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Crossing the Culture Line : Brick by Brick, the Walls Between Communities Are Beginning To Come Down as Activists Work To Translate Suspicion and Friction Into Empathy.

August 28, 1994|Lydia Chavez | Contributing editor Lydia Chavez's last piece for this magazine was a profile of novelist Oscar Hijuelas

The first time Bong Hwan Kim met Karen Bass, they sat across the table from one another at Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles at Manchester and Main in South-Central Los Angeles. It was January, 1992, more than two months before the riots.

Bass, executive director of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, was getting ready to launch a campaign against 15 liquor stores in South-Central, at least 10 of them Asian-owned. It was an issue that could easily disintegrate into traditional inter-ethnic politics. African Americans on one side, Korean Americans on the other. One group ravaged by the American system, another trying desperately to become a part of it. Bass wanted to prevent that polarization. She had heard that Kim, director of the Korean Youth and Community Center, was something of a renegade--independent from his Korean-born elders, who were determined to fend off any effort to infringe on the autonomy of the liquor-store owners. By agreeing to work together, the pair were neutralizing the liquor stores as a racial issue. The colors had begun to blur.

By the first week of May, however, they confronted more than the question of 15 problem stores. Some 200 South-Central businesses selling fortified wine and malt liquor burned to the ground in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial. As the fires raged, Bass and Kim talked by phone. Bass knew the neighborhood would fight the reopening of the liquor stores, and, again, she needed an ally in the Korean community. For Kim, the issue had become more troublesome. Korean-American liquor-store owners had been targeted, and they needed to be compensated. Bass agreed. Once again, they were trying to bridge the divide.

The informal alliance between Bass and Kim is an example of what is happening on a small but significant scale across ethnic Los Angeles. A few African-, Asian- and Latino-American leaders are declining to use the race card with one another or with the white minority. Divisive notions like "the new majority" send them into philosophical contortions. "It makes us sound like we're going to be the new oppressors; we want to do something different--to change the paradigm of social interaction," says Arturo Vargas, vice president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a fellow consensus builder.

Brick by brick, leaders like Bass, Kim and Vargas are knocking down the walls that separate their communities. They get guidance, friendship and mentoring from others such as Ron Wakabayashi, the newly named executive director for the county's Human Relations Commission; Joe Hicks, the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles, and Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

"They are consciously straddling different worlds," Xandra Kayden says of the members of these coalitions. "They are for their group but not against others." In an article for The Times' Opinion section last year, Kayden, a senior fellow at the Loyola Marymount Institute for Leadership Studies, wrote that, in the absence of a citywide consensus builder, Los Angeles has "translators": articulate, usually young people whose task is to represent their group's interests to the broader world.

But things tend to get lost in translation, and straddling two worlds can leave you without a foothold in either. Kim says Korean Americans need to be "new players in the game that will redefine race relations in America." At the same time, he volunteers that people who share his vision of a multiculturally diverse but harmonious Los Angeles are still on the "lunatic fringe. Not only do we face possible repercussions from our own," he adds, "but we still have to deal with the mainstream. There's not many safe places for people like us."

VISITORS TO THE COMMUNITY COALITION ON THE CORNER OF 85TH Street and Broadway must be buzzed in. Inside, Bass, in a flower-print dress, her Afro clipped short, wastes little time letting a reporter know where she stands. She pulls out an old issue of this magazine and opens it to a photo essay showing Korean-American store owners and their Latino and African-American customers. She points to a photo taken behind a counter. A young black boy, the manager's son, is sitting on the Korean store owner's lap. A rifle stands nearby. "Look at that gun. That kid could reach over and grab it," she says. "We're supposed to celebrate this?"

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