WHAT WAS Andrew Young thinking?
The civil rights icon turned corporate pitchman last week gave up the ultimate gig -- national urban liaison for Wal-Mart -- after accusing Jewish, Korean and Arab small-business owners in South L.A. of selling inferior goods to black customers. Young was in town to do some selling of his own, which is why he had a meeting with staffers at the Los Angeles Sentinel, the West Coast’s oldest black newspaper. The Sentinel published the controversial remarks as part of a lengthy interview with Young in which he argued the merits of bringing more Wal-Mart stores into the ‘hood.
Turns out it was the last such argument he’ll be paid to make. Wal-Mart was so horrified that the former U.N. ambassador it hired to shore up ethnic relations was besmirching Jews and Koreans that it eagerly accepted his resignation. A day after the story broke, Young quit. As everybody in Hollywood knows -- Mel Gibson comes to mind -- grace usually goeth before the fall.
But when I ask what Young was thinking, I’m not referring primarily to his boneheaded racial remarks. I’m referring to his boneheaded move of taking the Wal-Mart job in the first place.
Young has worked for multinational corporations for years, notably Nike, and has endured plenty of criticism for it. But heading up the happy-sounding Working Families for Wal-Mart seemed particularly ill-timed. The biggest company in the world has grown ever-more unpopular as its worldwide exploitation of workers, including a determination to keep unions away that can be described as fascist, has become more well known.
After sapping the local economies of rural and semirural America, Wal-Mart set its sights on the urban market -- corporate-speak for big, diverse cities like Chicago and Los Angeles that are densely populated with middle- to low-income black and Latino consumers. It swooped into Inglewood two years ago and put an initiative on the ballot that would have allowed one of the first Wal-Mart Supercenters in the state to be built -- and would have allowed Wal-Mart to do it with virtually no city oversight. Inglewood voters rightly rebuffed the measure, rejecting Wal-Mart’s pitch that $5 T-shirts and $7-an-hour jobs would be the most transformative thing to happen to downtrodden black folk since the civil rights movement.
In such a context, bringing in former civil rights hero Young to do damage control, to belatedly lend some black credibility to the “urban” effort, seemed like a bad joke. Wal-Mart obviously missed the irony. The famously suave Young didn’t blink an eye.
Then he found himself face to face with the Sentinel crowd, which tends to be deferential to any black dignitary but which also includes a few skeptics, especially on the Wal-Mart issue. Undoubtedly thinking he could speak frankly to his own -- that he could keep it real, as it were -- Young repeated what blacks have said for generations: that members of other ethnic groups account for a disproportionate share of the merchant class in their own community.
He said it badly, and in painting all those merchants as uncaring and unethical, he said it too broadly. But he had a point. The chronic lack of business ownership among blacks in black communities is a real problem, and it was a major factor in civil unrest in 1965 and in 1992.
Young’s comments were called racist, and I don’t entirely agree. Certainly it’s despicable to exploit racial and economic anxiety in order to convince the black media that Wal-Mart is a solution. Being racially or ethnically specific, however, is not the same as being racist.
In ’92, people talked openly about the friction between Korean shopkeepers and their black customers in South L.A. because, well, it was there. It had consequences. That window of public discussion has closed; now, discussing racial or ethnic groups in any forum less dry than academia is considered almost vulgar. In condemning Young as racist, we also killed the messenger.
Don’t get me wrong: Young paid the appropriate price. But the real vulgarity is the dire economic picture in black and brown neighborhoods represented all too well by the overabundance of “stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables” that Young cited. Loaf for loaf, a Wal-Mart Supercenter might have better food. But it -- and Young -- hardly have the right stuff.