Middleman Minorities & Discrimination

Older interpretations of Christianity held that it was against the Christian God’s commandments for Christians to loan money and charge interest. Consequentially, across Europe Christians generally were not bankers, because it was a religious violation for Christians to be in positions where they were charging interest. Banking then became a niche role for non-Christians – Jews in particular across Europe. For hundreds of years Christians did not work as bankers, but Jews did, and today we still have the stereotypical consequences of the ancient traditions that kept Christians out of banking while opening up a spot for Jews within financial industries.
 
 
Steven Pinker writes about phenomena like the Jewish-Christian banking arrangement in Europe and the subsequent discrimination that Jews faced in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker writes, “it’s common for particular ethnic groups to specialize in the middleman niche and to move to whatever communities currently lack them, where they tend to become prosperous minorities – and targets of envy and resentment.” Jewish banking is a salient and easy to understand example. Bankers are still hated today because they are not doing anything that really appears to be work to people who produce goods and don’t work in the banking industry. Bankers move money around and profit on capital, rents, and interest. Providing the capital for a project is important and valuable, but we have trouble understanding it and don’t easily trust those who are in such a position.
 
 
Pinker continues on this specific point, “in intuitive economics, farmers and craftsmen produce palpable items of value. Merchants and other middlemen, who skim off a profit as they pass goods along without causing new stuff to come into being, are seen as parasites, despite the value they create by enabling transactions between producers and consumers.”
 
 
Pinker gives other examples in his book of populations that have emigrated to new countries or existed within larger majority populations and found niche roles as middlemen. For the reasons noted in the quotes above, these minority groups have often found themselves scorned by the larger populations they find themselves within. They often become the victims of violence and have been the targets of genocide. Despite the fact that minorities (especially when they emigrate) find ways to fill important niches and despite the fact that filling such niches provides economic value, xenophobic populations can massacre minorities when rhetoric against them reaches irrational frenzies.

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