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A Korean Primer on Black Life : Human relations: 'Who African-Americans Are,' targeted toward Korean-Americans, details black history and culture. Leaders of both racial groups praise the effort toward erasing tensions.

April 29, 1993|ANDREW LePAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN GABRIEL — A new book by a San Gabriel scholar is drawing praise from both Korean-Americans and African-Americans in Los Angeles County as an unprecedented step toward easing inner-city tensions between the two groups.

Aimed at teaching first-generation, Korean-speaking immigrants a hefty dose of African-American history and culture, "Who African-Americans Are" was published two months ago by the Korea Economic Daily. Perhaps the only book of its kind printed in Korean, and only Korean, it is available in some Korean-language bookstores.

"Right now Korean- and African-Americans have lots of negative stereotypes of each other," said author Edward Chang, 36, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Riverside.

"This book is one of the first attempts to educate and inform Korean-Americans, especially immigrants, about who African-Americans are and where they're coming from."

Chang said he got the idea for the book several years ago, long before the riots that began a year ago today, because he believed little progress was being made by an organization he belonged to, the Black-Korean Alliance. The alliance disbanded last December after its leaders decided the group's focus on dialogue was not enough to improve relationships.

"It's written for the lay person, and I think the reader will have a much better understanding of African-Americans and their history, something most new Korean immigrants have no knowledge of," said Eui-Young Yu, a sociology professor at Cal State Los Angeles who recently read Chang's book.

Joe R. Hicks, an African-American who is executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles and a former director of the Black-Korean Alliance, said that although he cannot read Chang's book because of the language barrier, he is aware of it and thankful for its mission.

Echoing Chang, Hicks said Korean immigrants often carry many negative stereotypes of blacks based, in part, on the watered-down version of the black experience in U.S. history that is taught in Korean schools or depicted on TV shows.

Hicks said that, in many cases, "Korean immigrants have learned these stereotypes from experiences with the U.S. military, or by what they might see on the media (from the West), where black folks are portrayed as drug traffickers and people engaging in violent crime."

Chang said his book chronicles hardships African-Americans have experienced in the United States and highlights the civil rights movement and its leaders.

He tried to show Koreans how the struggles of the African-Americans to gain civil rights have opened opportunities for other minorities, he said.

One reason new Korean immigrants have a hard time adjusting to life here, Chang said, is there are no sizable minority groups based on race in Korea.

"Immigrants are ill prepared to live in a multiethnic society," he said. "They know about segregation by class, but they can't identify with the notion of race . . . that people are placed in racial categories."

Chang said he began working on a 100-page book about the history of African-Americans before last year's civil unrest in Los Angeles. But as tensions rose between blacks and Korean-Americans here during the past year and a half, he said, he turned his project into the 300-page book that begins with an explanation of the Los Angeles riots.

Many of the book's first 3,000 copies have also gone on sale in Korea. There, the book has been featured in the mainstream press, including each of the nation's three major TV networks and a Korean show similar to "60 Minutes" called "What You Want to Know."

"A lot of Koreans are deeply moved. They can identify with the suffering of the African-Americans," Chang said. "One of the parallels I draw in the book is the experience of Koreans in Japan. Historically, the Koreans there have had no legal rights and they are like outcasts.

"Even those who get college degrees are not allowed to become a teacher or enter into white-collar occupations. Koreans get out of the ghetto by getting into entertainment, sports or illegal activities."

While much focus has been placed on rebuilding Los Angeles communities decimated in last year's riots, or on creating jobs, Chang said, scarce mention has been made of building human relationships.

"That's what I talk about in my book: building relationships between different cultural groups and bringing back humanity to our lives."

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