It’s more than just three inches of acrylic glass that separates Asian small business owners from their black customers.
When City Council passed a bill in December 2017 aimed at regulating stop-and-go stores from skirting Pennsylvania liquor laws, almost everyone agreed on the part that required establishments that sell alcohol to provide restrooms and seating for 30 people.
But battle lines were drawn when the bill also required stop-and-go convenience stores to take down their bulletproof glass. Supporters of the bill contend the bulletproof glass dehumanizes black customers while contributing to problems of addiction by selling alcohol and drug paraphernalia. Opponents argue the bill compromises the safety of owners and targets Asian businesses.
The bill has polarized segments of the black and Asian communities. As a professor who studies and teaches about black-Asian relations, and as a resident of West Philly who has observed interactions between Asian store owners and black customers, I can tell you that these interracial dynamics are far from new.
Asian-owned businesses in black neighborhoods date back to the Reconstruction era, when Chinese grocery stores in the Mississippi Delta sold their goods to emancipated slaves. A lesson into this history provides valuable insights into contemporary black-Asian relations and can help defuse a volatile situation.
In the late 19th century, the opening of Chinese grocery stores in black communities in the Mississippi Delta was shaped by two conditions: the capital that Chinese immigrants were able to leverage, and the structural racism faced by former slaves. First, early Chinese immigrants arrived in the South to replace the work that was performed by slaves. Finding farm work unprofitable, Chinese immigrants opened grocery stores by drawing on the shared resources of their extensive kin and kith networks, the majority of whom were from the Sze Yap region of Guangdong in southern China.
Second, Chinese grocery stores profited because of the institutional racism that targeted former slaves. Plantation commissaries inflated the prices of goods to keep former slaves in debt. The opening of Chinese grocery stores filled a particular niche by selling goods to freed blacks at lower prices than plantation commissaries. These grocery stores remained in black neighborhoods from the late 1800s until the 1960s in large part because Chinese owners were barred from white communities.
Today, many Chinese and Korean owners who set up shop in poor black neighborhoods have profited in ways that call to mind what occurred in the Mississippi Delta and the racially restrictive housing policies after the Great Depression. The National Housing Act of 1934 exacerbated racial segregation and led to the disinvestment of black neighborhoods by explicitly denying loans to black people. Moreover, the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. (HOLC) categorized black neighborhoods as bad investments, thus discouraging development and home ownership in these areas — a practice known as redlining because these neighborhoods were marked red on HOLC maps, denoting a “D” grade for investment.
Although these policies were overturned by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the effects of these policies remain today. Black Americans are still given high-interest predatory loans and are denied loans more often than Asians. Similar to how plantation commissaries inflated prices to keep free blacks in debt — thus opening opportunities for Chinese grocery stores to fill an economic need — the disinvestment of black neighborhoods opened up opportunities for Asian-owned businesses to operate.
Also, similar to how Mississippi Delta Chinese immigrants relied on their social networks to acquire initial capital, Asian store owners today are able to obtain capital through Chinese and Korean mutual aid societies, savings from their countries of origin, transnational capital, and ethnic banks.
The City Council bill and its requirement to dismantle bulletproof glass attempts to foster the respect of Asian store owners toward their black customers. But any attempt to foster respect should also emphasize the anti-black policies and practices of white institutions that created these antagonisms in the first place.
The Mississippi Delta and HOLC history teaches us to look comparatively at how powerful white institutions differentially discriminate against black and Asian Americans. These histories obligate Asian store owners to understand how they have benefited from their non-black status within white structures, despite the ongoing realities of anti-Asian racism. As a child of Chinese immigrants, I realize these are histories that many Asian immigrants are unfortunately unaware of because of the education systems they came from. Almost exactly a year ago, Cindy Bass, the city councilwoman who proposed the bill, instituted sit-ins to protest the practices of these stop-and-go stores. But what is really needed are teach-ins that educate Asian store owners of a national history of institutional racism they share with their black customers. Only then can the metaphorical glass that separates these two groups also be dismantled.
Roseann Liu is visiting assistant professor in the department of educational studies and senior fellow of engaged scholarship in the Lang Center at Swarthmore College.