Korean Merchants, Black Customers--Tensions Grow

Times Staff Writer

To some, it might be viewed as a renaissance--abandoned stores in the city's most neglected areas coming to life at the hands of hard-working Korean immigrants with more sweat than money to invest.

But many blacks who live around those stores view the Koreans as part of a long line of outsiders who have bought up chunks of their community, exploited their dependence on local merchants and then used the profits to move on to safer areas.

Fueled by language and cultural differences, tension between the two struggling groups--Korean shopkeepers and black residents--has grown in recent years, as new Korean arrivals have flocked to black communities, drawn by the relatively low purchase prices of the many small markets, liquor stores and gas stations up for sale.

The Koreans' presence has become a sore point for many of their black neighbors, who complain that the Koreans treat black customers badly and exploit the community by failing to hire blacks or become involved in neighborhood projects.

"At this stage, we see it as potentially a very serious situation," said Larry Aubry of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. "There have been no serious incidents, but people are upset, and there is tension there."

To defuse that tension, the commission has stepped in with plans to mount an education campaign to bridge the gap between the Koreans and blacks. In addition, black and Korean leaders have scheduled a series of meetings to discuss the cultural differences that lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication between the two groups.

Because both groups are strongly tied to their churches, black and Korean ministers have begun meeting regularly and recently signed a "fellowship agreement" pledging to initiate a series of cultural exchanges between the two groups.

Elected Officials

And elected officials from Inglewood, Compton and Los Angeles have gotten involved and plan to meet this month with officials of the Korean business community, merchants' groups and the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

"It's clear these (Korean immigrants) are hard-working and industrious. But there's a high degree of resentment being bred against them in the black community," said Melanie Lomax, vice president of the NAACP, which has received scores of complaints over the years about Koreans' treatment of blacks.

The complaints range from petty annoyances--Korean shop owners aren't polite, they don't offer to help their customers--to claims that they overcharge customers and often fail to make change properly.

"Most of what we've heard is that they treat black people with nastiness; they're not courteous, they're not friendly to them," Lomax said. "We've identified it as cultural differences--both groups are not particularly educated about the other's cultural heritage."

Korean leaders agree that ignorance on both sides is at the root of the problem.

"A lot of Korean people do not have full appreciation of what made Watts the way it is," said Tong Soo Chung, an attorney who heads the Korean-American Coalition, one of several Korean immigrant organizations working to ease the tension. "And a lot of blacks don't know what makes these Korean immigrants tick.

"The problems weren't created overnight by Koreans moving in. It's an area that's been tense for 30 years," Chung said. "Now there's a cultural gap, a language gap and misperceptions have led to an increase in the tensions."

The tensions are fueled by the economic situation in much of South-Central Los Angeles, where a dearth of supermarkets makes the area's low-income blacks dependent on the small Korean-owned stores that seem to be sprouting on every corner.

"(The black community) wants more of a commitment . . . store owners who live in the area, who have children who play baseball on the Little League teams, who are part of the community," Chung said.

Source of Problem

"Koreans look at (store ownership) as an investment, a way to make a living. Their goal is to spend a few years there, make a little money, then buy a store in a better environment. They don't look at it as a lifelong investment, and that's a source of the problems."

Chung said some Korean store owners resent the implication that they do not contribute to the well-being of the black community.

"Some of these were closed stores and we went in there and opened them up," he said. "We can look at it this way and say we actually do them a favor having a store there so they don't have to travel five or 10 miles and do their shopping."

The bitterness between blacks and Koreans is not new, and Korean shopowners are not oblivious to the complaints.

Two years ago, a series in a black-owned newspaper castigated Asian shopkeepers, and recent articles in a South-Central community newsletter have urged blacks to boycott businesses owned by Koreans.

The uproar has prompted more than 100 Korean shopowners to band together in business associations that have made improving relations with the black community their chief goal.

In 18 months, the groups have donated food to poor families in South-Central, contributed money to black community projects, sponsored scholarships for black students, held parties for neighborhood senior citizens and met with local black clergymen.

Increased Communication

Most of the Koreans think communication has increased and the situation is improving, but many in the black community believe the problem is getting worse--that it has almost reached the boiling point in some neighborhoods.

They point to ugly arguments and name-calling between black customers and Korean shopkeepers, and escalating resentment and anger on the part of some blacks.

The NAACP's Lomax said that up to 70% of the gas stations in some areas of South-Central Los Angeles are owned by Koreans. Leaders of a Korean shopowners group estimate that as many as one-third of the community's small markets and liquor stores are Korean-owned. And the numbers are growing.

"It's not a problem that's going to go away," Lomax said. "It's something that's going to get worse if we don't do something now."

The problem is not unique to Los Angeles.

As Korean immigration to America has increased, the new arrivals have begun buying up low-priced stores and gas stations in depressed black neighborhoods in large cities like Houston, Chicago and New York. Their growing presence has made them targets for the wrath of their economically struggling black neighbors and competing black shopowners.

Many of the new immigrants are well-educated, formerly middle-class Koreans who see business ownership as their only means to enter the middle-class here, since job opportunities are limited by their lack of English proficiency.

Whole Families Work

"Some of them come with money . . . some come with no money, but their whole families go to work and they save and in a matter of two or three years, they are able to buy a store of their own," Chung said.

The cost of buying a business is usually lower in black communities, like Compton, Inglewood and South-Central Los Angeles, Chung said, so Korean businesses are concentrated there. "When you have little money, that's where you go," Chung said.

The vast majority of the businesses are small mom-and-pop operations, with family members as the only employees, said Jong Won Rhee, owner of a Watts market and member of the Korean Small Business Assn. of South Los Angeles.

Most are not doing well enough financially to hire outside employees, he said, so blacks' demands that they provide jobs for neighborhood residents are often unrealistic.

"The whole families have to work hard, 60 or 70 hours, seven days a week to survive in the business," Rhee said. "And the language problems and customs make it seem more difficult."

It is the differences in language and culture that are at the heart of the problems between Koreans and blacks, both sides say.

"Koreans are very courteous people, by nature," Rhee said. "But they (black customers) cannot understand us, and we cannot explain to them our situation."

Poor English

Attorney Chung said the Koreans' poor English often results in misunderstandings with customers. "Most of these people are recent immigrants and their English is poor," he explained. "That could result in them speaking abruptly to people, in fragmented sentences.

"People may take it as being rude, but in many cases, the owner can't say it any nicer because he doesn't know how. He's just trying to get his point across in the best way he knows how, and it turns out to be short and curt and rude."

But some blacks say the problem goes further, to an attitude of "take it or leave it" on the part of Koreans that alienates black shoppers.

"It's like they're doing us a favor," said Spencer Wiley, who lives near Slauson and Normandie avenues, in the midst of several Korean-owned businesses. "They don't want to answer your questions or give you services. They're not professional."

Wiley said many blacks perceive that attitude as racist, "and that's created a problem. A lot of people don't want them here."

In fact, many blacks have stopped patronizing Korean businesses because of the problems.

"I'll go a little farther and pay a few cents more for something and give it to a brother rather than go somewhere they don't even know how to talk to me," said Virginia Taylor-Hughes, owner of a Western Avenue furniture store and head of a predominantly black merchants group.

Owners Association

The Korean shopowners' association recognizes that good community relations make for good business, and is actively trying to mollify disgruntled blacks.

Many store owners are befuddled by the lack of good will demonstrated by their black customers, "and they want some help to get along with their neighbors," said Chung Lee, owner of a market across the street from the Jordan Downs public housing project in Watts.

Lee has done business in South-Central Los Angeles for 11 years, and prides himself on his good relationship with his customers. Neighborhood teen-agers call him Homeboy and mothers know they can depend on him to help their children do the family's shopping.

"You have to work together with the community," said Lee, who sponsors neighborhood sports teams and hires Jordan High School students to help out at his store. "It is for us to make some effort to show the community that we want to be a part of them."

But even blacks agree that the problems cannot be solved solely by Koreans' changing. "It's a two-way street," said Aubry of the Human Relations Commission. "It's more complex than just getting the shop owners to change.

"It's not a question of they have to do something and then things will be all right. The black community has to extend some understanding too."

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