Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in Urban America

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9780674018440: Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in Urban America

Hollywood and the news media have repeatedly depicted the inner-city retail store as a scene of racial conflict and acrimony. Civility in the City uncovers a quite different story. Jennifer Lee examines the relationships between African American, Jewish, and Korean merchants and their black customers in New York and Philadelphia, and shows that, in fact, social order, routine, and civility are the norm.

Lee illustrates how everyday civility is negotiated and maintained in countless daily interactions between merchants and customers. While merchant-customer relations are in no way uniform, most are civil because merchants actively work to manage tensions and smooth out incidents before they escalate into racially charged anger. Civility prevails because merchants make investments to maintain the day-to-day routine, recognizing that the failure to do so can have dramatic consequences.

How then do minor clashes between merchants and customers occasionally erupt into the large-scale conflicts we see on television? Lee shows how inner-city poverty and extreme inequality, coupled with the visible presence of socially mobile newcomers, can provide fertile ground for such conflicts. The wonder is that they occur so rarely, a fact that the media ignore.

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About the Author:

Jennifer Lee is Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Irvine.

Review:

A brighter and more surprising picture of life in California is painted by sociologist Jennifer Lee in Civility in the City, a remarkable book that focuses on the mom-and-pop businesses in the inner city as a laboratory where we can study how blacks, Jews and Koreans actually perceive and deal with each other. Lee’s conclusions contradict what we were shown in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing or the news footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots: ‘Civility prevails in everyday life because merchants and their employees actively work to preserve it.’ (Jonathan Kirsch Los Angeles Times 2002-11-03)

Civility in the City brings a major new perspective on the fabric of life in America’s multiethnic urban centers. Jennifer Lee’s well-crafted book moves beneath the simple images of conflict and racial division. Her interviews and ethnographic work reveal the true complexity and frequently harmonious interactions among blacks, and Jewish and Korean immigrant merchants. The book also sheds important new light on when and why these relations are likely to become divisive episodes of racial conflict. Civility in the City is as important for the theory it develops as it is for the social reality it so vividly puts before us. The book is a must read for anyone seriously interested in understanding multiethnic urban life in the U.S. today. (Lawrence D. Bobo, Harvard University)

Jennifer Lee takes us on a masterful tour of poor and middle class African American shopping streets, their Jewish, Korean, and black merchants, and their black shoppers. The result is a thoughtful and nuanced portrait of everyday interracial commercial relations; it is also a compelling study of urban civility resting on fault lines of potential racial and economic conflict. (Herbert Gans, Columbia University)

Most books about race in America are about other books about race in America. Jennifer Lee shows the value of original, first-hand observation. She holds up a mirror to the way that blacks and minorities actually get along, not in the sensational incidents that make the headlines, but in the mass of their regular, everyday, ordinary dealings with one another. And what her work reveals is that these dealings, overwhelmingly, are marked by a taken-for-granted civility and respect on both sides. This is a book worth the most serious attention. (Paul Sniderman, Stanford University)

The multiethnic metropolis of 21st century America may be a contentious place, but as Jennifer Lee shows in this significant new book, today’s melting pot isn’t about to heat over at full boil. Looking at the city’s sharpest edge where Korean merchants encounter African-American clients, Lee illuminates both the conditions that generate tension, and the surprising range of strategies that immigrant entrepreneurs deploy to avert conflict and maintain business as usual. This is an important achievement, deserving the attention of anyone interested in the new, urban America unfolding before our eyes. (Roger Waldinger, University of California, Los Angeles)

Civility in the City redirects our attention from the headline news of racial conflict and tensions to the unexamined everyday life of routine and civil interactions that govern relations between Jewish, Korean, and African American merchants and their black customers. Through extensive field work, Lee deftly explores the ways in which merchants, ever aware of the potential for racial conflict, manage relations with their customers in ways that reduce the potential for problems to develop. The nuanced picture of day to day life that Lee develops should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the complexities of our diverse and unequal society. (Mary Waters, Harvard University)

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