From civil relations to racial conflict: Merchant-customer interactions in urban America

Lee, J.

Go to article

Lee, J. (2002). From civil relations to racial conflict: Merchant-customer interactions in urban America. American Sociological Review, 67(1), 77–98.

The 1992 Los Angeles riot, the boycotts of Korean-owned businesses, and the 1995 firebombing of a Jewish-owned store in New York's Harlem brought concerns about race and ethnic relations in black neighborhoods to the fore. Images of conflict seared into the public consciousness that black communities are fraught with racial animosity, with immigrant merchants pitted against black customers. The merchant- customer relationship has been cited as a catalyst to such conflicts. This image of conflict, however, is inconsistent with most merchant-customer interactions and does not reflect the full range of commercial life in black communities. Most merchant- customer interactions are civil and ordinary. Civil relations prevail because merchants foster civility, abate tensions, and thwart conflict. However, under conditions of extreme inequality, small events can trigger racial anger, and the symbolic significance of nonblack-owned businesses can become a stimulus of motivations for protest that leads to boycotts and firebombings. This study is based on 75 in-depth interviews of African American, Jewish, and Korean merchants and on 75 in-depth interviews with black customers and both participant and nonparticipant observation at five research sites in New York City and Philadelphia.

Main finding
The author shows that merchants make considerable investments to keep relations civil among extreme inequality. The sampled Jewish and Korean merchants work to preserve the everyday routine. They place female employees on the business’ front end to be maternal brokers, hire black employees as cultural brokers to embed their businesses into the fabric of black neighborhoods, and give in to customers’ requests to avoid conflict. Failure to maintain social order can have severe consequences. The visible presence of upwardly mobile newcomers among inner-city poverty can create economic strife and give reasons for protest. Civil relations can be transformed into racial conflict by the symbolism evoked by non-black owned businesses and the way the struggle for group position affects merchant-customer interactions.

Description of method used in the article
The author relies on 75 semi-structured, in-depth interviews with Jewish, Korean, and African American merchants, 75 semi-structured, in-depth interviews with black customers, and nonparticipant observation in five predominantly black neighborhoods in Philadelphia and New York City.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories