Black-Korean relations across the urban divide


February 09, 1997|By Norris West

IT'S 8: 30 A.M. on Tuesday, and tonight I will struggle to find words to say to an Ellicott City father who remains haunted by the brutal death of his son three years ago.

Exacerbating Kenneth S. Lee's nightmare is the gnawing possibility that his son's death may have been a hate crime. He and other Korean-Americans fear they are particularly vulnerable crime because of their ancestry.

These concerns hit home in Howard County, where a small but established segment of the population is Korean-American.

The 1990 census reported that community's population at 2,369, about 1.2 percent of the county total. The Census Bureau has no recent estimates, but the number -- and perhaps the percentage -- is higher now.

Among the population are first-generation Korean-Americans who live in Howard and tend grocery stores in Baltimore. Many of their children attend county schools.

The community has built solid roots here; the flourishing membership of Ellicott City's huge Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church and the Korean-American presence in community organizations, PTAs and shopping malls make that quite evident.

But in recent weeks, fear and anxiety have settled over the community like an ominous thundercloud, lashing lethal lightning bolts as too often happens in our major cities. A murderous spurt in Baltimore has turned four Korean-American merchants into violent crime victims in recent weeks. Two of them were killed.

Mr. Lee, an engineer who moved his family to the United States from Seoul 24 years ago, began losing faith in the criminal justice system long before the recent streak of violence in the Korean-American community. His faith in America started to dissipate when a Baltimore jury acquitted Davon Neverdon, the man accused of shooting his 21-year-old son, Joel Lee, in the face in September 1993.

Four witnesses fingered Neverdon as the shooter and, unbeknown to the jury, the prosecutor and defense attorney had discussed a plea agreement. But Neverdon walked on the case (although he is in prison on another felony drug conviction.)

One juror, an 18-year-old college student, allowed Sun reporter Michael James and me inside her home shortly after the verdict. She insisted that race was not an issue. Rather, she said, prosecution witnesses were not believable. The college student sounded sincere, but given the unhealthy tension between some in the African-American and Korean-American communities, it is

difficult to believe race was not a factor.

Still, witness credibility was a problem for federal prosecutors when they were trying to decide whether to pursue criminal charges that Neverdon conspired with others to violate young Mr. Lee's civil rights. It is tough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt with witnesses who make a worse impression in court than the defendant.

All this, however, is legal garbage to Mr. Lee. The bottom line for him is that there has been no closure in his son's murder to put his mind at ease.

I have known Mr. Lee for about 2 1/2 years. We have talked on the phone a number of times over the years and have had lunch to discuss race relations. He made me aware of his Study Circles group, which meets to talk frankly about racial issues. He's a good man.

It's only hours before dinner and there are no words I can find to bring Mr. Lee peace. Despite his religious faith, he suffers. He has spent many sleepless nights agonizing about his loss, he says. It's the agony that grips new victims nearly every day in Baltimore, with such frequency that we become desensitized to violence that seems so distant until it hits home.

The morning after

It's the morning after dinner with Mr. Lee and his friend, Yusang Chung, a former economics professor who runs a financial services business in Baltimore. Mr. Lee, at times near tears, said he needed "closure" in his son's case and still hopes that somehow it will come.

We dined at the Hansung Restaurant in St. John's Crossing. Mr. Chung expressed his fears that acquittals of African-American defendants in violence against Korean-Americans will make his community sitting ducks for crime. He compares this to racial violence against African-Americans in the South in generations past.

Mr. Chung smiles easily and has a hearty laugh. But he turns somber when he speaks of the unease he feels in America for the first time since moving here from Seoul 24 years ago. He worries that Korean-Americans have no protection. I hope he's wrong, and that the Joel Lee murder case was an anomaly never to be repeated.

A few minutes ago, I called Mr. Lee to ask his thoughts on the O.J. Simpson verdict, which I heard after returning home. Would he consider a civil suit against Neverdon? He would not gain monetary damages, I thought, but maybe he would secure the closure he seeks. "I don't have money to buy a lawyer," he replied. "If someone would volunteer, I might do it."

Until the next case involving Korean-Americans is settled, it may be difficult for a part of this community to enjoy restful nights.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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