Insularity is part of the problem

Tim Fong

May 08, 1992|By Tim Fong

WITH roughly 80 percent of Koreatown damaged or destroyed in last week's Los Angeles riots, it is obvious that Korean-Americans bore the brunt of the rioters' rage. Koreans may decide to leave en masse those black and Latino communities where they have done business, but if most stay the real challenge will be how to overcome their own deeply ingrained insularity.

The cost of that insularity wasn't just the rage encountered from people in those communities. The slow response of the Los Angeles police and fire departments to the torching of Korean shops and stores, and the lukewarm sympathy from state officials in the riot's aftermath, have made it clear Koreans cannot rely on the white power structure for help.

Tensions between Koreans and African Americans have been strained ever since Korean businesses started moving into South-Central Los Angeles 10 years ago. Black residents in the area resented what they saw as high prices and disrespectful treatment by shop owners, while Koreans complained about shoplifting and physical threats. In 1986 a rash of armed robberies erupted in Los Angeles, and five Korean business owners were killed.

Resentment escalated further last March -- the same month Rodney King was beaten by the Los Angeles Police Department. Fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed in a Korean grocery store as she was walking away following a dispute over a bottle of orange juice. Like the Rodney King incident, this shooting was captured on videotape, and shown widely on television. Store owner Soon Ja Du was eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter but was sentenced to three years' probation and a fine, prompting renewed boycotts and violence against Korean-owned businesses.

At the root of the resentment, however, was the widespread feeling that Koreans have no enduring stake in the neighborhoods they serve. Most Koreans live not in those neighborhoods but in the suburban areas to the east, where very few blacks reside. Less than one percent of the residents in predominantly black and Latino South-Central Los Angeles is Asian.

Then, too, Korean businesses are known for their high turnover rates. Once a merchant has made enough money to invest in another business or start a professional career, he or she will sell the enterprise -- usually to another Korean immigrant.

Raised in Korea's homogeneous society, the newcomers have no experience dealing with multi-racial populations. Their strong family, ethnic and religious ties -- a source of strength and unity -- lTC also reinforce their self-isolation and the clannish perception others have of them. Korea itself historically was called the hermit kingdom by Westerners.

For several years, community leaders in South-Central have tried to ease tensions by holding forums to discuss differences and air mutual grievances. While these forums helped prompt a few Korean merchants to hire more local residents and participate in community service activities, many others found such requests unreasonable and refused to comply.

For all the devastation they caused, the Los Angeles riots may have created an unusual opening for merchants and residents alike to connect. Having lost their source of livelihood, Korean business people are at a crossroads. Although well educated and professionally trained, they lack fluency in English and are profoundly aware of white racism in the larger society. Finding alternative employment will be difficult, they know, particularly at a time when Los Angeles has lost over 200,000 jobs.

For their part, black and Latino residents are realizing they are unable to get the basic necessities, such as diapers for babies and food for children, they once found in Korean stores. And few expect any major government program to rebuild their economic infrastructure.

Scenes of blacks helping Korean shop owners clean up fire-gutted stores, and reports of a Latino guard killed trying to protect a Korean business from looters, suggest that hope and humanity are not lost in South-Central. The most significant lesson the riots may have taught Koreans and other Asian Americans is that their futures cannot move forward from the recent outburst of violence by ignoring the fate of African Americans and Latinos.

Tim Fong, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied race relations in Los Angeles for the past two years. He wrote this for Pacific News Service.

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