“I still think that Wal-Mart is good for poor people,” Andrew Young was quoted as saying after he lost his job with the self-same corporation. Usually you get pats on the back when you praise the boss or the company, but Mr. Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, former United States Congressman, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest subordinate, was forced out of his position as a paid spokesman for the gigantic retail chain.
Technically, Mr. Young resigned his position for what The New York Times characterized as “a racially inflammatory comment,” but the fact of the matter is that if he hadn’t quit, he would have been canned. A person named John Simley, described as a spokesman for Wal-Mart, said apropos of Mr. Young’s remarks: “We are appalled by those comments.” Given Wal-Mart’s record as a sweatshop operator accused of hiring illegals, union-busting, cheating on its employees’ wages and discriminating against women and minorities, you might think that it would take one hell of a lot to appall Wal-Mart. If there be a modern American corporation which ought to have a high—a very high—appalling threshold, it should be Wal-Mart.
Mr. Young chose an inauspicious moment to speak for Wal-Mart: Just now the upper-income, liberal wing of the Democratic Party is hoping to run against Wal-Mart for its employment practices. Those Democrats might have second thoughts about what they’re planning if they were among the millions upon millions whose incomes force them to shop at Wal-Mart. Yes, the company is a terrible employer, but also, yes, Wal-Mart offers good quality at low, low prices. For low-budget families, Wal-Mart isn’t an option; it’s a necessity.
So what appalling thing did Andrew Young say to make Wal-Mart blanch—Wal-Mart, which has happily lived for years with its reputation as the prime national example of Rotten Employer No. 1? In answer to a question from a reporter about Wal-Mart competition ruining local small businesses, Mr. Young said, “Well, I think they should; they ran the ‘mom-and-pop’ stores out of my neighborhood …. But you see, those are the people who have been overcharging us, selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they 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.”
That’s all it took to trigger an uproar. The Associated Press reported that “The remarks surprised Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who pointed to Young’s reputation of civil rights work. ‘If anyone should know that these are the words of bigotry, anti-Semitism and prejudice, it’s him,’ Rabbi Hier said. ‘I know he apologized, but I would say this, … during his years as a leader of the national civil rights movement, if anyone would utter remarks like this about African-Americans his voice would be the first to rise in indignation.’”
The good rabbi might have drunk a glass of ice
In this connection, it is well to point out what Mr. Young did not say. He did not say that all Jews, or even many Jews (or Koreans or Arabs), made their livings by selling wilted lettuce to people in the ghetto. What he said, in effect, was that most of the stores in the ghetto were owned by members of these groups, and that they charged high prices for low quality.
The behavior of shopkeepers in the ghetto was the basis for the anti-Semitism that flourished among working-class blacks for so many years in so many cities. Those shopkeepers are gone, but the memory lingers, and they left only to be replaced by Korean shopkeepers, whose relations with their black clientele was, if anything, worse. Who can forget the period when it seemed that a staple of the local TV news was video-cam takes of Korean proprietors going after black youths with baseball bats or pistols?
Where does this end? Is it bigotry to make reference to the place in organized crime of persons of Italian ancestry? Do we do the same for persons of South American ancestry and the drug trade? Do we insist that women are as physically strong as men? Do we deny that gays have been conspicuous in the fashion industry? Where does the denial end?
So Mr. Young spoke the truth, and yet Rabbi Hier labels this particular truth “words of bigotry, anti-Semitism and prejudice.” If he is correct, then the name of the game is: Everybody lies about everybody else. What do we have here—an unspoken mutual compact to spin yarns about the past? Does the deal extend to the present as well? I lie about you, you lie about me, and that way we kid the rest of world into thinking it’s living in some place that does not exist?
Good idea, except it doesn’t work out that way. Andrew Young is not the only person who knows the social history of America’s racial ghettos. Lots of other people know, and what do they think when they see the truth called bigotry and the truth-teller embarrassed and made to apologize for speaking it? So what’s next? Is Mr. Young to be dispatched for six months of sensitivity training?
Isn’t that the punishment meted out to all who transgress the rubrics of diversity? The very name—“sensitivity training”—ought to make us shudder. It sounds like something borrowed from Communist China: re-education, “right think”—all that good stuff the totalitarian mentality relies on. The practice of firing people and shunting them off into social Coventry when they say something that the reigning sentiment finds repugnant has become standard practice among us—or was it always so?
Is the suppression of honest expression, or even the truth itself, what we must practice in a society composed of people of vastly different customs, languages and religions? Can we only get along by distortion and misrepresentation?
That may be what we have to do if Americans insist on making the nationality of their parents, or their religion or their language group, the basis of their self-definition. It’s a costly way to run a society, as the list of taboo truths, subjects and opinions grows longer and the social etiquette more ornately baroque. We are becoming a people who do not know each other or ourselves—and as for what country we may live in, it’s getting harder to tell. Is this the United States or the Disunited States? Is this America or Italo-America, Hispano-America, Israeli-America, Afro-America, Franco-America, Swisso- or Russo-America? Some call it diversity, but others may look at it and call it bedlam.
In another era, groups which practiced such social divisiveness and exclusivity were called “the hyphenates.” During the Woodrow Wilson epoch, the ruling groups were worried enough about the country pulling itself apart to fight diversity openly. Now they do it by such dubious tactics as trying to get people to pull together by scaring the hell out of them with terrorism—something that’s serious enough without being put to such uses.
When the practice of diversity means the appreciation of other people’s language, cuisine, art, religion and customs, it is a wonderful and enriching thing. When it becomes an instrumentality for one group fighting for more than the next group, when it becomes a pig tussle for special privileges, a grunt wrestle for more than a fair share, when it becomes an instrument for bullying and silencing, it sucks.
When diversity comes to mean a battle of lobbyists, pressure groups and campaign contributions, it can lead to internal civil strife and, in foreign policy, something close to disaster. In the latter category, the blundering, stumbling American doings in the Middle East immediately come to mind, but there are other instances.
The worst concerns the American entry into the First World War. The then-ruling ethnic group, rich men of Anglo-Saxon origins, identified as closely with England and the British Empire as some Jews do with Israel and some Arabs with the Palestinians today. The extent of the American upper class’ Anglophilia circa 1914 cannot be measured in any precise way, but there is evidence aplenty that it weighed heavily in the decision to go to war and assured an outcome so disastrous that the reverberations—all of which were bad—continue to come down to us nearly a century later.
If nothing else, Andrew Young can take some small comfort by repeating to himself the adage that any American public figure who has not been called a racist, an anti-Semite, a bigot, a homophobe or a sexist is a scoundrel.