Race and Retail: Consumption across the Color Line ed. by Mia Bay and Ann Fabian (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Race and Retail: Consumption across the Color Line. Edited by Mia Bay and Ann Fabian. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2015. Pp. 324. $90.00 cloth; $29.95 paper)

Race and Retail definitively establishes the importance of retail as a site where racial and ethnic identities are formed, negotiated, policed, or contested. Most of the fourteen essays in this expertly edited collection approach their topic from a historical perspective, though sociologists and social scientists also make strong contributions.

Some of the book’s essays dissect the commoditization and consumption of exotic images of racial “others” from the perspectives of those producing and consuming such images, including minority consumers and entrepreneurs. Others tackle the role of gentrification and municipal politics in constraining economic opportunities for black and Latino businesses. They describe the economic struggles minority entrepreneurs have faced and the “retail redlining” that has resulted not in “food deserts” but rather, as one activist notes, “food apartheid” (since the dearth of healthy retail options occur intentionally, not naturally) (p. 278). They detail the harassment experienced by minority shoppers both historically and in the present, the experiences of minority retail workers, and the effects of harassment on health, both individual and communal, as well as resistance to such treatment. [End Page 114]

The power of this collection stems in part from its broad definition of “race.” It explores the experiences of African American, Arab, Chinese, Latino, and Athabascan-American business owners, as well as Mexican, Latino, African American, and South African consumers. This allows for intellectually provocative juxtapositions. Ellen D. Wu’s fascinating essay on how Chinese American merchants and community members sometimes battled over the former groups’ strategy of “Orientalizing” Chinatowns can be read next to Melissa L. Cooper’s excellent cultural analysis of the varied promoters of the 1920s—1930s “voodoo craze.” To enrich one’s understanding of the role of minority consumption in national economies, Geraldo L. Cadava’s essay documenting the economic contributions of Mexican shoppers to U.S. border towns—and the economic blow those towns absorb when punitive policies undercut Mexican spending power—can be read alongside John W. Heaton’s analysis of Athabascan village stores in 1940s Alaska, which undercuts scholarly dichotomies between “subsistence” and “shopping” economies.

Processes of gentrification and displacement are illuminated when Stacey A. Sutton’s uncovering of the ways that excessive enforcement of arcane municipal building codes can crush black-owned businesses in gentrifying Brooklyn is read next to Johana Londono and Erualdo González’s essay on debates between middle-class and working-class Latinos over gentrifying downtown Santa Ana, California. Mia Bay’s disturbing account of the traumas suffered by black travelers in the Jim Crow era, who were sometimes denied access to food, gas, restrooms, or sleeping accommodations, reads well against Azure B. Thompson and Sharese N. Porter’s account of the effects of a degraded retail environment on the mental health of contemporary African Americans. Both essays are further illuminated by Naa Oyo A. Kwate’s dissection of contemporary market researchers’ use of denigrating language when they describe predominantly black communities, no matter what their economic profile—language that helps relegate black consumers “to the periphery of the market” as well as “to the periphery of public life” (p. 53). [End Page 115]

There are a few weak essays in the collection. An article exploring the coffeehouses and smoking lounges of Paterson, New Jersey, makes obvious points, such as the fact that such establishments provide economic opportunities to their employees. An essay comparing the experience of department-store employees in Baltimore, Maryland, and Johannesburg, South Africa, uses more academic jargon than was necessary. And an essay that uses liberation psychology to decipher experiences of retail discrimination might have been better without the psychological framing, which adds little to the essay’s powerful accounts of retail discrimination. On the whole, however, Race and Retail is an excellent collection, one whose rich content amply rewards careful reading.

Beryl Satter

BERYL SATTER teaches history at Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of Family Properties (2009) and is currently researching a book on ShoreBank, a pioneering community development bank.