started doing it better. For over 20 years he didn't so much run the business...it ran him. Where many early Black entrepreneurs struggled was in the business of running a business, and that, more than what Jewish, Korean or Middle Eastern mom and pop business owners are doing in predominately Black neighborhoods is why we are where we are today.

My Uncle, and others like him, didn't know all he needed to know about banking, accounting, finance, distribution, hiring, firing. He did the best he could, and he did damn well, but in the world of business, of supply and demand, of dog eat dog, if someone comes along and does it better, the milkbone underwear will start to fit quite snug.

Many Black owned businesses that began when my Uncle started survived, thrived, grew and continue to grow to this day. Many more young Black entrepreneurs every day decide that they want to be their own boss and begin the long and arduous task of building a business. There are more Black owned businesses in the United States then ever before. Some succeed and some don't, but most, with business education and business knowledge that was not as accessible to Black men and women in the 1960's, have a much better chance from the start.

The giant that is Wal-Mart will see profitable days again. Korean and Middle Eastern business owners will exist in Black communities, and Black business owners will continue to grow in number. There may never be as many Black corner grocers, mom and pops, as there once was, and that's okay. But should another Uncle George come along and decide that a corner grocery is his dream, I'm sure those in his community will find a way to support his business.

The Wal-Mart's and Home Depot's of the world can, and should, survive as should the mom and pop stores. It's up to individual consumers to spend their money in such a way that it happens, and hopefully it can be done in a color-blind world. That's what Andrew Young should have said. That he did not says much about where we as Americans still are when it comes to race.

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