Black-Korean harmony more apparent than rift

February 12, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

Eric Easton says we media folks have it all wrong. He says there we go again, blowing things out of proportion, inventing a crisis where none exists. He didn't quite suggest that we should all be tarred, feathered and run out of town. But he didn't say he was agin it, either.

Easton is one of the guys who demonstrated to have Canaan Discount Food Market closed in November. The issue, Easton and the others have insisted all along, was bad food. But there have been charges that the demonstrators had racial motivations, that their problem with Canaan was not bad food but its Korean owner, Eun Mu Lee.

Easton wants all of Baltimore to know that he patronizes Korean merchants frequently, thank you very much, probably more so ** than some of the folks who criticized the Canaan pickets. He's against bad merchants, not Koreans, he claimed.

To prove it, Easton took me on a tour of South Baltimore. Our first stop was Cross Street Market. In the far southwest corner of the market sits Bruce Lee's food stand. No, not that kung fu guy who died in 1973. This is a younger Bruce Lee, the one whose specialty is the Bruce Burger. We found him hard at work behind the counter, the baseball cap on his head cocked at a 45-degree angle, looking every bit like he had a half-home-boy, half-Korean thing going on.

Easton said he's been getting his eats from Bruce Lee's stand for the past six or seven years. His only gripe with Lee is the Korean's gawd-awful taste in professional football teams: He's a Redskins fan.

"We're here to talk about tensions between blacks and Koreans," Easton told Lee.

"What tensions?" Lee shot back, a look of mock bewilderment on his face. He soon got more serious, saying that "some people" try to take advantage of tensions that might be minor and personal and try to blow them out of proportion into a conflict between ethnic groups.

"Some people," eh? Might he mean, by any chance, us media scalawags?

"Please try not to picture it as group against group," he urged the media guy in front of him. "It's individuals." Lee had little sympathy for the owner of the Canaan food market.

"I hold him responsible," Lee said. "If he wouldn't let his family eat that [meat], why would he sell it?"

We bade Bruce Lee farewell - wishing his favorite football team much bad luck in the future - and headed out the Light Street entrance of the market. Just a few doors from the corner of Cross and Light streets sits Kim's Restaurant, specializing in Chinese and American foods.

Easton talked to a perky Korean woman about 5 feet tall with a bright smile. He explained why he was there - to examine this nagging question of a black-Korean rift.

"No problem," she said. "[Easton's] a good guy. There are good Koreans and bad Koreans and good blacks and bad blacks."

This sounded too much like a cliche promoting Brotherhood Week to me. So I returned to Kim's Restaurant about a week later for the buffet lunch. A lone black man sat at a table to my left. Three white women chatted quietly together at the table to my right. In front of me sat two black men in business suits.

When the black man to my left departed, he and the tiny Asian woman exchanged pleasant goodbyes. One of the white women asked one of the nattily dressed black men to help her screw a nut back into a crutch. They smiled and exchanged a pleasant goodbye. Soon a black woman was sitting where the black men in business suits sat.

"Are you going to work for me when Doris leaves?" the Korean woman shouted jokingly to the black woman.

"You don't pay enough!" the black woman pleasantly shouted back.

There you have it. The great American Racial Polarization.

Easton's last stop was a store called Ronnie's at the corner of Charles and Barney streets. The owner is a Korean whom Easton knows only as Mr. Lee. He wasn't in, but his wife was, along with a young white girl from the community, Lenalee Fulton, whose opinion of the Lees is as high as Easton's.

"They're hard-working, Christian people who provide a good service for the community and good food," she said as she was leaving.

"[My wife and I have] been dealing in this area basically 10 to 15 years," Easton said as he departed. "And we've never had a problem like [the one with] that sucker up Park Heights." He doesn't deny that some blacks harbor racial hatred toward Koreans, or that some of those might have latched onto the Canaan demonstrations for that reason.

"But I love these people," he said of the South Baltimore Korean merchants. "I'd hate to see anything happen to them."

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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