Middleman Minorities: Jews, Armenians, the Overseas Chinese and Other Victims of Their Own Success

Imagine moving into a community with a tight-knit culture to which you obviously don’t belong. You don’t have any property. You don’t have any connections. And you’re not going to be allowed to rise through the system. You have to find a way to work outside the system in social and economic roles that rely on nothing more but your intelligence and hard work. With the Christian prohibition on money lending, the Jews stepped into this role and through hard work and tenacity they became rich. However, when times turned tough, it was all too easy for Russian Tsars, French Politicians, the Catholic Church and the NAZIs to use this tiny but successful minority as a scapegoat for all the ills of the society. While this pattern is best known in the English-speaking world with the Jews, it’s actually a pattern that fits many such cultures. Politicians rise to power on grand-sounding promises. Just listen to Forrest Whittaker as Idi Amin talk about how he will Make Uganda Great.

And yet, Idi’s plans didn’t work out. Delivering prosperity turns out to be something that humans are bad at doing because we suck at figuring out WHY success happens. And so, when dictators can’t make the country work, they have to explain their failures. And that’s when people like Idi Amin look around for a highly-successful and highly-visible minority to blame. In Uganda’s case, that was people from India. They looked different. They were successful. They were the perfect target for popular resentment and, ultimately, disgust. As Thomas Sowell writes in Black Rednecks White Liberals, Middleman Minorities have suffered more violence and persecution throughout history than any other. In fact, the word genocide was coined to describe the experience of yet another Middleman Minority: the Armenians.

Black Rednecks and White Liberals

The Armenians were the “Jews of the Ottoman Empire.” They were wealthy and influential and like the Jews had succeeded in making themselves indispensable to their Turkish overlords. They learned the languages of the Near East. They mastered accounting and bookkeeping. They had learned the ins and outs of the running of the Empire. What else could they do? But then during World War I, that success made them a focus for popular resentment. These Armenian Christian girls were symbolically crucified.

The persecution of Middleman Minorities is not a feature of one culture. It’s a feature of all cultures. Any culture can become a Middleman Minority. Although China is a HUGE country, it is relatively small Chinese communities in South-East Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia and Vietnam that often dominate business. You may remember the Vietnamese boat people. Well, they weren’t ethnically Vietnamese. Actually, they were overwhelmingly the wealthy Overseas Chinese Middleman Minority. The Lebanese dominate business in West Africa. The Ibos in Nigeria. The Japanese are the Middleman Minority in Brazil. And in America’s black communities, the Middleman Minorities are often Korean shop owners. The reporter in this segment says “They’re insular. They employ their own. They keep to themselves. Blacks say ‘That’s the problem.’” This basic description is the recurring pattern of the clash between Middleman minorities and the surrounding dominant culture throughout history and across time.

Ironically, although the Middleman Minority phenomenon often leads to racially and economically motivated violence, it is actually an antidote to both racism and poverty. If groups of every skin color can succeed (and persecute those who succeed), then clearly race isn’t the issue. The issue is a core set of values.

Hard work.

Self-improvement.

Thrift.

Taking the long-term view.

A tight, supportive community committed to lifting the group up.

A proactive resourcefulness.

There is also often a particular focus on learning because while your store can be burned down in a pogrom or riot and your property can be stolen, you can never have your knowledge taken away as long as you keep your head. When you build a nation from people with these values, it ends up being the most innovative nation on the planet.

Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

Middleman Minorities reveal how much success is possible even when you have NO CONNECTIONS and are a COMPLETE OUTSIDER if you evolve the right values and attitudes. And that is what Idi Amin would actually have had to do to Make Uganda Great. He would have had to learn from the Indians and make many of those Middleman Minorities’ values core values for the entire society. However, that means letting go of cultural pride and thinking like a Mixed Mental Artist. Adopt the values that are useful…and you can look to the Middleman Minorities for guidance on what those are.

Environment shapes behavior. And the same cultural environment has repeatedly shaped the same culture. Connect the dots, people. The skin colors are different but the narratives and the cultures’ values and their experiences are the same.


Originally published at mixedmentalarts.co on August 5, 2017.