It's surprising to be considered a whale

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

May 12, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

"There is an Oriental proverb that when the whales fight it is the shrimp who get killed," says Jai Ryu.

"And so," I prompt, "the Korean American community . . . "

"They see themselves as the shrimp," says Ryu.

"And the whales?"

"The whales would be blacks and whites."

We are talking about the riots in Los Angeles in which a number of Korean-owned businesses were looted and torched, prompting renewed attention to the relationship between Korean merchants and blacks.

"Koreans were just as shocked as anyone else by the verdict, if not more," says Ryu, Mayor Kurt Schmoke's liaison with the Korean-American community here.

"But then, rather than African Americans and Koreans uniting in some kind of a movement to protest the verdict together, Koreans found themselves victimized by the rioters.

"They feel as though they were caught in the cross-fire. They feel unfairly targeted. In the Korean-language press there is a militant tone that I haven't heard before."

"Anger against blacks?" I ask.

"Actually, no. More anger against the media for inflaming things, maybe even exaggerating them. You may have seen the video of the Korean woman who shot and killed the little girl she thought was shoplifting," says Ryu.

"Koreans asked, 'Why is the media harping on this when it has nothing to do with the . . . Rodney King verdict?' Then there are questions about the L.A.P.D., who seemed not just incompetent, but provocative.

"There is a . . . general feeling," says Ryu, "that whites are sitting back and letting Koreans and African Americans fight it out when we ought to be working together."

This characterization of blacks as one of the whales surprised me. We're used to thinking of ourselves as shrimps.

This kind of thinking is evident in the analyses of Korean-black relations offered since the riots.

The Korean leaders seemed conciliatory. They acknowledged that Koreans need to make more of an effort to understand and become part of the communities they serve. They noted that many shopkeepers are too quick to judge all blacks based on the criminal element.

The black leaders, I am sorry to say, generally were not so conciliatory.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the black leaders seemed determined to see themselves as powerless victims, exploited by everyone, including Koreans. Thus, much of what they said was just plain ignorant and stupid.

It is ridiculous, for instance, to assert that Koreans come into black areas and take businesses away from blacks. There are far more black-owned businesses serving black communities than any other kind and there are abundant opportunities for more.

Blacks with the desire and the means to open their own businesses do so. The factors preventing those blacks who lack the wherewithal or the desire have nothing to do with competition from Koreans.

"Koreans operate the stores no one else wants to operate," says Kap Park, owner of a grocery store on South Charles Street. Park, 34, came to this country 14 years ago, worked menial jobs for several years, saved and borrowed enough from family and friends to open a store.

"We work long hours, and hard, and we get very little income from it," Park says. "What I work for, when you add it up, is less than minimum wage. Nobody else would work like that, but we have no choice. Most of us come here with very little language, so there are not a lot of other jobs open to us."

Says Eui Sup Chung, president of the Korean Businessmen's League of Maryland, "Korean Americans recognize that we owe much to African Americans. If they had not fought so long and so hard for minority rights, we would not have the opportunities we have here. But we deserve credit also. We perform services no one else wants to perform. If we left our stores, I don't think anyone would operate them."

It is equally ridiculous to pretend that Koreans somehow are more politically connected.

Last year, there were 26 black members of Congress, two governors and 318 mayors. Korean Americans, on the other hand, have virtually no political representation in this country, especially not east of the Mississippi.

In the wake of the recent riots, a number of black organizations have begun contemplating the age-old existential question, "Where do we go from here?"

They might take a look at our chronic inability to form lasting allegiances with other minorities.

They might also look at the crippling inferiority complex that makes such allegiances all but impossible.

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