Posted on April 03, 1995 in Washington Watch

During the first three months of the Republican’s leadership of Congress, those who follow U.S. politics have been subjected to a series of descriptions about how the U.S. is facing serious trouble these days and that action needs to be taken. This did not come as news to the Arab American community.

Since the end of 1990, 12 Arab American grocers have been murdered in the U.S. city of Cleveland.

Robberies, vandalism, shoplifting, and drugs have become so commonplace near their shops that many frightened merchants have been compelled to keep weapons behind their counters or carry them in their cars as they drive to and from work. Several grocers have even gone to the trouble of erecting bullet-proof walls around their offices. Sadly, the plight of these men is not an isolated case.

Cleveland is not unlike many other major U.S. cities. Long-term poverty, urban decay and lack of opportunity for economic growth have produced tragic social ills: crime, violence, drugs, gangs, welfare dependency and ethnic tensions.

A generation ago, the U.S. faced a similar set of circumstances in its inner cities. As a result of not dealing with those challenges, riots erupted across the nation. Neighborhoods were burned, stores were looted – cities became war zones.

The riots prompted efforts by federal, state and local governments to address the root causes of these tensions, and some progress was made. But with budgets declining at all levels of government, and as a result of the growing despair and anger brought on by long-term (and now systemic) poverty, U.S. inner cities are once again in deep crisis.

Today there are the daily problems of crime, drugs and violence; but there are also flash-points that periodically erupt at different places at different times.

In New York City, for example, black, Caribbean and Korean immigrant merchants clashed after a Korean merchant attacked a black woman in his store whom he believed was stealing from him. A four-month boycott of Korean groceries and daily demonstrations followed.

Around the same time, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of New York, riots flashed exploded between African American and the Hasidic Jewish community after a Hasidic Jew killed an African American boy in an auto accident.

In Washington, DC, there were riots among Salvadoran immigrants after a police officer shot and killed a member of their community. Stores were looted and an entire section of the city was cordoned off until peace was restored.

Asian American merchants in Washington have also been victims of boycotts and regular violence in the inner city. Since 1993, 10 Asia store owners have been killed in that city during robbery attempts.

The most well-known of these eruptions took place in Los Angeles, where riots broke out after 4 white police officers were found not guilty of beating an African American man. The verdict outraged the African American community because the beating had been video-taped and shown over national television. The riots caused 53 deaths, damaged 5,200 stores and resulted in one-half billion dollars in damages. The primary victims were Korean merchants, but many Arab and Muslim American stores were also looted and burned.

This was also the case in Chicago. In 1992, after that city’s basketball team won the national championship, the city exploded in riots. The two days of rioting and looting affected almost 400 Arab American businesses, with those businesses accounting for $5 million of the more than $14 million in damages city-wide.

There have been no riots in Cleveland, but their is sustained violence and crime. An examination of this problem could provide some understanding of the root causes of not only the problems in Cleveland, but those facing all American inner cities.

In general, American inner cities have been victims of neglect. As the white population has left the cities and moved to the suburbs, they took their wealth with them, leaving poor African Americans as the majority population of America’s inner cities. While the poverty rate among all urban residents is 15%, 42% of those living in the inner cities fall below the official poverty line. These numbers represent an increase of 40% over the past two decades.

In the same period, crime in the inner cities, including violent crime, has also increased by 40%.

In Cleveland, a shocking 40% of the city’s residents are officially classified as “poor.” While African Americans have gained political power in Cleveland (48% of the city population is African American), economic power has eluded them.

Chronic poverty and unemployment among such a large segment of the city’s population translates into declining tax revenues, making it more difficult for the city and other public institutions to provide services and employment. Even the physical infrastructure of the inner city, both public and private housing, is dilapidated and neglected.

It is this combination of fewer jobs, declining income and worsening environmental conditions which defines daily life in Cleveland’s inner city.

It is into this environment that Cleveland’s recent Arab American immigrants have arrived. For Arab Americans, owning and running small businesses is a typical first step to economic success. Unlike many other immigrant groups which were able to use industrial employment and unions, or education, or public employment as their stepping-stone into American life, Arab Americans have historically looked at small businesses as the first rung of the economic ladder. Over 35% of Cleveland’s recent immigrants are self-employed, usually in small, family-owned businesses. In fact, over 350 small grocery stores in Cleveland are owned by Arab Americans.

This is what has set the stage for the violence and tension that currently exists in that community. With twelve killings, almost every store owner a victim of violence or robbery (in one four month period alone, 10% of the Arab American businesses were victimized), a climate of fear exists.

A merchant in the inner city faces a harsh reality: if he allows a shoplifter to walk out of his store without confronting the problem, he takes heavy economic losses and becomes easy prey for the minority of his customers who may be inclined toward crime. But if the store owner confronts the thief, he risks a broader confrontation and even violence. Likewise, for young African Americans with little hope of escaping the inner city, it must be demoralizing to watch these new immigrants, about whom they know very little, running profitable businesses in their neighborhoods. This becomes especially troublesome when a few of the merchants have engaged in bad business practices – selling spoiled food, selling for too high a price, and behaving discourteously to their customers.

Over the years, our community has learned a great deal about this dilemma and how to deal with it. It was roughly ten years ago that we realized how potentially explosive this situation could become. Arab Americans had developed a close and strong working relationship with the African American leadership, on the national level. But on the local level, we began to witness the unraveling of this partnership as a result of the tension between the grocers and their African American customers.

We began to organize human relations meetings around the U.S. in an effort to bring local merchants representatives of both communities together in a dialogue aimed at improving the relationship between our two communities.

As we conducted these sessions between community leaders we learned a disturbing fact that both communities were victims not only of the economic and social realities of inner city life, but of racial stereotypes as well. It was not uncommon to hear immigrant Arab merchants describe their African American customers in crude and harsh language. They saw many of their neighbors in an adversarial rather than community spirit. It became strikingly clear to me that the African American community carried its own baggage into the discussion during a meeting in Chicago when tensions ran high. An African American minister, her patience wearing thin, exploded: “We know who you are. We burned you out of here 30 years ago. When the smoke cleared, you came back with you Arab money and bought up our community.”

The comment was revealing on two levels, cultural and economic. First, Arab American merchants had not been a presence in Chicago 30 years but, ironically, Jewish merchants had been. But the second issue the comment underscored was economic: Wave after wave of immigrants who came into inner city communities with capital, opened up shops and stores, made enough money to move up the economic ladder and did move – out of the city and into the suburbs. For African Americans trapped in those deteriorating core areas, it was a bitter lesson in class strife and economic and racial realities.

It also became clear that there was a tragedy aspect to this crisis: two victim communities pitted by history, circumstances and economic forces – against each other. Both Arab Americans and African Americans hope that the situation in Cleveland can be reversed.

For their part, the Arab American merchants have formed a business association in an effort to deal with their problems – both their relations with the government and also their business practices. The Arab Americans in Cleveland are now participating in a city-sponsored effort to seek solutions to a wide range of problems facing both store owners and the communities in which they do business.

The Arab Americans have also commissioned and completed an extensive study of the problem and have come up with a set of recommendations to help improve business relations and the inner city generally.

Because Cleveland’s African American leadership and the city’s Mayor (himself an African American) are receptive to working with the Arab American community effort, there is hope that changes can be made. It must be hoped that they succeed for, as the Arab Americans’ Cleveland study concludes, this problem must be solved because “not only lives and dreams are at stake, but America’s future as well.”

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