Growing Antagonism Directed at Asians in U.S. : Korean Merchants in Watts Try to Defuse Resentment

Christian Science Monitor

About 18 months ago, a family friend of Jong Won Rhee shot and killed a black youth robbing Rhee’s supermarket in Watts.

Fearing neighborhood backlash, Rhee figured he would have to sell out and leave the area. Black friends and customers talked him out of it.

“Don’t give up,” he said they told him.

So the jovial Rhee, who has lived in Watts for 11 years, stayed. He manages in limited English to be gregarious with customers, and the local kids call him “Pop,” he says.


Rhee is one of the Korean merchants here who are trying hard to overcome what some blacks call a growing black resentment of Korean entrepreneurs.

This resentment is just one aspect of an apparently growing antagonism nationally over the last several years toward people of Asian descent. Asian-Americans cite evidence ranging from racially motivated beatings on high school campuses to an increasing number of Asian villains on television.

Most observers say the problem is not ready to explode but needs an early defusing. Some frequently mentioned sources of this antagonism:

- From Detroit to Silicon Valley, Japan and other Asian countries are blamed for American layoffs. Many Americans fail to distinguish between Asians and Americans of Asian descent, or between one Asian nationality and another. In 1982, two Detroit workers beat to death a young Chinese-American on the assumption that he was Japanese and responsible for layoffs in the U.S. auto industry. In 1983, a Laotian refugee was mutilated by whites in Iowa for similar reasons.


- The sheer numbers of new Asian immigrants--from Southeast Asian refugees to wealthy Hong Kong expatriates--are changing communities. Poor Asians compete with other ethnic minorities for cheap housing, social services and jobs. Rich Asians alter the identity of established, prestigious neighborhoods like those of San Marino.

- The image of Asians in America as diligent students and entrepreneurial workhorses, a “model minority,” is sometimes resented by other minority groups. The Asian immigrants who succeed here are generally well-educated and from the upper-middle class in Asia.

Overall, the number of violent incidents against Asians rose sharply from 1980 through 1983 across the country and has remained high in 1984 and 1985, according to Allan Seid, president of Asian Pacific American Advocates of California, a coalition of several hundred community groups.

The tension between blacks and Korean shopkeepers is at root an economic one. It is aggravated by the perception of many blacks that Koreans are disdainful of them as employees and customers.


Korean immigrants, in the space of a few years, have come to dominate grocery stores, liquor stores and gas stations in mostly black South-Central Los Angeles. They buy businesses in areas like Watts, where space is cheap, because they come with little money, although they have college educations and professional backgrounds.

In New York City, where Koreans own more than two-thirds of all fruit and vegetable markets, resentment among blacks in Harlem has erupted in picketing, boycotts and beatings.

Blacks in Los Angeles have complained that Koreans treat them rudely in stores, don’t hire them, and make money in the black community without putting anything back. Most Korean shopkeepers live outside the black community, and some move their businesses out when they can afford to do so.

“There’s concern by blacks over whether Korean merchants coming into the community are discriminating against blacks,” said Raymond Johnson Jr., president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.


“There currently is a problem, and there is a potential for a much larger problem,” he said.

For their part, Koreans say they are providing a service in the community by running stores that otherwise might not be open at all. Most stores have only three or four employees, usually unpaid family members. “If they hired outsiders, then they couldn’t survive,” said John Han, business manager for the Korea Town Development Assn.

Also, most Korean businessmen have been in the United States fewer than 10 years. They have language and cultural barriers to overcome in their everyday transactions, much less in sensitive situations.

In the last few months, Korean business associations have begun working to overcome these tensions, especially through Protestant churches. Merchants like Jong Won Rhee are the leaders. Rhee lives in Watts and has 10 employees--three family members and seven local blacks.


“What we really want to avoid is a Watts,” Han said, referring to the 1965 outbreak of rioting and looting.

Asians Seen as Scapegoats

Some see Asians as scapegoats for U.S. economic problems--especially in depressed areas like Watts. “It’s frustrating to see someone right in front of you driving a Cadillac, and you don’t have a car,” Han said.

Ronald Takaki, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, sees a subtle problem in the notion of Asians as a model minority. “I think mainly the resentment stems from the kind of unreasonable expectations that are held to blacks.”


Both black intellectuals and white politicians have held up tireless and enterprising Asians as a model for blacks to emulate. But Koreans brought skills, education and a well-developed success ethic with them from Korea, Takaki noted.

They are not so much upwardly mobile as working to restore their former social rank, he said. This is a different situation from that of blacks, who are working under the weight of their history as an underclass, Takaki said.

Seven Days a Week

The success of Korean entrepreneurs is easy to explain. David Oh, a business professor at California State University, Los Angeles, estimates that the average Korean store owner has been in the United States fewer than 10 years, works at least 10 hours a day, seven days a week (along with two or three other members of his family), and earns $50,000 to $100,000 in pretax annual family income.


Oh estimates that Los Angeles, with the largest concentration of Koreans in the United States, is home to 200,000 to 250,000 Koreans.

In the 1980s, Asians have come to represent about half of all legal immigration to the United States. Roughly 300,000 Asians have arrived in each of the last few years, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.