Race, Entrepreneurship, and the Inner City

By Butler, John Sibley | USA TODAY, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Race, Entrepreneurship, and the Inner City


Butler, John Sibley, USA TODAY


THROUGHOUT the U.S., on talk shows and in newspapers, discussions are on-going concerning the condition of blacks within inner-city America. These people represent less than one-third of the black population, yet get nearly 100% of the publicity about blacks in America. Every four years, presidential candidates promise to change their conditions. This theme resounds in political races on the local and state level as well. The questions always are: How can this population establish a degree of economic security or how can the central cities be rebuilt? How can hope be created in a sea of seeming hopelessness?

Research in the area of race, ethnicity, and mobility is providing a revised picture of what it takes to be successful in American society. For decades, academics, as well as the general public, viewed the picture of success by race and ethnic groups as going through a process that began with them starting on the bottom of the economic ladder in bad jobs, then working up to better ones. The emphasis on the relationship between job type and time in the country has documented the treatment of race and ethnic mobility in textbooks of different disciplines.

This model of mobility has produced excellent results in academic journals and textbooks and has come to dominate the thinking about what it takes to be successful in America. Usually, it is called the Anglo conformity or assimilation model.

Basically, the model notes that there is a core culture in the U.S. that historically controls the best jobs. As immigrants arrived, they gravitated toward this dominant culture, based on the need for work. They gave up their old ways, became assimilated into American society, and thus were able to obtain better jobs in future generations.

This model worked well for European groups and produced a nation that could be known simply as "white America." Although there are rumblings about the importance of different cultural traditions among ethnic groups, or multiculturalism (the importance of being of Irish, Italian, German, English, etc. descent), the basic distinctions still revolve around race. The categories continue to be white and non-white (or black), and these racial groupings have driven the politics of race. During the days of segregation, only "white" and "colored" signs were prevalent in public places. Research on the health of the population by the National Science Foundation divides the categories into "white" and "African-Americans" for comparative purposes. National issues of crime do the same. No one ever labels a German-American or other hyphenated ethnic for creating racial tensions in an American city. The point is that the assimilation model has worked well for people who have white or Caucasian biological characteristics.

While this model has been dominant, research is starting to show some interesting results that relate to other models of incorporation into society. The new model is not new at all, but takes its inspiration from research in the late 1800s and early 1900s on self-help among ethnic groups. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber noted that national or religious minorities who are in a position of subordination to a group of rulers are likely--because they are excluded from opportunities in the larger society--to be driven with peculiar force into economic activity. Their best members seek to satisfy the desire for recognition in this field since there is no opportunity in the service of the state. Weber pointed out that this has been true of the Poles in Russia and Eastern Prussia, the Huguenots in France under Louis XIV, the Nonconformists and Quakers in England, and the Jews for 2,000 years. Thus, he recognized the importance of economic activity, or small-scale entrepreneurship, for groups that have experienced discrimination based on race or ethnicity.

Weber's ideas serve as the intellectual springboard for scholars who study groups that incorporate into countries through the use of self-help activities.

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