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 United Nations ambassador found himself guilty and sentenced himself to resign as head of a Wal-Mart advocacy group.
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. says they did not ask for Young, 74, to step down, but they did not stand in his way when he did. After all, what does it profit an international mega-corporation to have a feel-good front man who makes people feel bad?
Young stuck his wingtips in his mouth with his response during a recent interview in the Los Angeles Sentinel, the West Coast's oldest and largest black-owned weekly, to a question about whether Wal-Mart squeezed small stores out of black neighborhoods.
"Well, I think they should; they ran the 'mom-and-pop' stores out of my neighborhood," he told the Sentinel. "But you see those are the people who have been overcharging us selling us stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they (big stores) 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."
I don't expect anyone to be nominating Young for an NAACP Image Award this year, although he might be a contender for the Mel Gibson Sensitivity Prize.
Actually, unlike Gibson's infamous drunken slurs against Jews, Young was apparently sober and trying to say something that anyone familiar with urban commerce knows to be quite true. He only dug his grave with 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, have operated mom-and-pop stores and eventually move on to newer neighborhoods.
These "middleman minorities," as economist Thomas Sowell labeled them more than a decade-ago, are a worldwide phenomenon reflecting how some ethnic cultures are more entrepreneurial than others because of culture or peculiar historical circumstances. They may be Cuban merchants in Latin America, ethnic Chinese in the Philippines or East Indians in East Africa.
This helps to explain, for example, why a survey of black-owned New York businesses in the 1980s found that more than half were owned by immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean, even though immigrants comprised only a tenth of the city's black population.
In cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York, for example, many black neighborhoods saw black, Jewish or Italian merchants move in the wake of riots and white flight in the 1960s, only to be replaced by Arab or Korean merchants.
Like Wal-Mart, these "middleman minority" merchants may provide valuable commerce in communities that have little or none, even as they also stir resentment from the very communities they serve.
Long-simmering resentments toward mostly Asian merchants in south central Los Angeles boiled over into mainstream news during that city's 1992 riots. TV cameras caught armed Korean merchants guarding their family stores against mostly black and Hispanic looters.
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 race and ethnicity. Yet, he also provides what educators call a "teachable moment."
Instead of getting mad at Andy 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 and tax breaks to help lure major chain stores that serve as anchors for the development of smaller businesses.
The real problem that Young uncovered is not ethnic but economical 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. Those who get left behind while others, including immigrant merchant families, get ahead are left more isolated and resentful than ever. Capitalism obviously works. Our American challenge is to make it work for every American.