Black-Korean Alliance Says Talk Not Enough, Disbands

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The Black-Korean Alliance, the city's oldest organization dedicated to easing tensions between the two ethnic groups, has disbanded because members decided the group's focus on dialogue was not enough to improve relationships.

The alliance of about 30 community groups broke up last month, about six years after it formed with the aid of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. The volunteer group was unable to get beyond the dialogue stage because it had no money to hire a staff, attendance at meetings was sparse and members said they sometimes experienced conflicting loyalties with their own organizations and ethnic communities.

As a result, the group was unable to forge a consensus on such controversial issues as the Brotherhood Crusade's 1991 boycott of a South-Central Los Angeles liquor store after the Korean owner fatally shot a black man during what police said was an attempted robbery. And after the spring riots, which worsened relations between the two ethnic groups, the alliance never regained its momentum.

The alliance "was a group talking about dialogue in an era where the two sides are polarized," said Joe Hicks, an African-American who is executive director of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a former co-chairman of the alliance. "The (alliance) tried to struggle with this model (based on dialogue), but if it's not serving its purpose, you shed yourself of that and get something that will work."

Bong Hwan Kim, executive director of the Korean Youth & Community Center and the group's other former co-chairman, said that after the riots "we recognized that dialogue alone wouldn't be enough. We have to look at the economic problems that create tensions."

Despite the alliance's impressive membership roster, including the United Way, the Urban League, the Korean Chamber of Commerce, the Korean American Coalition and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, it lacked participation of the key players: Korean-American merchants and residents of South-Central Los Angeles.

The alliance "didn't reach down to the grass-roots level," said Larry Aubry, an African-American who is a senior consultant for the county's Human Relations Commission. "We dealt with representatives of groups rather than community and business people themselves."

Added Marcia Choo, program director of the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center: "In our zeal to do the right things, we sometimes tried to fix things without consulting with the community."

The alliance was established to deal with strains between Korean-American merchants and African-American residents in South-Central concerning language and cultural differences, disagreements about the conduct of some merchants and their limited community involvement, and the deaths of four merchants during robberies in the spring of 1986.

The loosely structured group consisted of representatives from business, civic and other organizations who met periodically. There were also three subcommittees devoted to community education, economic development and religious leadership.

The group's early efforts included organizing community forums, crime prevention seminars, joint religious services, scholarship funds, food drives and discussions of joint economic ventures. But most of those efforts were keyed to the group's belief that the way to solve tensions was to have people talk to each other.

The alliance held together after Korean-born grocer Soon Ja Du fatally shot Latasha Harlins, an African-American teen-ager, during an argument over alleged shoplifting in Du's store in March, 1991.

A statement from the alliance called for calm and two community forums were held that drew about 200 people, recalled Jai Lee Wong, a consultant with the county Human Relations Commission.

But the group began to unravel three months later, when the Brotherhood Crusade organized a boycott of John's Liquor Store. Store owner Tae Sam Park had shot and killed Arthur Mitchell during an alleged robbery attempt inside Park's store on June 4. After an investigation, the police upheld Park's version of the incident.

Wong said the belief of some blacks that Park should have been charged with murder split the alliance along ethnic lines. Black members were reluctant to publicly oppose the boycott, according to Wong and Aubry, who both worked on behalf of the alliance in lieu of regular staff.

"It was difficult for (alliance) members to take a neutral position because they could be accused of being a sellout by others in their communities," said Edward Chang, an alliance member and assistant professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside.

As a result, the alliance was unable to develop a unified response to the boycott, although some members privately helped negotiate its end, Chang said.

Last spring, in an attempt to address merchant-customer relations, the alliance prepared a code of conduct that was to be posted in South-Central stores. "It was an effort to drive home the point in the communities that it's a two-way street, that merchants and residents have to accord each other a certain level of respect and dignity," Hicks said.

But when the riots began April 29, the code of conduct "went up in smoke," Hicks said. Copies of the code were never distributed.

After the riots, alliance members discussed redefining the group's mission. But at a Nov. 17 meeting convened to determine its fate, a majority of the seven members who attended voted to disband, Kim said.

"People decided it was time to set (the alliance) on the back burner," said LeRoy Berry, a member of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission who favored keeping the group together. "The idea was to give people time to resolve some of the problems in their own communities and do the legwork needed to help the two communities understand each other."

Other members said the problems exposed by the riots undermined the premise of a group focusing only on black-Korean relations. "There are tensions, but it's not just a black-Korean conflict," Choo said. "Problems of racism, hopelessness and despair are bigger than what the (alliance) was about."

And divisions within and between the two communities paralyzed the alliance as members found they represented conflicting constituencies, Berry said. "I had thought at first that we were talking about united communities, but it turned out that both were divided," Berry said. "The people we needed behind us didn't get behind us."

While lamenting the symbolic message of the alliance's dissolution at a critical juncture, some members say they developed valuable relationships with other organizations.

In addition, they point to other groups that could fill the void, among them the African American-Korean American Christian Alliance, the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center and the Martin Luther King Jr. Dispute Resolution Center.

Perhaps the most ambitious new effort is the Multi-Cultural Collaborative, which has received funding from the James Irvine Foundation and other sources to develop programs designed to promote improved inter-ethnic relations in the city.

The new coalition, which will have a staff and grass-roots organizers, will include African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos, Kim said, and will focus on specific issues, such as customer-merchant relations and race relations in high schools.

"We don't need seminars on cultural differences, we need people working together on concrete problems," Aubry said. "You need to work dialogue into organizing around education, housing, economic development and community-based policing."

Talk is no longer enough, agreed Wong. "Things have become a lot worse," she said. "People want to see a concrete agenda and results."

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