Darren walks into the American Deli on Random Rd. in Atlanta, Ga. Orders the usual Chicken Philly and Wings special. The waitress  – Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Japanese, who knows – takes his order, shouts back to the cook in an indecipherable dialect and takes the next person’s order.

10 minutes elapses and the waitress shouts, “89!” Darren looks down at his receipt. One more order away.

“Number 90!” Darren steps to the counter, grabs his order, looks in the bag and asks for more blue cheese.

“It’s gonna to be fifty cents extra,” the waitress says.

“It was just thirty cents last week,” he responds.

The waitress, with a bewildered grin on her face, gives a half shrug. Darren pays the extra fifty cents, grabs the blue cheese and walks out the store. As he opens his car door, he turns around to notice the Korean Beauty Supply store and the Discount Store on the same strip as the American Deli. Across the street is a nail shop, ran by Vietnamese business owners (he knows that much).

Shaking his head, he dips into his car and cranks it up. Pausing for a second, he ingests the situation of it all. The movies. The looks of perceived condescension. The lack of Black business owners in the hood.

With the blare of Nas and Damian Marley through the speakers, he drives off.

**************

We’ve seen this narrative before.

Like Darren, going for a bite to eat in the ‘hood can be a crash course in Economic Diversity 201. Most of the employees are Black, except for a few spots. These businesses are typically beauty enhancing spots, liquor/convenient stores and restaurants. We grow up seeing this and think nothing of it until we become acquainted with the finer points of macroeconomics:

Import means to spend money to get a good/service from another country. Export means to receive money from another country for a good/service produced in this country. There has to be a balance of the two for a viable long-term economy. This same principle works on the micro-level. If a demographic of a neighborhood is 80 percent Black, but the business owners are 15 percent black, there’s a clear imbalance.

A lack of economic savvy from the consumers of the community – - as well as a presence of savvy from merchants – turns this relationship sour, resulting in strained relations on both sides. The foreign business owners look at people coming into the restaurant as dollars and cents (easy prey). The customers look at the businesses as exploitive, monosyllabic and can’t understand why so many of “them” have to set up shop in their community.

Robin Harris’ character in Do The Right Thing displayed animosity toward the foreign business owners in his community. Menace to Society’s first scene showdown between O-Dogg and the Korean merchants met in a fatal ending for the latter, establishing a street ethos that would make up the movie. But this scene was also a subtle reminder that an imbalanced relationship between foreign business owners and Black consumers is a microcosm of a out-of-sync, or dysfunctional, neighborhood.

If immigrants can come here, then why can’t there be more African American business owners? Such thinking dominates the interactions between the two groups on a daily basis. Take the relationship between Korean business owners and African-American community, for example.

Korean businesses expanded in America after World War II and rapidly in the 1970s. Immigrants have a different outlook on America as African Americans, and with Koreans, it was no different. To an outsider, America has a meritocratic appeal: Anybody can succeed as high as one’s talents and abilities allow.  African Americans don’t share that rosy outlook of America. Cultural differences lead to the following misunderstanding between Koreans and Blacks.

From Blacks:

“They are disrespectful.”

“They don’t know how to interact with customers.”

“They throw change at us instead of placing it in our hands.”

“They eye us all around the store.”

From Koreans:

“They’re loud.”

“They steal.”

“They don’t show proper respect. To us or themselves.”

But the problem is deeper than immigrants. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to prove they are the problem. There is a disparity in the incentive levels of entrepreneurship between the cultures. Integration has de-emphasized the need for Black business ownership within the Black community, whereas first-generation immigrants are almost forced to become self-employed in the Black community because:

  • They generally aren’t fluent in English
  • Companies exercise discrimination practices
  • They aren’t educated in American colleges and universities, therefore many companies don’t recognize their educational or training credentials
  • Land and business permits are easier to acquire in blighted areas (because white folks don’t generally want to deal with the customers and environs)

Add an entrenched work ethic (after all, you don’t move halfway across the world if you’re not motivated) and delayed gratification, plus the use of family members as cheap or unpaid labor…and you have conditions necessary for sustained business ownership.

Many Black people feel these businesses should invest in the community where they make their living. But is forcing businesses to give back the proverbial “wiping your nose to cure a cold” syndrome? If American Deli has to donate a certain percent of their income to the ‘hood, how would that enhance the economic and educational understanding among the people in that ‘hood?

Boycotting businesses aren’t the answer. Yet. Neither is forcing businesses to give back. Progress has to come from the bottom-up and a renewed focus on entrepreneurship in the Black community. Moving from a consumer-oriented focus to a producer-oriented focus means shedding the “blacks don’t support black-owned businesses” stereotype.

If Darren organized a boycott against American Deli or [fill in the blank of any *Korean-owned business], and that business leaves, can the community survive economically with majority Black ownership? A boycott would be effective only when that answer is a resounding yes. At this moment, the answer may not be pleasant.

*Though there are many other immigrants who start businesses in predominantly black communities, Asian-Americans, statistically, are the most likely (foreign) ethnic group to start their own business. Koreans are the highest business owners (percentage-wise) among Asian-Americans, according to 2000 Census numbers.
  • Akai*

    I agree, Happiness!

    It’s like this thing where somebody drives a fully loaded 2010 Lexus GX that is parked in front of a raggedy duplex or home they rent and do not own at night. Priorities are shot all to hell and they’re way too concerned with flossing, appearances, impressing others and trying to show off – instead of increasing their assets and net worth in the beginning – to ever become successful and financially secure.

    One upfront sacrifice and investment that is usually made is in education (children are often sent to private and/or parochial schools), but other things you’ll notice about successful immigrant small business owners that are just starting out (whether from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean) is the sacrifice. Generally, there is an eschewing of wasteful/frivolous spending on items that depreciate in value, delaying gratification to reap future benefits, saving and re-investing profits into growing the business, also:

    - driving hoopties or 2nd hand cars that are paid off instead of wasting money on finance charges and monthly expense of purchasing a new car

    - buying reasonably priced clothing or nice pieces from consignment or 2nd hand stores as opposed to over-priced “names” or name brand

    - there are expenditures for vacations, entertainment etc. but things like eating out are kept to a minimum and money saved by preparing home-cooked (healthy) family meals

    - utilizing family members as employees keeps the costs of labor in check, and also cuts childcare costs since family is always there to watch the children

    - renovating then leasing any available spaces to bring in additional income

    - rooms on another floor or adjacent space can be converted into comfortable living spaces so there is no rent expense and the money saved towards buying a home in the future (when the company is stable and profitable) or re-invested

    - living quarters are shared between two families or several family members which, again, saves on housing costs

    -etc.

  • http://www.beautyhealthzoneblog.com/ Happiness

    Good ideas and good points, Akai.

    Do you have a blog? I think you should write one if you are not already doing so.

    I used to go to an award winning hair salon, one day I arrive at the place the shop is all locked up. The owners were owing £5000. All their stock and equipment was locked up in the shop and the owner had not paid their rent, fees and so on. Their business went bust because of £5000 and they were ou tof the country at the time, left the business with someone else to manage. Travelling around living the high life while all their hard work went down the drain.

    The thing about Asians is that they will keep a beady eye on their business as well. They don’t joke with their money. They come to the black neighbourhoods, study what is going on and cash in. In the meantime, while us black people are talking about it, they are already doing it and running with it. I know it sounds bad, but that is what happens and is happening.

  • Optimus

    ______________________________

  • dan

    how about non black businesses in black communities?

    What i mean is it seem to me that if you go thru a black neighborhood you will various non black owned or run entrepreneurial business (mom and pop stores, clothing stores, shoes store, restaurants etc) run by greeks, hispanics, asians, indians (dot) jews, what have you.

    But ride thru THOSE neighborhoods (indian, asian, jewish, hispanic etc) and you almost never if EVER see a black owned or operated business.

    I have never been in a all white neighborhood, walked into a store and saw nothing but black people running the place.

    Does anyone know if they did a study on that?

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