As Los Angeles prepares to celebrate the life and sacrifice of a true African-American hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we must also recognize our historical obligation to carry on his life’s work. This means more than simply honoring the “dream.” It means maintaining the fight for social and economic justice.
Here in the most diverse metropolitan area in the country also known as the “City of Angels,” African Americans still have plenty to fight for. In one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, our community continues to lag behind in educational achievement, good paying jobs, home ownership, access to quality foods, and health care; and these relentless disparities provide a continual reminder that the struggle is not over.
Systemic problems continue to persist as well. Red-lining banks have now been joined by equally discriminating mainstream grocery chains. As a result, parts of the city are virtual “food deserts,” where residents must travel miles for fresh, affordable groceries or turn to unhealthy fast food options.
Last year, Cliff Goldstein, a shopping center developer, told a Blue Ribbon Panel reviewing the grocery industry that “Supermarkets have been largely unwilling to locate in low-income areas…It may be difficult for some people to hear, but racial discrimination is alive and well even in the supermarket industry.”
Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, headquartered in El Segundo California, is a subsidiary of the UK-based retailer Tesco, the world’s third largest retailer. As a relative newcomer to the Southern California market, they have made several progressive, anti-discrimination promises. First and foremost, in an editorial by the L.A. Times this past June, Fresh & Easy was commended for its commitment and promise to locate some of its stores in mostly underserved and economically underdeveloped South L.A.
Despite such initial promises, however, dozens of Fresh & Easy markets already opened in Southern California, Phoenix and Las Vegas. To this day none have opened in South L.A. This is evidenced by the fact that, based on public records searches as of January, they haven’t applied for a single permit in South Los Angeles, despite having applied for permits at more than 70 locations throughout contiguous Southern California areas.
I have proudly joined with the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, a coalition of community, labor, environmental and faith-based groups, to challenge Fresh & Easy to be accountable to our community and others regarding the location of stores, quality of jobs, and environmental safeguards. In pursuit of this, we have asked them to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement that places their promises in writing. But, seeking our blind trust, they declined to talk and asked that we take a “wait and see” approach. This response is insufficient and grossly disingenuous.
Some of our critics suggest that we ought to be glad that such an economic colossus is endeavoring to come into our community and that we subvert our own efforts by trying to negotiate such a stringent Community Benefits Agreement upfront. Yet the economic plight and conditions of South LA communities and neighborhoods warrants upfront commitment on the part of any and all business partners to fully invest in our economic, social, health and welfare.
We don’t have the luxury of waiting, watching, picketing, marching, going to jail, and protesting after Fresh and Easy markets open all over Los Angeles. That approach is neither Fresh nor Easy. That strategy is myopic, ill advised, irresponsible, and unintelligent. We need good paying middle class jobs, affordable healthcare, and access to quality foods, not in 3, 5, or 10 years but NOW!
Just how long must we wait to see Fresh & Easy fulfill their promises, while other parts of greater Los Angeles – already rich with grocery shopping options – benefit from new supermarkets NOW? They’ve exploited the positive media attention their promises secured – and now we have an obligation to hold them accountable.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Los Angeles’ African Americans did not wait for better days. Instead, they launched their part of the civil rights movement right here! right now!, by demanding equality on several fronts simultaneously, including the desegregation of the Los Angeles Fire Department and the hiring of African Americans in banks, stores, and other industries.
Our fore parents openly challenged widespread labor discrimination and gained measurable access to the steady, high-paying, unionized jobs within the growing public, defense and manufacturing sectors that provided a powerful magnet of economic stability for African Americans emigrating from the South. Moreover, they refused to tolerate segregation in housing and schooling, and ensured we had greater access to the quality of life opportunities that others in the community had so long enjoyed.
Most importantly, they changed more than their own circumstances. They also substantially affected the decision-making processes and policies of the Los Angeles body politic.
Today, we must honor the legacy of our mothers and fathers and fulfill our historic obligation to openly challenge global corporations like Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets who seek to gain public favor through hollow boasts. Without making real commitments, they can neither earn our respect nor serve our community. It is simply not acceptable to make big promises to our community, create incredible expectations – and then to say to us as so many have in the past, wait and see.
The lack of access to low-cost healthy food in underserved areas does not lend itself to a wait and see approach. This is a civil rights issue. With African American and Latino neighborhoods suffering disproportionately from the lack of quality food choices, the need is great and the need is Now! A 2004 study by the Los Angeles County Department of Health, documented that South L.A. residents suffer disproportionately from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, conditions highly correlated to diet.
Finally, just as in the days of Dr. King, our community must continue to struggle side by side with organized labor because good jobs are also a civil rights issue. Dr. King did not believe that any job was a good job. He died marching and fighting side by side with united sanitation workers for economic parity, dignity and respect. Thanks to the union standard, the grocery industry has traditionally been a source of good, middle class jobs for all people. Fresh & Easy must make assurances that it too will be a responsible community partner and employer that will invest in our people by providing good wages, affordable health care benefits, and access to healthy foods.
Dr. King said it best, “If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, ‘There lived a great people-a black people-who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’”
There is great dignity and great meaning in saying to Fresh & Easy, “Our support depends on you creating good, middle class jobs; our support hinges on you fulfilling your promises now by developing stores in underserved South L.A.; and our support requires that you forthrightly engage with our community in negotiating a mutually beneficial agreement that guarantees that the check of promises that you have written will no longer return to us insufficient funds, but will clear the bank of justice and remit in full to the South LA masses who deserve quality stores and good paying jobs with dignity and respect!
We have overcome!
Rev. Dr. Lewis E. Logan, II