An Op-Ed

By John Hope Bryant

Founder, chairman and chief executive officer

Operation HOPE

August 18, 2006

It is unfortunate that Ambassador Andrew Young is caught in a storm of misconceptions based on some remarks he made that were grossly misinterpreted. Ambassador Andrew Young is not anti-Semitic.

You see, I was in that room with Ambassador Young when he did that interview with Yussuf Simmonds of the Los Angeles Sentinel, and I know first hand that what appeared in the newspaper today did not reflect the underlying concerns Ambassador Young has for the people of the urban inner-cities. 75 years on this planet, and more than 50 of those years in selfless public service should tell us that.

Here are the facts, from someone who was there, first hand;

Ambassador Andrew Young was asked whether Wal-Mart was, in his opinion, helping to close down mom and pop businesses in urban, inner-city neighborhoods. His response, placed in the historical context of how these communities have evolved over time, really since the civil rights movement, tried to say in one sentence that which really required a three-hour or more substantive conversation. Ambassador Young suggested that these were in many cases some of the same businesses that “have been charging higher prices, and selling stale bread with bad service in our communities for years,” and that enough was enough. That in his opinion companies like Wal-Mart had simply introduced some much needed competition in our inner-city communities; helping to level the playing field for poor people with limited buying power and limited choice. He suggested that businesses ripping off poor people in this way were not doing anyone a favor. Frankly, on this point I agree with him. What rational person wouldn’t? Truth in fact, I experienced it firsthand.

I grew up in Compton, California and South Central Los Angeles, and my family took its business to the only local source for toiletries, groceries, detergents, and other small household items around – the corner liquor and convenience store. And yes, what they sold was higher priced, and generally beyond the suggested “use by” date too. But what choice did we have in Compton, California in 1980? There were no competitively priced grocery stores in the neighborhood, and a Wal-Mart or Cosco or Target Store was no where to be found. And by the way, the owner of my local corner liquor and convenience store was not Jewish, or Arab or Korean for that matter, he was black. A brother, just like me. A very nice man for sure, but I would have preferred the lower prices and higher quality merchandise.

Finally, on the issue of race, Andrew Young was attempting to simply state an unfortunate but very real fact in the history of many of our inner-city communities in America: that over time different merchants came in; from white-owned, to Jewish-owned, to Korean-owned, to even black-owned. Read on. Most of them did well, and many cashed out and have moved on. Fine. Some operated ethical businesses to be proud of, hiring local youth and playing a supporting role in our community, even donating part of their profits back into the communities that helped them to do so well. Even better. But many other merchants unfortunately took advantage of these poor communities and the people that lived in them; by overcharging them, providing them with poor service, and inferior products too. Some still do.  This is unacceptable, and this was the principal point that Ambassador Andrew Young was trying to make.  Not racism or anti-semitism, but unjust capitalism.

And let me take a moment to provide some perspective here on Mr. Young himself, a mentor of mine. Ambassador Andrew Young is literally a living legend of our time; reverend, civil rights leader with Dr. King, former two-term mayor, former two-term Congressman, former UN Ambassador, U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee, and former co-chair of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, which literally would not have happened had he not secured the votes and the confidence of leaders from Asia to Africa, and from the Middle East to Europe. And these are just the accomplishments I can remember off the top of my head.

He did not mean to hurt, he meant to heal, by bringing much needed attention to the issues of the poor he cares so much about. I mean, if we are going to have a character conversation about Andrew Young and what he said, after the apology let’s try to get beyond the  unfortunate and regrettable statements themselves, which does not reflect the substance of the man nor his sentiments towards others, nor his legacy, and have a real conversation around the substance of the message itself. A message I might add, that in the end benefits all groups.

In the final analysis, he did not pick on our Jewish brothers, or our Arab brothers, or our Korean brothers, any more than he has historically picked on our fellow black brothers. What he was picking on, so to speak, was our “crooked brothers,” and countless examples of all kinds of folk unfortunately not treating poor people right. 

The Andrew Young interview-discussion I witnessed with that reporter, who was more than fair I might add, was not about race in the least bit. It was a straig
ht forward, decade over decade, time-lapse description of which businesses moved into our communities, and who moved out; and with all of this, the unfortunate yet remarkable consistency of poor people effectively being taken to the cleaners at every turn.

Ambassador Young did not pick on any one ethnic group in his interview; he rightly picked on all of us. And sensitive or not, if you are a bad guy, you don’t get a pass because you were an ethnic minority, just like you don’t get a pass if you are black. There are no excuses.

At the end of the day, the answer must be justice, and not just us.

And finally, all of this now points precisely to why Ambassador Andrew Young was interested in the Wal-Mart fight in the first place, beyond the fact that Wal-Mart has a basic right to exist.

Ambassador Young believes that this is a continuation of the civil rights movement, around issues of social and economic justice. He believes that we should have an active and positive discussion with the CEO of the largest retailer in the world, Wal-Mart, and as well the largest employer of African-Americans in the nation, no different than the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked and walked with just about everyone who could help his cause of “advancing the least of these.”

Today’s conversation is more and more an economic one, and Andrew Young believes that just as we integrated the lunch counter during the 1960’s, today we must focus on integrating the dollar.

Ambassador Young believes that capitalism succeeded in creating a middle class in America, but that capitalism and the free enterprise system has yet to prove that it can be made to work for poor people. That poverty is the issue of the 21st century, both here and abroad.

In short, Ambassador Young’s real client in my opinion, respectfully stated, was not really Wal-Mart.  It was, and always has been the poor. Check his record, over 50 years of consistent public service. It speaks for itself.

America: we owe Ambassador Andrew Young an apology, and we owe poor people a better deal than the one we have offered them to date.

John Hope Bryant

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