How Commerce Fostered Ethnic Identity

Bananas feature prominently in immigrant lore. They were not found in the Old World, so people fresh-off-the-boat did not know how to eat them, often trying to eat the peel too. [Banana cart, 1900, Library of Congress]

— by Hannah Lee

As part of a series on immigrant history, the National Museum of American Jewish History and the University of Pennsylvania’s Jewish Studies program convened a panel of scholars on February 9th titled, “Getting Ahead: Immigrants, Business, and Ethnic Identity.” Three scholars presented the experience of Jewish, Italian, and Korean arrivals in America.

Hasia Diner of New York University said that Jewish historians have been reticent to study the impact of business on immigrant life when, in fact, business was a major lure to America. It’s a rich window to understand the communal experience, providing an “inside/outside” focus with businesses that met the needs of their people, the “co-ethnics,” as well as businesses that served as liaisons to American society.

These entrepreneurs often became their communities’ leaders, as founders of synagogues and backers of charitable programs. Their stores were their communities’ initial meeting places. In 1909, a group of mothers in Boston’s South End met at Hyman Danzig’s Three and Nine Cent store and dedicated themselves to improving health care in their poor neighborhood. Their efforts lead to the establishment that year of a 45-bed hospital, Beth Israel, which later expanded and became Harvard University Medical School’s teaching facility. In modern times, these ethnic businesses still draw people back from the suburbs to the original neighborhoods in the cities.

More after the jump.
As described in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land, a memoir of growing up on Arlington Street in Boston, the Jewish women who ran small businesses cooked during the lulls and customers learned to wait for the proprietor “to salt the soup and remove the bread from the oven.” Women were influential as customers too, as they organized the kosher meat boycotts in 1902 to protest the sharp increase in the price of kosher meat.

Jewish peddlers were often the first contact with the outside world. They traveled widely, even going to Southern plantations for their African-American customers. In one curious episode in rural North Dakota, the German immigrants asked their Jewish peddler — recognized for his piety — to fill in for their Lutheran minister while he was away. So, the Jew did what he knew, which was to teach parshat hashavuah, the Bible portion of the week, to the congregation.

Diane Vecchio of Furman University in Greenville, SC spoke about how Italian women engaged in income-producing activities that allowed them to remain in their homes and combine work with domestic responsibilities and childcare. Three types of businesses were favored: taking in boarders and selling groceries and serving cooked foods as an early form of restaurants.

Offering strangers a bed, dinner, and laundry services for a fee — initially to single men, then to married men who came ahead of their families — was a strong break with tradition but it was unlisted, relying on word-of-mouth references. In contrast, the grocery stores were listed in the name of the husband but were often run by the women. These stores sold homemade wine and home-baked bread in addition to imported foodstuffs that were important to the community. One woman shopkeeper managed even without any English fluency (or any writing of any kind) by creating symbols to record the transactions of each customer.

The restaurants were similar to the trattorias of Italy. They served simple, local fare without any menus. Over time, Americans “assimilated” to Italian food, so by the 40’s and 50’s, Americans readily traveled to the Italian neighborhoods to eat. In this way, Italian women had a major role in creating Italian identity in the United States.

Jennifer Lee (no relation) of the University of California, Irvine and a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation reported that Korean immigrants have been the most educated, with 51% of them arriving with a college education (and another 20% with some college background). This is compared to a 27% rate of college education amongst other recent immigrants and 28% of American citizens with a bachelor’s degree. Korean immigrants migrated towards business as a response to blocked opportunities in the U.S. labor market because of their language barrier.

Korean merchants often operated in African-American neighborhoods, which are under-served by larger chain stores and supermarkets, often superseding the Jews. An interesting point made by Prof. Lee was that Koreans were especially good at mass-marketing luxury products. Whereas manicures used to cost $25 in full-service beauty salons, they are now only $7 to $9 in dedicated nail salons. Fresh flowers used to be available only at the florists, but they now can be bought cheaply at the corner deli.

A common criticism of these incursions into black neighborhoods was competition by foreigners. The reality is that African-American businesses served their own, particularly in styling hair and serving soul food. Koreans chose businesses where they needed minimal language, and the Jews still in the community — as second- or third-generation descendants —  ran stores that marketed high-end products such as furniture.

The media likes to focus on conflict, said Prof. Lee, who began her graduate study in 1992 at the time of the fierce race riots in South Central Los Angeles. But, what she was reading by the theorists was not supported by what she witnessed on the streets of West Philadelphia or Harlem, New York. Often, Korean merchants hired African-Americans as cultural and linguistic brokers, conflict resolvers, and mediators. This was important in fostering civility and heading off conflict. She also noted that Korean women were better at this skill than men, so they were often deployed to greet customers at the front of their stores.

The boycotts that have been waged against Korean businesses were protests against the symbol of black subordination, not against specific customer relationships. The protestors imported the value of black control in their neighborhoods. During the Depression in New York and Chicago, the slogan, “Don’t shop where you cannot work” was also used against Jewish merchants. In the mid-60’s, black nationalism also fought Jewish merchants, claiming their aggrandizement at the expense of black ghettoes. But as the sociologist John Dollard has written, the merchant sees only green, not black and white.

Once immigrants manage to move their businesses into the larger society, they served to foster greater understanding and to overcome prejudice by allowing Americans to become familiar with them, by personalizing them.

An audience member asked why do ethnic groups gravitate towards similar businesses? Co-ethnics have the advantage of sharing business acumen and business opportunities, said Prof. Lee. Businesses are often advertised for sale only through ethnic newspapers.

How do immigrants get the money to open their businesses? Prof. Vecchio said that the women often did so in their own homes, with minimal capital investment. Prof. Lee noted that immigrants do not rely on American banks, preferring to borrow money from family or from co-ethnics. Businesses are often paid partially in cash, with negotiated schedules for full payment. Using rotating-credit associations, such as favored by Koreans, every member contributes to a communal pot; the first person to use the money gets the least, the last member to get access to the money gets more, similar to interest accruement.

Kevin Kim, a Korean immigrant who runs a dry-cleaning store in my neighborhood, recalls that his mother controlled the family’s money, doling out $50 per week in spending money to each member who worked. It’s how they managed to save money — by enlisting their relatives and to limit expenditures. This frugal and industrious pattern of entrepreneurship is still active in the many immigrant communities in the United States.