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We Can't All Get Along Yet

There are definite signs of progress in mending the black-Korean divide exposed by burning shops, but tensions remain between the two very different cultures.


The progress in black-Korean relations since the 1992 riots is measured by the friendship that Kapson Lee and Arlene Whitfield are cultivating. It's measured by the fact that the Rev. Antony Beckham, a black man, pastors a church of Koreans. It's measured by the way young Koreans and blacks hobnob at a Chinatown hip-hop nightclub.

The progress--or lack of it--is also measured by the way some young black residents near a Korean-owned grocery store in South-Central Los Angeles refuse to shop there: They are convinced the owner disrespects them. He is scared, afraid one misspoken word will create an incident.

The gulf between these two cultures was made all too evident by the riots, when 2,200 Korean-owned businesses suffered about $400 million in damage. As the rest of Los Angeles would learn during the aftermath, the tension had been building.

Two weeks after the Rodney King beating, a Korean American grocer, whose store had been the target of gangs for months, fatally shot a black girl after an altercation. The grocer was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but was sentenced only to probation. Five months later, when the riots broke out, Korean-owned businesses came under siege. One of the riots' most indelible images was a picture of Korean men, armed with rifles, standing on the roofs of their businesses, substituting for the police who had retreated.

Low-income blacks, as they had for years, complained that Korean merchants in their neighborhoods treated them with contempt and suspicion. The merchants complained that crime had hardened them. The truth was, and remains, more complex. Language, culture and mutual ignorance conspire against both sides.

Ever since the riots, blacks and Koreans have organized countless sensitivity sessions, prayer meetings and trips to Korea. The differences from 1992, along with examples of a frustrating inertia, are subtle but telling.

Start with a market on South Main Street in a black-Latino neighborhood.

All day long, the customers come, children clutching coins for candy, young mothers with toddlers in tow, middle-aged men buying a six-pack of beer and cigarettes.

"Papa, I owe you $26. I'll pay on Friday," a middle-aged African American customer with slightly graying hair tells the Korean owner.

"You always pay," the owner responds with a smile, as he puts his customer's purchases inside a black plastic bag, handing it through an opening in a bullet-proof partition.

The owner, who asked that his name not be used, conducts most of his business standing behind the transparent shield, topped by an iron grill.

"I try to be joyful," he says, "to have a thankful heart." But like many of the two dozen Korean American store owners in South-Central a Times reporter visited, he is drained. Most customers are easy to serve, he says, but a few "troublemakers" haunt him. Two days ago, a 12- or 13-year-old boy wanted to buy cigarettes with food stamps, he says. "When I wouldn't, he toppled the shelves. . . . When I went after him, he hit me." He shows bruises on his lips and inside his mouth.

Outside the market on another day, a black girl, 15-year-old Latasha Johnson, is about to buy ice cream but says that on principle she will not shop at this store. "Everybody here doesn't like that man and now we leave him alone," she said of the owner. The problem, she says, is that his fear of black customers leads him to behave insultingly.

"That's why people threaten him, because of the way he treats them," Johnson says.

In the four blocks north of the store, not one of the dozen or so young people stopped at random--all but one black, the other Latino--had a nice word to say about the owner. They complained of rudeness and unfair suspicion.

There is little tension here because those who feel uncomfortable simply shop at another market run by a Latino couple a few blocks away. And few of the owner's critics seemed to know he is Korean; they frequently referred to him as everything but.

"You mean that Chinese man? He is not nice," said another teenager. "I haven't gone in there since I was in middle school."

Many Korean Shop Owners More Sensitive

Many of the estimated 1,100 Korean American market owners in Los Angeles County, staggered by the passion of the riots, have become more sensitive about dealing with their customers, especially African Americans. A Times reporter who has informally tracked this dynamic for years found more outward gestures of respect and friendship. Some give gifts to their customers at Christmas, attend funerals, contribute to scholarships for black students or join block clubs.

In addition, the influx of Latinos to South-Central and the departure of tens of thousands of blacks to the Inland Empire and other outlying suburbs has changed the demographic mix. South-Central was only 36.6% black in 2000 compared to 48% in 1990.

But deep down, the fundamental differences between Korean shopkeepers and black customers make their encounters a precarious equation of mutual necessity.

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