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Asians, blacks work to heal rift in L.A. community

About 18 months ago, a family friend of Jong Won Rhee shot and killed a black youth robbing Mr. Rhee's supermarket here in Watts. Fearing neighborhood backlash, Rhee figured he would have to sell out and leave the area. But black friends and customers talked him out of it.

``Don't give up,'' he says they told him.

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So the jovial Rhee, who has lived in Watts now for 11 years, stayed. He manages in limited English to be gregarious with customers, and the local kids ``call me `Pop,' '' he says.

Rhee is one of the Korean merchants here who are trying hard to overcome what some blacks call a growing black resentment of Korean entrepreneurs.

This resentment is just one aspect of an apparently growing antagonism nationally over the past several years toward people of Asian descent. Asian-Americans cite evidence ranging from racially motivated beatings on high school campuses to an increasing number of Asian villains on television.

Most observers say the problem is not explosive but needs an early defusing. Some frequently mentioned sources of this antagonism:

From Detroit to Silicon Valley, Japan and other Asian countries are blamed for American layoffs. Many Americans fail to distinguish between Asians and Americans of Asian descent, or between one Asian nationality and another. In 1982, two Detroit workers beat to death a young Chinese-American on the assumption that he was Japanese and responsible for layoffs in the United States auto industry. In 1983, a Laotian refugee was mutilated by whites in Iowa for similar reasons.

The sheer numbers of new Asian immigrants -- from Southeast Asian refugees to wealthy Hong Kong expatriates -- are changing communities. Poor Asians compete with other ethnic minorities for cheap housing, social services, and jobs. Rich Asians alter the identity of established, prestigious neighborhoods like the blue-blooded San Marino near Los Angeles.

The image of Asians in America as diligent students and entrepreneurial workhorses, a ``model minority,'' is sometimes resented by other minority groups. Unlike most blacks and Latinos, the Asian immigrants who have succeeded here were generally well educated and of the upper-middle class in Asia.

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Overall, the number of violent incidents against Asians rose sharply from 1980 through 1983 across the country and has remained high in 1984 and '85, according to Allan Seid, president of Asian Pacific American Advocates of California, a coalition of several hundred community groups.

The tension between blacks and Korean shopkeepers is at root an economic one. But it's aggravated by the perception of many blacks that Koreans are disdainful of them as employees and customers.

Korean immigrants, in the space of a few years, have come to dominate grocery stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in mostly black south-central Los Angeles. They buy businesses in areas like Watts, where space is cheap, because they come with little money, although they have college educations and professional backgrounds.

In New York City, where Koreans now own more than two-thirds of all fruit and vegetable markets, resentment among blacks in Harlem has erupted in picketing, boycotts, and beatings.

Blacks here in Los Angeles have complained that Koreans treat them rudely in stores, don't hire them, and make money in the black community without plowing it back in. Most Korean shopkeepers live outside the black community, and some move their businesses out, too, when they have the money.

``There's concern by blacks over whether Korean merchants coming into the community are discriminating against blacks,'' says Raymond Johnson Jr., president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

``There currently is a problem, and there is a potential for a much larger problem,'' he says.

For their part, Koreans say they are providing a service in the community by running stores that otherwise might not be open at all. And most stores have only three or four employees, usually unpaid family members. ``If they hired outsiders, then they couldn't survive,'' says John Han, business manager for Korea Town Development Association.

Further, most Korean businessmen have been in the US fewer than 10 years. They have language and cultural barriers to overcome in their everyday transactions, much less in sensitive situations.

In the past few months, Korean business associations have begun working to overcome these tensions, especially through Protestant churches. Merchants like Jong Won Rhee are the leaders. Rhee lives in Watts and has 10 employees: three family members and seven local blacks.

``What we really want to avoid is a Watts,'' Mr. Han says, referring to the 1965 outbreak of rioting and looting.

Some see Asians as scapegoats for US economic problems -- especially in depressed areas like Watts. ``It's frustrating to see someone right in front of you driving a Cadillac, and you don't have a car,'' Han says.

Ronald Takaki, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, sees a subtle problem in the notion of Asians as a model minority. ``I think mainly the resentment stems from the kind of unreasonable expectations that are held to blacks.''

Both black intellectuals and white politicians have held up tireless and enterprising Asians as a model for blacks to emulate. But Koreans brought skills, education, and a well-developed success ethic with them from Korea, Dr. Takaki notes. They are not so much upwardly mobile as working to restore their former social rank. This is a very different situation than for blacks, who are working under the weight of their history as an underclass, Takaki says.

The success of Korean entrepreneurs is easy to explain. David Oh, a business professor at California State University, Los Angeles, estimates that the average Korean store owner has been in the US fewer than 10 years, works at least 10 hours a day, seven days a week (along with two or three other members of his family), and earns $50,000 to $100,000 in pretax annual family income.

Dr. Oh estimates that Los Angeles, with the largest concentration of Koreans in the US, is home to 200,000 to 250,000 Koreans.

In the '80s, Asians have come to represent about half of all legal immigration to the US. Roughly 300,000 Asians have arrived in each of the past few years, says the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.

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