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Racial Tension Over Korean Merchants : Inglewood: Black and Latino customers say they face rudeness and unfair suspicion. Mayor meets with business operators in attempt to ease strained relations.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A well-dressed man slid a $100 bill across the counter of an Inglewood liquor store recently to purchase a bottle of whiskey. The Korean owner refused to take the money. “No, no, no,” he said repeatedly.

The frustrated customer, who happens to be Inglewood Mayor Edward Vincent, grumbled later that he received the abrupt treatment because he was black and in the Korean owner’s eyes a potential robber or counterfeiter.

Vincent related his experience to more than 100 Korean business operators at City Hall last week during a meeting called to ease strained relations between Korean merchants, who operate an estimated 300 businesses in Inglewood, and the city’s black and Latino residents, who complain that they often face rudeness and unfair suspicion at Korean-run establishments.

“People are always complaining that Asians are taking over Market Street,” which is Inglewood’s downtown shopping district, said Joanne Johnson, who is president of the Inglewood branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, in an interview Thursday. “The owners aren’t courteous. They always think you are going to steal something. I think it’s reaching a point where it might explode.”

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Cleve Manigault, who was window shopping on Market Street Friday, described another problem. Just communicating with Korean merchants is his biggest frustration.

“I’ve asked them a simple question like, ‘Do you have earmuffs?’ and they didn’t understand,” he said. “I had my hands over my ears trying to show them what earmuffs were. If you’re going to be a salesperson, you should speak English fluently and understand simple things.”

Some Korean merchants attribute the difficulty between the two groups to a language barrier and cultural differences, or in some cases the fear of being robbed.

At the City Hall gathering Wednesday, Vincent told the merchants that it is his hope tensions can be soothed before there are boycotts of Korean-operated shops, like those that have taken place in recent years in Los Angeles, Compton and Lynwood.

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“There’s good blacks and bad blacks, good Koreans and bad Koreans,” Vincent said. “A pot is boiling. I’m turning the heat down instead of letting it boil over.”

For some residents, private boycotts have already begun.

“When I see an Asian behind the counter, I turn around and walk out,” H. K. Griffin, a longtime Inglewood resident, said in an interview Friday. “They’re disrespectful and very prejudiced toward blacks. They look at you like you’re going to steal something, and they want you to support their businesses. If more people stayed away, maybe they’d change.”

At Gordon’s Market on Imperial Highway, owner Simon Park said he keeps his eyes on some of his customers because there is a lot of shoplifting.

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Park said his regular customers are no problem. It’s the strangers that he watches. He recently spotted a well-dressed man put a pint of ice cream in his suit jacket. When confronted, the man cursed at Park and stormed out of the store. Others have pocketed candy, drinks or bags of chips.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a woman or man, adult or child, they all steal,” he said, pausing to watch a middle-age woman standing in the rear of the store. “They are looking for a chance to steal something.”

Inglewood Department Store, a swap-meet sort of business in the city’s downtown, is touted by local Chamber of Commerce officials as an example of a community-minded business. Owned by Paul Cho and operated by his brother, David, the store sponsors scholarships for black students, gives food to local senior citizens at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and has changed banks from the California Korea Bank in Los Angeles to a branch of Great American First Savings Bank that is around the corner.

“These guys give and give and give,” Roger Scott, executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce, said of the Cho brothers.

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After being picketed in December by a Los Angeles-based group that had targeted several Korean businesses, the store held educational workshops for its nearly 80 independent vendors to improve customer relations. David Cho, the manager, said disputes still arise with customers, but now merchants know to call in a black or Latino security guard to referee.

Wednesday’s meeting began with the mayor, through a Korean translator, extending gracious overtures to the Korean community and then relating his experience in the liquor store. When Vincent asked audience members for their concerns, the room was quiet.

However, the merchants vented their frustrations later when Vincent had left, turning over the meeting to his new assistant for Korean relations, Bob Lee.

“So many blacks have come in and robbed the stores that they think future blacks that come in may do the same thing,” Lee said later, relating one of the concerns raised by merchants at the meeting. “Now they realize that they should judge people independently. It’s their duty to respect the innocent blacks.”

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Lee said the large turnout demonstrates that Korean business operators want to get more involved in the community and improve relations with their black and Latino customers. He attributed much of the difficulty between the two groups to a language barrier and cultural differences.

He said Koreans, for instance, are not accustomed to a “customer-oriented” society that exchanges items and provides refunds on demand. He said they are also taken aback when they do not receive respect from young people as is the custom in Korea.

Richard Ro, who attended the meeting, later told the story of a small boy who came to his Imperial Highway convenience store when it first opened seven years ago. The boy had yelled out “Hey, man,” to him, he recalled. “I was angry at first. I was older than his father and he said, ‘Hey, man.’ Now I understand.”

Ro had frequent clashes with customers when the store opened, but they have dropped off significantly now that customers trust him, he said in an interview at his business.

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“I try to understand my customers,” he said.

Those who attended last week’s meeting said it was an important first step in organizing Inglewood’s Korean business operators. There are plans to form a local merchant association.

Philip No, chairman of the Korean-American Grocers Assn. of Southern California, said the merchants and customers are not as far apart as it may appear.

“Once you get to know Korean merchants, they’re fine,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “We’re from a country where there are few robberies and we’re just scared.”

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No said most of the 3,000 members of his association are first-generation Korean-Americans who are still learning this country’s language and customs.

“This is the first time that a city ever tried to approach the Korean business people,” he said. “We have many difficult problems in our first years in this country. We are getting better.”


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