July 13, 2009

Missionaries Without a Mission?

It happened yesterday: the NAACP celebrated its 100th anniversary. People all over the country celebrated, as they recalled the many noteworthy moments in the struggle for equality. Martin on the Capitol steps. Rosa on the bus. Little Linda in the schoolyard, wanting nothing more than an education.

And of course, as with many such celebrations, the inevitable question arose: In light of such progress, is the organization still needed? On the CBS Sunday Morning News, a reporter posed this question to Julian Bond, a longtime civil rights activist and NAACP chairman. His answer? Absolutely! As evidence of their continuing relevance, he cited the current turmoil in the banking industry: Many banks extended mortgage loans to working-class black families who they knew could not afford them, and now many of those borrowers defaulted and are facing foreclosure. Once again, big bad whitey is sticking it to the poor black man.

Huh? Hold the phone.

Let's all climb into our flux capacitor-powered DeLoreans, and go back in time just a few years. What was the issue of the day for Mr. Bond and his colleagues? Many of these same banks were evil because they didn't make enough loans to working-class black families (although the term "enough" was never clearly defined).

For the lenders, it all came down to a simple mathematical formula: "Either the borrowers meet our requirements, or they don't. We're accountable to our depositors and shareholders, to make sound business decisions."

No matter. The activists were unpersuaded and appealed to their congressmen, who in turn compelled the banks to make the loans that were doomed to fail. And the borrowers missed too many payments, which we all knew they would. And here we are.

So what's it gonna be, Mr. Bond? Are the banks evil for making loans, or for not making loans? Pick one, please.


Which reminds me of a recent news story, not far from my home in Los Angeles. Wal-Mart revealed plans to build a mega-store in the inner city. The locals appealed to the City Council: If you let this big, bad corporation move in, then all of the mom-and-pop stores will be squeezed out. Conspiracy!

But wait! Let's all climb back into our time machines, and set our destination to South-Central LA in the mid-1980's. At that time, all of the major supermarket chains had fled from the 'hood. Vons, Safeway, Albertson's, Ralphs, Lucky, and Hughes -- with their huge buying power and discount prices -- were nowhere to be found. Which meant that the poor folks were forced to shop at the nearby independents, where the prices were much higher.

For the chains, it came down to a simple mathematical formula: "Doing business in the inner city is prohibitively expensive. We have to make sound business decisions." But because the chain stores (by their departures) caused this situation to exist, they obviously didn't care about poor minority people.

Didja get that? Today, Wal-Mart is evil because they want to undercut Mom and Pop. But just a couple of decades ago, the supers were considered evil because they wouldn't do exactly that.

So again, what's it gonna be? Are the chain stores evil for being there, or for not being there? Someone tell me, please. Because, alas, therein lies the conundrum: You can't protect the businesses and the consumers at the same time.

A footnote: The 1980's campaign did have a bright spot. The Lucky chain (since merged with Albertson's) agreed to build a store, and it opened to great fanfare. Low prices, good-paying union jobs, and an attractive building in an otherwise run-down neighborhood.

And then...?

The company quickly began to regret its decision. Thieves (including employees) looted the place daily. Graffiti multiplied faster than the managers could paint over it. The cost of insuring the building went through the roof. And in just the first few weeks, hundreds of shopping carts disappeared.

Which is exactly the reason why the supers deserted the area in the first place.

Should Wal-Mart be allowed to build in the 'hood? I don't know. But for crying out loud, let's get our story straight.

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