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Korean Merchants, Black Customers--Tensions Grow

April 15, 1985|SANDY BANKS | 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.

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