Jay A. McCalla

It’s comforting to know my physician, like all physicians, took the Hippocratic Oath upon commencing his medical career. The initial promise under that oath – primum non nocere – “first, do no harm,” makes a lot of sense to me. Don’t make things worse. Watch out for unintended consequences. Whatever you do, “do no harm.”

A few years back, Councilperson-at-Large Blondell Reynolds Brown amended the Traffic Code to ban the use of all-terrain vehicles from city streets and permit their immediate confiscation under certain conditions.

However wise the intent, the “immediate confiscation” provision ignited many ugly, violent conflicts between our cops and the teens who paid $500 or more for their vehicles. The fact that teens would almost naturally, perhaps aggressively, resist confiscation was never considered.

This bill handed one more rotten chore to our cops, who may not have been trained in the tactful art of confiscating a teen’s hard-earned and prized possession. Needlessly, Reynolds-Brown pitted our cops against rambunctious young people and the result was often frightful. She did harm.

This brings me to Cindy Bass, Councilperson for the 8th District, who seeks to amend the rules that govern the “Stop & Go” businesses.

It’s an important fact in our city that many small neighborhood retailers and service providers are ethnically aligned. Dry cleaning and shoe repair is dominated by Asians, Neighborhood grocery stores in lower income areas are often operated by Hispanics. Stop & Go’s are often operated by Koreans. These are the facts.

So, when Bass introduces legislation that plainly and only impacts Stop & Go’s, she’s already stepping out onto thin ice. She risks exacerbating cultural tensions that exist between the Korean proprietors and some in the black community they serve.

Bass wants these stores to remove the very thick protective plexiglass that separates the cashier from the customers. Many black patrons have long seen these barriers as offensive and disrespectful to their communities and Bass has caught that wave. Her legislation amounts to a cultural grievance.

Completely unconsidered is whether or not shopkeepers have a basic right to secure their safety in reasonable ways. The bill doesn’t address jewelry stores or check-cashing businesses that require customers be “buzzed in.” It doesn’t address the thick barriers in taxi cabs that separate driver from customer. Unaddressed are the many prominent fast-food restaurants with thick protective plexiglass. These things are obviously done solely for the safety of workers who interact with the public, and Bass does not object at all. She only objects when Stop & Go’s do it and that’s what makes her bill uncomfortable – perhaps, even bigoted.

There was a time when black politicians had an intrinsic moral authority to their rhetoric and actions. Historically, they fought injustice and sought to create equality. The fact that Bass is targeting an ethnic group for special sanction turns that history on its head.

Bass is targeting these Korean businesses in a way she may deeply regret. If her bill passes and plexiglass is removed, she will “own” the first murder of a cashier. She will own all subsequent murders.

The plexiglass is obnoxious, but it’s what the operators feel they need in a high-crime area. Without that, Stop & Go owners may choose to not operate in lower income, black communities.

The black-owned “corner store” doesn’t exist anymore. Major supermarkets have long abandoned the inner- city. If certain poor neighborhoods are currently “food deserts,” what will happen if Stop & Go’s pull out?

Bass seems willing to risk a series of foreseeably bad consequences to press her cultural grievance, and that can’t be good for anybody. It may win her the votes of those whose ax she is grinding, but it represents a setback for cross-cultural relationships and opportunities.

Fortunately, this drama will play out publicly at City Council. Expect angry blacks talking about “respect” and frustrated Koreans talking about safety. Likely, they will not hear each other and there’s no one to moderate because Bass has chosen sides. It won’t be pretty, but it will be instructive.

Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.


  • kj1986nyc

    Show me the black business in the Korean neighborhood? Can a black person go over there and open a business in Korea? But these people can come 10,000 miles away and set up shop over us. We don’t want them, get it!

    • LUng

      “These people” — you mean human beings? Like you & I. This is a classic tactic of divide & conquer. This country is based on Capitalism, meaning the freedom to set-up your own market. History is only repeating itself. Prohibition ring a bell? Back then, it prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages. The “purpose” was to reduce crime; however, it unintentionally contributed to the rise of more crime. During the hearing last week, police officials provided statistical proof that cold beer deli’s produced zero homicides. Zero. Racism has been a widespread problem in our country. The history of pitting race against race is tiring.

      • kj1986nyc

        Oh whatever we are world crap, and where did I write “these people”? you didn’t answer anything in my question. If you come from Korea, why would you need to come to a ghetto in America to sell liquor, cigarettes and lottery tickets to people who are already poor? I don’t need you tell me what you think this country is based on. You don’t know, because my family was here in the 17th century. Where the hell were yours? America was founded on racism dummy. A whole group of people were nearly wiped out and a people put boats over here to serve slavery to create this place. So I don’t need a foreigner to tell me what America is, you never lived it. And Black people don’t even like Koreans anyways. We talk about how they treat us in their stores all the time, but some of us still go in there I don’t get it. I don’t know how y’all still stay in business in black communities.

        • LUng

          You did. Reread your own comments. “But these people…” No, I’m not a foreigner. I was born and bred in Bronx, NYC and moved to Philadelphia. Speak for yourself. Not ALL Black people dislike Koreans. Your reasoning is prejudice. I do know of Black Americans that are doing business in Asia. For example, Arjuni Hair. She established a million dollar business selling Cambodian Hair worldwide. No, I didnt mentioned anything on how how America was found. I simply stated the economic system of America. No we are not “world crap.” Speak for yourself. Also, I am not a dummy. I hold a Bachelors from Penn State and currently studying at Drexel University.

          • Jillw

            Lung, minus all the racist BS… KJ has a point. These businesses are bad and exploitative. It’s tough if you have been downtrodden and underserved your whole life and someone comes from another country, sets up shop in your town and serves to peoples vices – that stings, ya know?

            Your comments about prohibition are wildly uninformed – this is totally different.

            Now, the positive part. Foreigners setting up other businesses, Becoming doctors etc. this is great. I’m white, my father grew up in deep west philly, poor as dirt and he didn’t commit crimes, nor did his friends. Black people in those areas need to do for them self, or they will never get out. Now is their time. They need some help, and they don’t need people (foreign or otherwise) selling despair and false hope.

  • Richard Thomas

    Black people cannot get a business permit in Philly half the time let alone in Korea. The minority business office in Philly helps majority women. I say that as a member of the majority. Chestnut Hill would not allow those Stop n Go businesses. Why is it okay for other neighborhoods to have them?

  • B

    Jay McCalla – please read Cindy Bass’s most recent letter to the local. I’m interested in your reply.

  • James

    Except the bill has nothing to do with what you claim. It was designed to force “Stop & Go” businesses to stop illegally classifying themselves as restaurants so that they can serve beer and liquor. To be considered a ‘real’ restaurant, there can’t be plexiglass between the employees and patrons. That’s why it targets “Stop & Go” establishments. They are blights on the city and profit on liquor, cough medicine, cigarettes and nothing else.