What is chilling is what other things these groups have been called. “Parasites” has been another epithet applied to middleman minorities because, as retailers or money-lenders, they do not produce any physical product but are simply intermediaries between manufacturers and customers. “Bloodsuckers” is another epithet expressing the notion that middleman minorities do not add anything to the wealth of a community or nation but simply manage to extract a share of the existing wealth for themselves, at the expense of others.
“Clannish” is another epithet applied to the Parsees in India, to the Jews in the United States, and to other middleman minorities in places in between.
mobs have been aroused to lethal fury against the Marwaris in Burma, the Ibos in Northern Nigeria, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Lebanese in Sierra Leone, the overseas Chinese in Saigon, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur, and the Jews in many parts of both medieval and modern Europe.
Lethal violence against middleman minorities has been on a scale seldom approached by violence against other kinds of minorities, such as conquered indigenous groups or formerly enslaved people. All the blacks lynched in the entire history of the United States do not add up to as many people as the number of Chinese slaughtered by mobs near Saigon in 1782, or the Jews killed by mobs in Central Europe in 1096 or in Ukraine in 1648, much less the slaughters of Armenians by mobs in the Ottoman Empire during the 1890s or during the First World War.
Part of the answer may be the role of middleman minority, as such. Retailing and money-lending have long been regarded by the economically unsophisticated as not “really” adding anything to the economic well-being of a community, even when the people engaged in those activities have not been a separate group within the community.
Perhaps even more important is the inherent threat that middleman minorities present to the egos of others when those minorities begin in poverty and then rise above the economic level of those around them. What are those others supposed to make of what has happened? Inspiring as rags-to-riches stories may be to some, especially observers at some distance, to those immediately in contact with the middleman minorities, who have seen them arrive destitute, often with little more than a few words of the local language, and then rise above the people around them, this phenomenon offers few alternatives other than to question themselves for having let these newcomers outperform them or to become hostile to the newcomers and be ready to believe that they have done something illegitimate to achieve success—the latter explanation being one that is usually readily supplied by demagogues and readily accepted by those who hear it.
When people are confronted with a choice between hating themselves for their stagnation or hating others for their progress, they seldom hate themselves.
Despite studies in the United States showing what hard work and frugal living usually preceded Korean immigrants’ reaching the point where they could even open a small shop in a black ghetto, and the very long hours of work put into those shops to enable them to survive economically, it has been widely believed in the black community that the success of the Koreans or other Asian immigrants has been due to some government favors which those immigrants received and which have not been available to blacks. What else can the residents of those ghettos believe without a high cost to their own egos?
A black official in charge of a state agency that dispenses aid to small businesses recalled being besieged with claims from a black audience that his agency helped Asian businesses get started in preference to helping blacks. Nothing he said about the preposterousness of the notion that he would do that made any dent on the audience. The cost of believing him was just too high.
The role of ego in the hostility toward middleman minorities is shown in other ways as well. Even killing them has often not been sufficient for those who hate them. They must also be humiliated and dehumanized. Their women must be stripped naked in public, as Armenian women were during the mob violence in the Ottoman Empire and as Jewish women were in the Nazi death camps, and whatever sadistic humiliations could be thought of were inflicted on men and women alike. When it was suggested during the 1990s that the Asians who had been expelled from Uganda 20 years earlier should be brought back in hopes of restoring that country’s economy, the hostile responses included that of a group which threatened to kill them “in the most despicable way ever” if they dared to come back. Simply killing them would not be enough to assuage the wounded egos of those they had so greatly outperformed.
The movement of particular minorities out of the middleman occupations in which they began does not necessarily lead to an abatement of the hostility against them. The same capacity for hard work, frugal living, and long-term planning which was essential for survival as middleman minorities has often lead to great success in education, in the professions, and in large-scale business enterprises.
Even middleman minorities with little or no education themselves have often seen the value of education for their children. Thus, even though the Chinese immigrants who arrived in Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century were often illiterate, once they began to prosper in their little shops and other enterprises, they began to finance the creation of Chinese schools. In later generations, the Chinese minority in Malaysia produced an absolute majority of the students at the University of Malaysia, until government-imposed quotas cut back their numbers. They were an overwhelming majority of those receiving degrees in engineering in the 1960s—404 Chinese to 4 Malays. This concentration of college and university students from middleman minority backgrounds in the more difficult and more remunerative specialties has been a common pattern, whether among the overseas Chinese in Malaysia, among the Lebanese in Brazil, or among Jews in a number of countries.
Lebanese immigrants to various countries have, in their early stages, included many who were illiterate and few who were highly educated. Nevertheless, they—like the Chinese, the Jews, the Armenians, and others—came from a culture that valued education, even when most of them had very little education themselves. Nor was education the key to their initial rise. Typically it was after becoming established economically as entrepreneurs that middleman minorities could then afford to dispense with their children’s labor in order to let them go to school instead and, still later, pay for them to continue on into higher education.
Consider again the case of the Korean immigrant or Vietnamese refugee who has set up a small business in one of America’s black ghettos. Although this small-scale entrepreneur may have begun with very little money and may never become fluent in English or polished in manner, nevertheless his growing prosperity over the years may become manifest to ghetto residents, and his American-born children are likely to be heading off to colleges, perhaps prestigious colleges, while the children of many of the people in the community around his shop have prospects of low-paid jobs or unemployment, and many face prospects of jail. Add in the factor that this community lives in an atmosphere where “unfair” disparities are resented by those who set the tone in both the general society and in the local ghetto. All the ingredients are there for attitudes and actions which are called “anti-Semitism” when directed against Jews but which are very similar to the attitudes and actions to which other middleman minorities have been subjected in many times and places around the world.