Commentary

Don’t Complain, Seize the Opportunity

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
October 18, 2002
In the 1998 book “Someone Else’s House,” Tamar Jacoby discusses a 1968 takeover of schools by black activists in a New York City ghetto. A 13-year-old youngster named Al Sharpton, who lived in nearby East Flatbush, was mesmerized by the boycott: “What I learned from Ocean Hill-Brownsville was that confrontation works. I saw it with my own eyes at the impressionable age of thirteen or fourteen, and it changed the way I looked at the world.”

That view of the world, where “confrontation works” and is used as a first resort, is what drives old school black activists such as Dick Gregory, Joe Madison, Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson. However, there’s one thing that works better than confrontation: satisfying your fellow citizens through mutually beneficial exchange — “Here’s what I’ll do for you, if you do this for me.”

I mention this because of a Washington Post editorial by William Raspberry about lawsuits against pizza companies that refused to deliver pizzas in bad neighborhoods. A couple of black men, including one who said he was “humiliated” about having to pick up the pizza directly from a driver afraid to leave his truck, sued.

The drivers and their employers insisted safety was the issue. Others charged that it was proof of racism and racial profiling. Glenn Davis, a former city commissioner in Tarpon Springs, Florida, said: “It’s racism plain and simple.” Raspberry notes that a 62-year-old pizza delivery driver had been severely beaten and robbed during a delivery to Union Academy and that Domino’s was paying a $250,000 worker’s compensation settlement in the case.

Raspberry then notes that instead of confrontation, some youngsters found a solution: “[F]ive Norfolk teenagers had a brainstorm. Instead of complaining about racism, or suing or leading demonstrations, they took the problem as an opportunity. At first, they set themselves up as middlemen, picking up the pizzas from Pizza Hut and bringing them back to the neighborhoods. Later, they got a $4,000 loan from the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority and worked out a deal to purchase pizzas wholesale from Pizza Hut and retail them to their neighbors. They named their business Pizza-Ria! and adopted as their slogan: ‘It’s fresh! It’s good! It’s from the ‘hood!’ The youngsters haven’t been robbed, and the folks at the housing authority say teen crime is down, at least in part as result of Pizza-Ria!”

Nice story, but one question Raspberry didn’t discuss. Why in the world did the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority give those youngsters a loan? According to the NRHA Web site: “Created in response to acute overcrowding and substandard housing conditions, NRHA was chartered as an independent political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1940, to build and manage safe, decent and affordable housing for the City of Norfolk.” NRHA should have its charter revoked. NRHA has redesigned its mission so that it even includes giving loans to kids delivering pizzas.

Delivering pizzas is part of a for-profit enterprise. Or, at least, part of an attempt at being for-profit. We still don’t know if Pizza-Ria! will be a profitable business in the long run. It could, as pizza companies may choose to start contracting companies like Pizza-Ria!, instead of paying for pizza deliverers who don’t want to deliver everywhere. Or it could be that pizza deliverers will get the message and start delivering everywhere, cutting out Pizza-Ria! But either way, the government shouldn’t be getting involved in choosing winners and losers in the market. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn in a year or two that NRHA is providing loans for pizza deliverers laid off because of competition from Pizza-Ria!

Commercial banks and similar institutions (or individuals) should be providing the loans to young entrepreneurs like the Pizza-Ria! businessmen. That is how things should work in the real world-and before bureaucrats started interfering in commerce and everyday exchange, that’s how things did work. Thus, the next obvious business to open is a privately run loan service for pizza entrepreneurs — and that could lead to other businesses: pizza box manufacturers, pizza shop uniforms, more delivery guys and gals … and the opportunities go on and on.

Nevertheless, Raspberry’s story is a good example of how competition helps low-income people more than confrontation. Pizza deliverers who balked at delivering to bad neighborhoods are now facing competition from people who will. The customers angry that Dominos won’t deliver to their door now have an alternative. This country would be a much better place if a young Al Sharpton had learned the lesson those youngsters in Norfolk have learned: capitalism, not confrontation, works.

Casey J. Lartigue Jr. is an education analyst at the Cato Institute