“Middleman” minorities Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Middleman” minorities form significant economic bridges between generally poorer classes of consumers and generally wealthier classes of producers. Such minorities are often involved in small-scale retail operations or other entrepreneurial activities to provide goods and services to underserved populations.

The term “middleman minority” first became common among American sociologists during the 1960’s. It describes the status and function of minority groups, whether recent immigrants or long-standing residents, who serve the retail and small commercial needs of dominant minority groups, whose members themselves have little access to the economic and social status of the majority group. The term “petty retailers” has historically been applied to middleman minorities in the United States who open small retail stores to provide basic commodities in low-income and predominantly minority neighborhoods that larger retailers and service providers tend to avoid.Family businesses;and “middleman” minorities[middleman minorities]"Middleman" minorities[middleman minorities]Family businesses;and “middleman” minorities[middleman minorities]"Middleman" minorities[middleman minorities][cat]THEORIES;"Middleman" minorities[03510][cat]ECONOMIC ISSUES;"Middleman"minorities[03510][cat]STEREOTYPES;"Middleman" minorities[03510][cat]ASSIMILATION;"Middleman" minorities[03510]

Distribution and Characteristics

Middleman minorities can be found around the globe. Their ethnic and cultural designations vary among the groups that form the dominant minorities within any given society. Middleman minorities throughout the world exhibit several shared characteristics. For example, members of primarily middleman minorities tend to be self-employed or work for members of their own ethnic groups until they begin their own entrepreneurial activities. Their businesses tend to be small and financed initially by ethnic aid groups. Middleman minorities have limited access to the dominant majority to buy resources, but the access they do have tends to be greater than that of the dominant minority. The middleman minorities resell these goods and services to minority populations with whom they have only transactional relationships. Members of middleman minorities rarely attempt to form social ties with members of the larger minority group in a culture.

Members of middleman minorities share a number of personal characteristics as well. For example, they tend to be hard workers and long-term planners and savers. They also tend to have strong beliefs in the value of Education;and “middleman” minorities[middleman minorities]education for their children, even when they themselves have had little formal education or opportunity to penetrate the Social networkssocial networks of the majority group in a culture. Education is rarely the success factor for first-generation middleman minorities. Likewise, neither is political activism. Hard work and capital accumulation provide the means for success for these people in their quest to provide educational opportunities for their children.

Image of Middleman Minorities

Despite providing essential goods and services to neighborhoods that would otherwise lack them, members of middleman minorities are generally viewed with hostility by members of the minority and majority groups. They have often been the targets of discrimination and physical violence. As members of minority classes with little access to members of wealthier and more powerful majority groups, members of middleman minorities offer convenient targets on whom others may vent their frustration and feelings of anger for having being taken advantage of economically. Middleman minorities do not themselves produce the commodities they sell, but they profit from selling what others have produced. Their prosperity relative to the minority group is resented by their lower-income customers who do not share in that prosperity.

Members of middleman minorities and their children tend to outperform other minority group members in both capital accumulation and educational levels. Rather than imitate the behavior patterns of middleman minorities, other minority group members often view the entire economic and social system as be deliberately stacked against them. Thus, middleman minority businesses are often the first businesses to suffer damage during instances of urban unrest.

With the United States, members of various different ethnic and cultural group have held the status of middleman minorities. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, Jewish immigrants;and “middleman” minorities[middleman minorities]Jews of a variety of ethnic backgrounds, as well as a variety of European immigrants, constituted the bulk of middleman minorities. Members of these groups were generally able to assimilate into the economic and social mainstream by the second generation. By contrast, immigrants of Asian immigrants;and “middleman” minorities[middleman minorities]Asian ethnic background have retained their middleman minority labels for much longer periods of time. Their Assimilation;and “middleman” minorities[middleman minorities]assimilation has been slower and more difficult than that of European immigrants because of greater language barriers and physical appearances that have served as marks of differentiation from members of the majority group. Middleman minorities of Asian ethnicity have suffered hostility from other members of their own minority groups, as Asian entrepreneurs have progressedeconomically, and their children have assimilated socially through Education;and “middleman” minorities[middleman minorities]education leading to higher job status. While education has not been a primary factor in the success of first-generation middleman minority members, it has traditionally had a strongly positive impact on their children. As these entrepreneurs have enjoyed success, they have generally been able to release their children from having to work in their family businesses so they can concentrate on their educational activities.

One of the most obvious hostile situations for members of middleman minorities in the United States has involved Korean immigrants;and “middleman” minorities[middleman minorities]Korean owners of convenience stores in predominantly low-income minority neighborhoods. Resident minorities have tended to resent the success of the Korean middlemen, with whom they have few social connections and whom they tend to regard as exploitative outsiders. Moreover, resident minorities also tend to see favoritism in government programs that assist small business owners. The more the Korean middleman prospers seemingly by taking money from resident minorities, the more powerful and potentially lethal the hostility. Such hostility was especially evident in the April, 1992, Los Angeles;riots of 1992Los Angeles rioting that followed the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. Much of the violent anger felt by African Americans was directed against Korean American entrepreneurs operating within predominantly black communities.Family businesses;and “middleman” minorities[middleman minorities]"Middleman" minorities[middlemanminorities]

Further Reading
  • Butler, John. Immigrant and Minority Entrepreneurship: The Continuous Rebirth of American Communities. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Examines how different ethnic minorities behave in their attempts to enter the American economic mainstream.
  • Kaufman, Eric. Rethinking Ethnicity: Majority Groups and Dominant Minorities. New York: Routledge, 2004. Studies patterns of ethnic migration caused by the pressures of globalization as various ethnic groups try to improve their status.
  • Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. New York: Encounter Books, 2005. Sociological study of various middleman minorities around the globe and their psychological characteristics. Pays particular attention to Afro-American cultural history.
  • _______. Migrations and Cultures: A World View. New York: Basic Books, 1997. Study of various ethnic groups within different cultures to see which cultures are better at accumulating human capital based through various behaviors.

Asian immigrants

Family businesses

Korean immigrants


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