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.
“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.”
“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.