Andrew Young and Wal-Mart
His recent comments that put his Wal-Mart cheerleader job in enough jeopardy to make him resign troubled me – because I remember in my civil rights days fighting the battles of rip-off grocery stores in the ghetto. When you really get down to it, the culprit was more the economic reality of poor neighborhoods than the nationality of the store owners. I knew a family, Jewish, who owned one of these stores. They certainly did not make a great deal of money from their enterprise and had a great rapport with the neighborhood residents. Actually, they lived fairly close to the store – they certainly could not afford the richer suburbs. There were exceptions, and these were the store owners that we fought, but my experience has been that many of the store owners tried to serve well the neighborhood people.
The economics of merchandising poor neighborhoods have been difficult for decades. Chain grocery stores do not do business there unless they get heavy subsidies from the city. I’m not sure why, but it does seem that different ethnic groups gravitate to certain economic niches. Like East Indians and motels before 90% of our motels became chains. In Hawaii, Chinese tended to be bankers as well as restaurant owners. Japanese were the government workers and teachers (this was back in the seventies – much has probably changed). Back in the day, the owners of the ghetto corner stores were largely Jewish at least in the cities I was familiar with on the east coast. When I moved to California, Koreans took on that role in Watts and South Central LA; and I know in Detroit the owners became heavily of Middle East origin.
So on the face of it, Andrew Young spoke some truth. But economics do play in here – without chain grocery stores, without deep pockets stocking the meats and veggies, the tendency would naturally be to try to sell whatever was on hand rather than throwing stuff away that large chains do as a matter of course (I knew a perfectly respectable woman who fed her family perfectly good food from the dumpster behind a Sam’s Club). When the margins are much closer, the tendency is to try to sell what one can. Young blamed Mom and Pop store owners for selling bad meat and produce to poor folks.
I’m not sure that this can still be claimed with today’s food supplies and corner stores, which are more likely to be convenience stores. What sells is the mass-produced crap that has long shelf life: sodas, packaged foods, stuff that’s the scourge of our SAD (standard American diet). Cigarettes are big sellers in these stores – and in many poor neighborhoods, cigarette manufacturers, along with liquor manufacturers, have been the largest billboard advertisers (poor neighborhoods tend to have a lot of billboards). Many stores do have problems stemming losses from shoplifting – it goes with the territory of being in a poor area. Friction does occur over the various ways that store owners deal with this.
So what impact has Wal-Mart had on poor neighborhoods? I’m not really sure. Certainly Wal-Mart doesn’t hang out their shingle in these neighborhoods. So my guess is that there would still be a niche still for the Mom and Pop store. Although I have a strong distaste for Wal-Mart for many reasons, I can see why it would be an attractive place for poor people to shop. Moreso if public transportation goes from these neighborhoods to Wal-Mart. But how much can you carry on the bus? How much profit does Wal-Mart make off of poor people, and how much does it give back to local poor neighborhoods?
I would think that many small businesses in the ghettoes/barrios of our cities do give something back to these neighborhoods. Certainly there are always those who would foster adversarial relationships. But are they in the majority? Sadly, I don’t know, because I have not entered a poor neighborhood for many years. We are much more isolated from these areas than when I grew up in the sixties – at least the major arterials still ran through the poorer areas. Now freeways totally skirt most neighborhoods.
It does feel like Andrew Young has sold out – and is perpetuating stereotypes that 1) probably no longer exist in the way that he implied, and 2) are probably the exception rather than the rule. But maybe I’m wrong.
Due to our collective lack of interest in poor folks and how they live, this issue most likely will not get the fuller airing that it deserves.